The Pioneers of Boogie-woogie: Lewis, Ammons, & Johnson

When looking back at the development of boogie-woogie piano music, three pianists stand out. Their names are Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. They are responsible for getting the attention of the public and consequently increasing the music’s popularity.

The first one on the list, Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, was born in 1905. His birthplace is not confirmed, and some sources claim he was born in Louisville, Kentucky. However, most literature about his life states Chicago, Illinois, to be his birthplace. His father played the guitar and originally introduced Lewis to the violin. At the age of 16, Lewis traded the violin for the piano. His piano work got strongly influenced by the Thomas brothers – whose composition The Five’s established boogie-woogie as a genre – and pianist Jimmy Yancey. Lewis already had a close friendship with Albert Ammons during his childhood and, they would practice the piano together. 

Lewis had the habit to imitate characters from the comic strip Alphonse and Gaston, a duo of Frenchmen with a tendency of good manners and etiquette. For that reason, his friends, among them Albert Ammons, would start calling him The Duke of Luxembourg. And so, the nickname “Lux” was born. 

During his adolescent years, Lewis would combine performances at bars with different jobs such as driving a cab and washing cars. In 1929, he published his debut ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’, one of the most exciting boogie-woogie piano compositions ever recorded. The work was recorded in 1927 and would only become known in mid-1935. As a result, many other artists would play the song during the second half of the 1930s. In 1938, Lewis got invited to play at the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ festival at Carnegie Hall where he was joined by Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Joe Turner, and many more. The festival was a real game-changer for him personally and for the craze of boogie-woogie. 

Most of Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis’ work and recordings got unfortunately destroyed in The 2008 Universal Studio Disaster. An event described by The New York Times as “The day the Music burned”. It was one of the biggest disasters in music history as many original recordings, from which all subsequent copies are obtained, got destroyed.

Albert Ammons was also born in Chicago, Illinois (1907). Both Ammons’ parents were pianists and, he learned to play at the age of ten. He became interested in boogie-woogie piano thanks to his friendship with Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis. It doesn’t come as a surprise that also Ammons was influenced by the same group of people. Like Lewis, Ammons would combine his performances in bars with regular day jobs such as driving a cab. 

Albert Ammons and Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis would often perform together during the early days. At the start of 1936, Ammons would record with a supporting band under the name, Albert Ammons and The Rhythm Kings. Their songs, Swanee River Boogie and ‘Boogie Woogie Stomp’ had success and got played by many other jazz bands during the late-1930s. Following this success, Ammons moved to New York City, where he teamed up with Pete Johnson. They performed and got often joined by Benny Goodman and his clarinet. Just as Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, Ammons was selected to perform at the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concert. What set his success because weeks after the concert, he got approached by Alfred Lion, co-founder of Blue Note Records. He got signed for a couple of recordings where he got the support of Lewis.

Finally, we have Pete Johnson (born in 1904 as Kermit H. Johnson). Johnson was born in Missouri, Kansas City. He came from a poor background. His father deserted him at a very young age. Because of financial issues, his mother placed him in an orphanage when he was only three. He, however, ran away and started living back home. To contribute financially, he sought out work at a very young age. 

Johnson started his musical career as a drummer in 1922. He simultaneously learned to play the piano and, from 1926, he became a full-time pianist. His known work is mostly in cooperation with Big Joe Turner. His most-celebrated contribution is ‘Roll ‘em Pete’ (1938), with Johnson on the piano and Turner on the vocals. The song is credited to be one of the first rock-and-roll recordings made. Pete Johnson got also invited to perform at the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concert. Also for him, this was a game-changer.

Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson would often perform boogie-woogie together. The setup would be three pianos, six hands – three right and three left. They caused the upswing of boogie-woogie during the swing era and elevated the genre.

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Bertolt.

Bertolt Press Founder & Editor

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