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.

Boogie-woogie: An Invitation to Dance

Boogie-woogie is, without doubt, one of the most complex piano styles developed in America. The pianist needs to demonstrate exceptional hand-independence skills and an excessive sense for rhythm and timing to play syncopated right-hand licks and riffs on the left-handed base patterns.

Boogie-woogie piano music was often played at barrelhouses and later, at so-called “House-Rent Parties“. At a house-rent party, communities would gather at one’s house and, pianists got hired to play. African-American communities were depending on each other for support during the high unemployment rate of the thirties and forties. Therefore, a small entrance fee was charged to cover the rent.

In this article, I’d like to invite you for a brief but thorough overview of the music’s origin, development, and influence. We will have a look at the music’s characteristics, its structure, and its purpose.

Barrelhouse Pianists

Music Characteristics and Purpose

There is no doubt that boogie-woogie music has strong connections to the blues. In early blues music, African-American communities combined plantation songs with religious spirituals and African rhythms. In this early form, the music was slow and emotional. It got characterized by sad melodies and simple harmonies. As the blues evolved, it gained popularity. By 1920 it reached its peak thanks to the contributions of Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson.

Boogie-woogie piano music is following the many traditions of the blues. The music is using blues scales, is adding syncopation to emphasize weak beats, is usually played in a 12-bar blues, and the performer improvises over the chord progressions. The most important characteristic of boogie-woogie piano music is that musicians would emphasize rhythm over melody. To establish this, both hands need to play something dissimilar but at the same time, keep a musical connection. The left hand plays steady and repeating base patterns that will keep the rhythm during the songs. The right hand has the freedom to improvise by playing counter-rhythms, ostinato, riffs, licks, or short melodies. The harmony created by both hands is an invitation to move and dance.

In boogie-woogie, the syncopation of the weaker beats is essential. Syncopation is a small interruption in the rhythmical flow by making some accents fall off-beat. In short, syncopation gets created by the beats between the beats, and they are fundamental for the musical structure of boogie-woogie.

In a 4/4-time signature, which is common for blues and boogie-woogie, we have four quarter notes in each bar. Each quarter note represents one beat or down-beat. If we want syncopation in the rhythm, we need to add off-beats before each down-beat. We create a swing shuffle rhythm containing eight beats in one bar, four down-beats, and four off-beats (eight to the bar). Imagine counting one bar as followed: “and1-and2-and3-and4“. The numbers are down-beats and are twice as long, the word “and” represents the off-beats. They are played shorter and are responsible for the syncopation in the rhythm.

Parallel with the origin of boogie-woogie, a different yet similar form of piano music got formed along the Mississippi River. The style of playing was named ragtime. As in boogie-woogie, ragtime music also emphasizes rhythm over melody by playing different patterns with each hand. The musician’s left hand creates non-stop march-like base patterns by rapidly altering between base notes and chords. Base notes were used to mimic base instruments used by marching bands, and the chords represent drum patterns that bring harmony to the song. While boogie-woogie derived from the blues, ragtime originated from both European classical music and African syncopated music. Ragtime’s rhythm is created by playing syncopated melodies in a ragged fashion.

It is already mentioned that in both genres the left hand plays a significant role and is often referred to it as “the left hand of God”. It is said that left hand boogie-woogie and ragtime patterns were developed to keep the piano and rhythm going. Musicians developed this skill so, that they can use their right hand to eat, drink, and smoke without ending the songs. Most early boogie-woogie and ragtime compositions do not have a defined start or end.

Boogie-woogie music was all about telling a story with on-the-spot improvisation. The music was intended to make people dance what in a way separates the genre from the blues. The first published boogie-woogie hit that cemented “boogie-woogie” as the name of its entire genre was ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’ by Clarence “Pinetop” Smith. Clarence Smith would characterize the genre as intended to dance when he included dance instructions into the lyrics, and rhythmic breaks into his composition.

“I want everybody to dance ’em just like I tell you. And when I say “Hold yourself” everybody gets ready to stop. And when I’ve said “Stop”, don’t move a peg. And when I say, “Get it”, everybody, do a boogie-woogie”

lyrics to ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’ by Clarence “Pinetop” Smith
Clarence “Pinetop” Smith – Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie

Origin and Development

According to music historians and their research, the story of boogie-woogie music starts in the 1870s with the African-American communities from Texas. In the archives from the Library of Congress, you can find sheet music and literature published before the start of the 20th century that would list the term “boogie”. A good example is the sheet music of ‘The Boogie Man’ published in 1880 (Shaw W. F.). The first recording of the term “boogie” happened more than three decades later. In 1913, The American Quartet recorded the song ‘That Syncopated Boogie-Boo’. Although the term “boogie” was used, the music was not yet identified as boogie-woogie. It would take a couple of years more before the left-handed base patterns that shaped the genre got introduced.

“Anonymous black musicians, longing to grab a train and ride away from their troubles, incorporated the rhythms of the steam locomotive and the moan of their whistles into the new dance music they were playing in jukes and dance halls. Boogie-woogie forever changed piano playing, as ham-handed black piano players transformed the instrument into a polyrhythmic railroad train.”

– Alan Lomax 

Boogie-woogie music was first known as fast western or fast blues. Although, in this early form, the repeating boogie-woogie base patterns played with the left hand were not yet used. How the music developed is a big question for music historians but, there is one thing we can be sure of, the development was strongly influenced by the construction of the railroad and the arrival of steam locomotives.

The American train network caused a cultural change as more people traveled between the American cities of the south. The railroad would also connect the many logging camps so workers could travel between the camps via freight trains. They would jump off and on empty wagons, also called blinds, and traveled between states to find work. This practice would become common and train conductors became used to travelers climbing aboard the train and share their stories, play music, and dance. During the day, these travelers would work in logging camps, and during the night, they would dance and play music at cheap or disreputable bars called barrelhouses. For that reason, early boogie-woogie music is sometimes referred to as barrelhouse-music.

Steam Locomotive in Texas

Boogie-woogie music and trains share a connection. It were these traveling workers and musicians who are responsible for the spread and later development of the music. Different techniques of playing got mixed as different musicians encountered each other on the train.

The music would first spread within Texas and later, it would conquer its neighboring states. Many musicians praised the train rides in their songs. Think about Meade “Lux” Lewis’ best-known instrumental work named ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’, or Mabel Scott’s ‘Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train’.

Meade “Lux” Lewis – Honky Tonk Train Blues

Boogie-woogie piano music would always remain a Texas tradition, but its music hub would become Chicago. In 1921, George Washington Jr. Thomas and Hersal Thomas moved to Chicago and, they introduced the north to the boogie-woogie piano. The two brothers were both acknowledged pianists and composers with a strong influence on other musicians. Their composition ‘The Fives‘ was an inspiration for many musicians who would further shape the genre.

George Washington Jr. Thomas moved from Texas to New Orleans in 1914. There he continued his musical career by playing at different parties, where he gained the nickname Gut Bucket George. Two years after arriving in New Orleans, he composed ‘The New Orleans Hop Scop Blues’. This 12-bar blues song got coupled with a left hand playing grace notes for the lower tone, and so, he created his first early boogie-woogie piece.

Following the death of his father, George Thomas became the head of the Tomas family and, he decided to move to Chicago. He was joined by his sister Beulah Belle Thomas (who would later record under the name Sippie Wallace) and his younger brother Hersal Thomas. When George Thomas arrived in Chicago, he recorded his earlier compositions together with his sister, brother, and some local musicians.

In 1922 he published his most influential work called ‘The Five’s’ (now-a-days written as ‘The Fives‘). The copyright was registered in 1921 and both George and Hersal Thomas are credited as the composers. The song was officially published by George Thomas’ own publishing company.

The lyrics, written by George, are about a train ride between Chicago and San Francisco. According to Peter Silvester’s research for his book ‘A Study Of Boogie-Woogie‘, the number refers to the arrival time in San Francisco. Although, it could also refer to the walking baseline for which the first and fifth fingers are used predominantly.

Publication of The Fives (1922)

The cover, upon publication, features a picture of the blues singer Lizzie Miles assuming she would feature on the recording. However, no recordings with her were discovered. A possible explanation could be that these recordings were never released and got lost. The photo was kept solely for marketing and sales purposes. In those days, pianists were rarely displayed on the cover.

Hersal Thomas (piano roll) – The Fives

The song is considered the first published representation of boogie-woogie piano music. Although it was written as a ragtime dance rhythm, it contains pronounced boogie-woogie interactions. It features various boogie-woogie base patterns, including walking baselines or walking octave chords. Also, the quivers used in the composition are typical for boogie-woogie.

The Fives‘ established the genre thanks to the effect it had on many Chicago-based musicians. Boogie-woogie pioneers Albert Ammons and Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis both credit the songs as their source of inspiration while learning to play piano and further shaping the genre. Still today, musicians are using the many boogie-woogie base patterns from this song.

Hersal Thomas (left) & George Thomas (right)

Another milestone in the development of boogie-woogie was the recording of ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’ by pianist Clarence “Pinetop” Smith in 1928 (released March 1929 on Vocalion Records). It was the first published boogie-woogie hit and had a great deal of influence.

Clarence Smith was born in Troy, Alabama. During his childhood, he enjoined climbing trees, and so, his friends gave him the nickname “Pinetop” (often written as “Pine Top”), which he used during his future music career.

In 1920, Clarence Smith moved to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where he worked as an entertainer. He sang and played the piano and became known thanks to his comedy performance. Eight years later, he moved to Chicago and recorded ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’. He was credited by many other boogie-woogie pioneers to be one of the main influencers of the genre. His lyrics would also include the phrases as “the girls with the red dress on”, “shake that thing”, “don’t move a peg”, and “mess around” that were used in the lyrics of ‘What I’d say’ and ‘Mess Around’ by Ray Charles.

Clarence “Pinetop” Smith

To conclude, the two biggest milestones in the development of Boogie-woogie were the arrival of the railroad and, the introduction of the music in Chicago by the Thomas brothers. The North, with Chicago as the midpoint, would bring a different emphasis to the music. Boogie-woogie figures would not only be used as a party-tool but, the music would start to support blues singers. It would keep gaining popularity after the music became part of the blues and jazz scene. Even movies starring boogie-woogie pianists got filmed. In the independently short film ‘The Boogie Woogie Dream’ (Hanus Burger), Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson are starring alongside Jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and actress Lena Horne.

Short film ‘The Boogie Woogie Dream’ featuring Albert Ammons , Pete Johnson, Teddy Wilson, and Lena Horne.

The Pioneers of Boogie-woogie

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.

Meade “Lux” Lewis – Honky Tonk Train Blues

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.

Albert Ammons and The Rhythm Kings – Swanee River Boogie

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.

Pete Johnson & Big Joe Turner – Roll ‘em Pete

Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson would often perform boogie-woogie together. They are referred to as the six-handed boogie-woogie trio. 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.

The Upswing of Boogie-woogie and Influence of The Swing Era

The wider public discovered boogie-woogie in 1938 during a concert at Carnegie Hall – a venue in Midtown Manhattan – called ‘From Spirituals to Swing’. The show got presented by talent scout and record producer John Hammond. 

Hammond had the idea for a concert that brings together the many forms of African-American music that developed over time. The show started with spiritual music and ended with swing and big bands. During the evening, the audience got exposed to the rich music history via gospel, blues, boogie-woogie, Dixieland, ragtime, and swing. The lineup included among others: Count Basie, Benny Goodman, James P. Johnson, and of course, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Joe Turner to represent boogie-woogie. The concert had a big success in the following year a second edition was taking place on New Year’s Eve.

It was the peak of the swing era and the success of boogie-woogie music in America was a direct result of the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concerts. Big bands started using boogie-woogie patterns in swing music. They would no longer limit the music to a piano as they start playing the patterns on the different instruments used in swing music. By the 1940s, every swing band would use boogie-woogie in their music. Original boogie-woogie compositions were covered and became more popular than ever. Tommy Dorsey’s version of ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie‘ was an instant success, and Will Bradley’s ‘Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar’, a song written in 1940 by Don Raye, Hughie Prince, and Ray McKinley, truly follows the boogie-woogie traditions.

“From Spirituals to Swing” event poster

The Living Dance Community and The Swing Revival

The boogie-woogie trend lasted until the early 1950s and, I’d like to think that its popularity never declined. The music inspired many other genres, and so, boogie-woogie contributed to the development of jump-blues, rhythm-and-blues, rock-and-roll, and many more.

During the eighties, a group of original swing dancers, amongst them Frankie Manning, would reintroduce swing dance to the world. They started teaching and performing, and this led to what is known as the Swing Revival. By the end of the millennium, they brought the dance back to life. They didn’t limit themselves to swing and big band music as they also included boogie-woogie and other blues genres.

What was known as barrelhouse dancing in America is now called boogie-woogie dancing in Europe. The dance styles, however, cannot be compared to each other. Boogie-woogie dance is a form of swing dance and is danced socially across the world with its hub in Europe. The dance got inspired by rock-and-roll and lindy hop.

 It’s a playful dance filled with music interpretations and improvisation. It is danced commonly in couples and has fast and advanced footwork. The music supporting the dance finds inspiration in the rhythm of boogie-woogie. The rhythmical breaks allow for improvisation. Apart from boogie-woogie tunes, you will encounter rhythm-and-blues, rock-and-rolldoo-wop, and jump-blues on the dance floor.

Boogie-woogie Dance Nowadays

Be invited to listen and discover the many great compositions out there. There are many original recordings available to the audience. You can listen to them digitally or attend live concerts and dance events for a better selection. Still today, you have many great pianists who are playing older compositions and even composing their own.

In my Spotify playlists, you can find a compilation of great songs I discovered during the years.

Johan Blohm from The Refreshments performing Jb’s Boogie/Blohms Boogie (Live)