Willie "The Lion" Smith - piano, vocals
A direct connection to the Harlem rent parties of an earlier time in jazz, the ebullient stride pianist and raconteur Willie "The Lion" Smith was 74 years old at the time of this performance at the 1968 Hampton Jazz Festival. A colleague of the great Harlem stride piano originators Luckey Roberts, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller, Smith engaged in chops-busting cutting contests during the 1920s and continued performing primarily as a solo artist into the early 1970s.
A flamboyant figure, Smith always performed with his trademark derby and with a cigar jutting out of the corner of his mouth. And he was famous for casually engaging the audience in his colorful stories of the jazz life during his concerts. After chatting for a while, Smith opens this Hampton Jazz Festival performance with his infectious theme song, "Relaxin'." Next up is the autobiographical vocal number "Music on My Mind," which also happens to be the title of his memoirs published in 1964. The Lion then leaps into the tongue-twisting swing-era vocal number, "Nagasaki," and closes out his set with a medley of instrumentals, beginning with James P. Johnson's "Charleston" and continuing with Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'," Luckey Roberts' "Moonlight Cocktail," Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" and "Sophisticated Lady," and culminating with his own show-stopping number, "Finger Buster."
Born William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith on November 25, 1897, in Goshen, New York, The Lion started playing piano when he was six, taking lessons from his mother. He began earning a living playing piano as a teenager, then fought in World War I, where he gained his nickname "The Lion" for his heroism. He toured during the 1920s with Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds, appearing on her historic 1920 recording Crazy Blues. After relocating to Harlem later in that decade, he became one of the prominent practitioners of stride piano on the scene. Smith recorded with his group the Cubs in 1935, and in 1939, cut his historic solo recordings for the Commodore label (which included his signature pieces, "Finger Buster" and "Echoes of Spring"). Smith continued to perform at festivals all over the world well into his 70s before passing away on April 18, 1973, at age 79. (Milkowski)