Lloyd Glenn and the San Antonio Blues and Boogie Woogie Tradition: "8 or 10 Piano Men"
by John T. Tennison, MD (AKA Nonjohn) (updated November 29, 2015)
In March of 2011, (with the permission of Omar Sharriff (AKA Dave Alexander)), Jack and Nancy Canson of Marshall, Texas, shared with me a letter that blues pianist, Lloyd Glenn had written to Omar Sharriff in 1982, apparently in response to a letter that Omar had first written to Lloyd Glenn. Although Omar Sharriff had told me previously that he regarded Lloyd Glenn as the greatest blues pianist of all time, I had never seen this letter before.
Prior to Omar having told me of his high regard for Lloyd Glenn, Omar had written the following on page 56 of the 1994 May/June issue (#115) of Living Blues magazine:
"From the Delta come some of the best blues guitarists in the world, while some of the best piano players come from Texas. Not all, but most of the best, are from Texas. Think about it -- Amos Milburn, Little Willie Littlefield, Floyd Dixon, Lloyd Glenn. Lloyd Glenn was the greatest of them all. I can remember listening to his 78s when I was a young shoe shine boy in Texas. Nobody is equal to him playing blues piano and he was a good jazz player, too. I was also influenced by some good boogie woogie players too. I'd say the top three were Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis."
The following year, Omar Sharriff dedicated his 1995 "Baddass" album on Have Mercy Records to Lloyd Glenn. The liner notes to this album contain this comment:
"I am dedicating this recording to the late Lloyd Glenn, who was plain and simply the master of blues piano." -- Omar Sharriff, October 1995
At about the same time, in the liner notes to his album, "Signifyin'", (Blue Collar Music, Recorded November 17, 1996), pianist Fred Kaplan wrote the following:
"SPECIAL INSPIRATION: Lloyd Glenn - My dear friend, teacher and the best musician I've ever known."
The following also appears in the liner notes to Fred Kaplan's 1996 album:
"In 1974, Fred met the renowned and versatile post-war blues pianist, Lloyd Glenn, who took Fred under his wing. 'Lloyd would let me sit next to him while he played. I was amazed at his ability to execute any style or composition he chose. He played jazz equally as well as blues, and deserved a reputation as a musical genius. He taught me how to listen to the music. He told me, 'if you can't hear the music first... you can't play it yet.'"
Consistent with these examples of superlative praise of Lloyd Glenn, my own listening of thousands of Boogie Woogie and blues recordings has led me to the current opinion that Lloyd Glenn's playing is among the most graceful, smooth, and fluid blues piano that I have ever heard, as contrasted with the choppiness and dis-coordination heard even among some professionals who play blues and Boogie Woogie. In particular, Glenn's recordings of Meade Lux Lewis's "Honky Honk Tonk Train Blues" are the most graceful, smooth, and fluid covers of this piece that I have ever heard.
Being a great admirer of Lloyd Glenn, I was delighted to learn that his 1982 letter to Omar Sharriff contained some very important statements by Lloyd Glenn regarding the origin of his blues and Boogie Woogie style of playing. Specifically, Glenn states in his letter:
"I would say my style comes from the 8 or 10 piano men that use to visit my dad's house nearly every week-end when I was about two & a half (2 1/2) years old until about the age 13."
When one considers the
historical prevalence of piano players in the state of Texas, it is not
surprising that there could have been "8 or 10 piano" men in San Antonio
alone who were the basis for Lloyd Glenn's piano style.
Indeed, on page 133 of his 2009 Book, "Barrelhouse Blues: Location Recording and the Early Traditions of the Blues," (BasicCivitas Books), Paul Oliver states:
"San Antonio, Texas, was a principal location for field units of Texas blues singers and pianists. No other southern state had produced as many local pianists as Texas, one reason being related to the heavy labor undertaken by Black workers in East Texas and Louisiana. This was a region where the forest industries were flourishing, logging for making railroad ties, log houses, and other timber structures, as well as extracting turpentine from the living trees, which was used in paints and emulsifiers."
Precisely because of its relative immobility, the piano was the best available instrument to entice and anchor musically-inclined and musically-appreciative workers so that they would not venture too far away from the logging and railroad construction camps where their labor was needed the next day.
In the liner notes to the album, "The Chronological Lloyd Glenn 1947-1950," (Classics Records 5016, France), and consistent with Glenn's comments in his letter to Sharriff, Dave Penny writes:
"Born in San Antonio, Texas, on 21st November 1909, Lloyd Glenn grew up listening to close relatives and family friends playing ragtime, blues and boogie woogie on the family piano."
In the 1982 letter to Omar Sharriff, Glenn also writes:
"Ray Charles done a good job on copying some of my records. Take a stab at it, you can do it too."
Given that Lloyd Glenn was born in San Antonio, Texas, on November 21, in 1909,
and raised in San Antonio, and given that Glenn says "my style comes from the
8 or 10 piano men that use to visit my dad's house nearly every week-end"
during a range of time when he was 2.5 to 13 years
old, Glenn was referring to a range of years from 1912 to
Given that the influences on Glenn almost certainly included local San Antonio blues influences, and given that the decade cited by Glen occurred several years before on-location mobile recording started in San Antonio in the late 1920s, and given the Boogie Woogie and blues elements present in Glenn's earliest recordings, Lloyd Glenn's letter indicates a strong blues and Boogie Woogie influence in San Antonio from 1912 to 1922 that historians have more traditionally associated with Dallas, Houston, and other "Eastern" parts of Texas.
Based on these considerations, if Robert Johnson had spent much time at all in San Antonio before his November 23, 1936 recordings, perhaps he actually was influenced by blues musicians in San Antonio before he made these first recordings. Do we know he was not?
Here is a scan of the letter and the envelope in which the letter from Lloyd Glenn to Omar Sharriff was mailed. The original letter is in the Omar Sharriff (AKA Dave Alexander) Collection in Marshall, Texas.
The 1982 Letter from Lloyd Glenn to Omar Sharriff
This 1982 letter and envelope above are used with permission from the Omar Sharriff (AKA Dave Alexander) Collection in Marshall, Texas.
Omar Sharriff (AKA Dave Alexander) and Lloyd Glenn
Pictured above from left to right are Omar Sharriff (AKA Dave Alexander), Lloyd Glenn and another man (whose name I need help acquiring) in Sacramento, CA in 1982. This photo is used with permission from the Omar Sharriff (AKA Dave Alexander) Collection in Marshall, Texas.
William Glenn, Henry Glenn, Will Woolrich, Will Frazier (AKA Charley Frazer), Little Archie, Big Archie, and Little Devil
Based on an article written by John Bentley in the 1960s for the quarterly journal, "Music Memories and Jazz Report," (pages 6-10, Vol. 4, No. 2, Summer, 1964, Birmingham, Alabama); as well as liner notes by Ulf Carlsson from what might be Lloyd Glenn's last album, "Blue Ivories" (released in 1984), I have identified what appear to be 6 of the "8 to 10 piano men" to which Lloyd Glenn referred in his letter to Omar Sharriff. However, Glenn remembers some of them only by their nicknames. Specifically, Bentley wrote that Lloyd Glenn's father, William Glenn, "played ragtime piano in the manner of the day," and went by the name of "Bill." Bentley writes that Henry Glenn, Lloyd Glenn's father's brother, "played ragtime but, being a schooled pianist, injected the familiar semi-classical clichés into his offerings." So uncle Henry Glenn appears to possibly be one of the 8 to 10 piano men to which Lloyd Glenn referred. However, the other two piano men discussed by Bentley are virtually certain to have been among the 8 to 10 piano men referred to by Lloyd Glenn. Specifically, Bentley wrote the following:
"Most of Bill's close friends were also piano men and two of these were gifted musicians, though neither could read music. One of them, Will Woolrich, played much in the same vein as Mr. Glenn [Lloyd's father] and later taught Lloyd piano tuning. The other ultimately became the major influence on Lloyd as the young boy started developing into a mature pianist. The was blues man Will Frazier, an outstanding exponent of the style even amongst surroundings that produced a vast quantity of fine blues musicians."
Bentley also wrote:
"Frazier worked as a piano mover for the San Antonio Music Company and while working for them got a large splinter imbedded in his hand, developed blood poisoning and died. The personal loss suffered to Lloyd was immense."
Based on the article by John Bentley, it appears that Will Frazier was the most influential of the "8 to 10 piano men" cited by Lloyd Glenn in his letter to Omar Sharriff. Based on Bentley's article, the 2nd most influential might have been Will Woolrich. It is difficult to know for certain whether Lloyd Glenn regarded his uncle Henry as having been among the "8 to 10 piano men" who influenced him. Moreover, based on the letter to Omar Sharriff, it does not appear that Lloyd Glenn intended to included his own father, William Glenn, as among the group of "8 to 10 piano men."
The interview of Lloyd Glenn quoted in the liner notes from Glenn's 1984 "Blue Ivories" album reveal that Glenn referred to a man named "Charley Frazer" who was almost certainly the same person referred to as "Will Frazier" in John Bentley's article. Moreover, Glenn states that, of all the piano players who performed at his house when he was a boy, Glenn liked the blues of Charley Frazer the best. Glenn's comments in the 1984 "Blue Ivories" album liner-notes interview also corroborate the fact that Boogie Woogie was played in Texas "long before Pine Top Smith made his records." Specifically, Glenn states the following in the liner notes to his 1984 "Blue Ivories" album:
"A lot of other musicians came around to our house. Most of them were piano players but some doubled on guitar. My dad and my uncle used to play ragtime, 'Twelfth Street Rage' and 'Maple Leaf Rage' but the other fellows played blues and boogie woogie. I heard any number of men play boogie woogie in our home, long before Pine Top Smith made his records. Little Archie, Big Archie, Little Devil...One of them I heard, Charley Frazer, I wouldn't say I liked him best but I liked his blues the best. He was a piano mover, worked at the San Antonio Piano Company. One day they dropped a piano, he got a mahogany splinter in his hand and died of blood poisoning."
"These fellows would come to us every week-end. They had a get-together from Saturday to Sunday morning. My mama wanted me to get some sleep but I couldn't sleep so I would go back to see how they played and enjoyed themselves. I heard those tunes and they stayed in my mind..."
"My mama and papa were taking care of me. I didn't have no hard times. I had no blues and I can't sing the blues but I can play it 'cause I heard the guys at that time play it."
Within the genre of Boogie Woogie, it is not unusual to find amateur players whose abilities equal or exceed those who play Boogie Woogie professionally. That is, being an "amateur" within the the tradition of Boogie Woogie does not necessarily denote being of "novice" ability. These characteristics of amateur Boogie Woogie players derive partly from the fact that the creation and as well as many other innovations in Boogie Woogie come from those with relatively little, if any, musical training. Also, for many, the motivation for playing Boogie Woogie is an enjoyable end in itself, like a spiritual or religious practice, rather than a means to make money. These motivations and a high level of ability were present in the boyhood home of Lloyd Glenn. Specifically, on page 220 of the article, "San Antonio Piano Man," by Eric Townley, in issue 78 of Storyville magazine (August-September 1978), Lloyd Glenn states:
"Though both my mother and father were musical, and were good enough to have played professionally, there wasn't much money at that time in the music profession, so they just played for their own entertainment, as did some of my Dad's buddies. My mother played guitar and my father played many instruments -- violin, mandolin, guitar, banjo, and piano. So, from the time I was born, when my mother rocked me to sleep with a little lullaby, until when I was older, and became aware of my father and his buddies playing together at weekends on Saturday and Sunday, I heard music going on all around me."
Glenn's comments that his mother, father, and his father's buddies "just played for their own entertainment" suggest that the "8 or 10 piano men" who influenced Lloyd Glenn were likely not among the known professional piano players who recorded in San Antonio in the 1930s. Nonetheless, I have compiled the following list of professional blues and jazz piano players who recorded in San Antonio in the 1920s and 1930s.
11 or 12 Blues or Jazz Piano Players Known to Have Recorded in San Antonio in the 1920s and 1930s
1. Allen Vann (Allen Vann was the pianist for the Troy Floyd Orchestra, who recorded in San Antonio March 14, 1928 ("Shadowland Blues," parts 1 and 2; and "Wabash Blues"), and then again on June 21, 1929 ("Dreamland Blues," parts 1 and 2).)
2. Tom Donahue and/or Tommy Howell, one of whom was the pianist in each of 4 recordings of Fred Gardner's Texas University Troubadours in San Antonio on June, 9, 1930. It is possible that 1 to 3 of the 4 recordings used Tom Donahue as the pianist, while the remaing recordings used Tommy Howell as the pianist. It is also possible that all 4 of the recordings used only one pianist, either Donahue or Howell.
3. Rob Cooper
4. Andy Boy
5. Lloyd Glenn (Lloyd Glenn was the pianist and principal arranger for 8 recordings made by Don Albert and his Orchestra on November 18, 1936 in San Antonio, Texas. Although Lloyd Glenn is usually classified as a "blues" musician, these 8 recordings by Don Albert and his Orchestra usually get classfied as "jazz." As Omar Sharriff has pointed out, Lloyd Glenn was equally adept at playing music known as "blues" or "jazz.")
6. Black Boy Shine (Harold Holiday)
7. Big Boy Knox
8. Son Becky (Leon Calhoun)
9. Conish “Pinetop” Burks
10. Dusky Dailey
11. Kitty Gray
Based on Lloyd Glenn's having described his dad's buddies as "8 or 10 piano men," Kitty Gray's female gender would seem to rule her out as one of the possible piano players to which Lloyd Glenn was referring.
Also, it is likely the case that most, if not all, of the male piano players included in the list above were too young to have included any of the "8 or 10 piano men" that Lloyd Glenn said performed at his house in San Antonio from 1912 to 1922. However, research into the dates of birth and whereabouts of these 7 male piano players might reveal that some of them were old enough to have been considered "men" who might have been in San Antonio during the 1912 to 1922 decade to which Lloyd Glenn has referred.
I have prepared the following (presumably incomplete) timeline of blues and jazz musicians who recorded in San Antonio in the 1920s and 1930s. Although the musicians on this list might not have included any of the piano men who performed at Lloyd Glenn's house when Lloyd was 2.5 to 13 years old, some of the people on this list might very well have known, been associated with, have been influenced by, or have been taught by some of the same men (such as Will Frazier or Will Woolrich) who performed at Lloyd Glenn's house from 1912 to 1922 in San Antonio, Texas.
Timeline of Blues and Jazz Artists Who Recorded in San Antonio in the 1920s and 1930s
Known piano players are highlighted.
Lonnie Johnson - Vocal and Guitar -- March 9, 1928
Alger "Texas" Alexander (vocals); Lonnie Johnson on guitar -- March 9-10, 1928. In the liner notes to "Texas Alexander: Volume 1 (Document Records), the following statement appears: "Lonnie Johnson, who always bought his guitars in San Antonio, was on hand to provide the accompaniment to Alger's forthright lyrics."
Lonnie Johnson - Vocal and Guitar -- March 13, 1928
Allen Vann -- piano in the context of the Troy Floyd Orchestra -- March 14, 1928; and then again on Jue 21, 1929
Dennis "Little Hat" Jones -- June 15, 1929; June 21, 1929; and June 14, 1930 “Both Dennis ‘Little Hat’ Jones and Andy Boy were from the San Antonio area.” - writes Paul Garon in the liner notes to Texas Blues, Document Records, DOCD-5161. However, other sources describe Andy Boy as being “from” or having been born in Galveston, and having grown up in Houston. However, it could very well be that Dennis ‘Little Hat’ Jones and Andy Boy had spent significant amounts of time in or had moved to San Antonio, such that, if they had been there long enough, the word “from” could have been an accurate descriptor.
Alger "Texas" Alexander - vocals; Carl Davis -guitar -- November 27, 1929
Alger "Texas" Alexander - vocals; accompanied by "The Mississippi Sheiks" (Bo Chapman (Carter) - violin; Sam Chapman - guitar; and Walter Vincson - 2nd guitar) - June 9, 1930
Tom Donahue and/or Tommy Howell, one of whom was the pianist in each of 4 recordings of Fred Gardner's Texas University Troubadours in San Antonio - June, 9, 1930
Alger "Texas" Alexander - vocals; accompanied by "His Sax Black Tams" (unknown - cl/as; unknown - piano; unknown - guitar) - - April 9, 1934
Joe Pullum - vocal accompaniment; Rob Cooper, piano -- San Antonio, Texas, April 3, 1934
Rob Cooper: piano solo - April 3, 1934
Joe Pullum - vocal accompaniment; Rob Cooper, piano -- January 29, 1935
Rob Cooper: piano solo - January 29, 1935
Joe Pullum - vocal accompaniment; Andy Boy, piano -- August 13, 1935.
Joe Pullum - vocals; Chester Boone - trumpet; Rob Cooper - piano; and Melvin Martin - guitar – February 25, 1936
Lloyd Glenn -- piano in the context of Don Albert and his Orchestra -- November 18, 1936
Black Boy Shine (Harold Holiday) -- November 20, 1936. Black Boy Shine's origin is obscure, but he is usually described as being "based" out of Houston. Moreover, the bass figures used in virtually all (with a few isolated exceptions) were not Boogie Woogie bass figures, and thus, based on my listening to Lloyd Glenn's earliest recordings, Black Boy Shine's piano playing does not appear to be what influenced Lloyd Glenn from 1912 to 1922.
Robert Johnson – November 23, 1936. Robert Johnson is the best known of the blues musicians who recorded in San Antonio in the 1920s-1930s era.
Andy Boy, vocals and piano – February 24, 1937. “Boy” is said to be Andy Boy’s actual surname.
Walter “Cowboy” Washington - vocals; and Andy Boy - piano – February 24, 1937.
Big Boy Knox -- March 2, 1937
Ted Mays & His Band -- September 18, 1937
Son Becky (Leon Calhoun) -- October 25, 1937. Son Becky's recordings definitely demonstrate Boogie Woogie elements, but I don't know when he was born, so I am not sure if he could have been performing in San Antonio in the 1912-1922 era. Moreover, Son Becky is described by at least one source as having been "raised by a relative near Wharton..." (Wharton is southwest of Houston on the Southern Pacific Railroad line.)
Conish “Pinetop” Burks -- October 25, 1937. His piano playing also demonstrates Boogie Woogie elements, but these Boogie Woogie elements seem to be derivative of earlier works by Hersal Thomas and Pine Top Smith. Although based out of Houston, Hersal Thomas (and his older brother, George) could have traveled to San Antonio in the 1912-1922 era. And although it appears that Pine Top Smith derived his Boogie Woogie elements from Texan musicians, it is also possible that Pine Top Smith could have passed through San Antonio in the 1912-1922. Burks has been described as having been raised "close by Richmond." (Richmond is southwest of Houston on the Southern Pacific Railroad line.)
The Jolly Three (included Jim Whitehead - vocals; probably Dusky Dailey on piano; and probably Albert Dixon on Trombone and Drums) -- October 26, 1937
Dusky Dailey - Piano and Vocals -- October 26, 1937
Buddy Woods with the Wampus Cats: Oscar Woods - Vocal & Guitar; unknown: 2nd guitar; Unknown: piano (perhaps Kitty Gray); Unknown: scrub board -- October 30, 1937
Kitty Gray and her Wampus Cats; Kitty Gray - piano; Oscar Woods - guitar; unknown - scrub board; unknown - drums -- October 30, 1937
Kitty Gray and her Wampus Cats; Kitty Gray - vocals (except on "Baton Rouge Rag") and piano; probably Oscar Woods - guitar & vocal; possibly Kid West - Mandolin; unknown - scrub board; unknown - drummer; and unknown - vocal interjections -- October 30, 1937
Kitty Gray - Vocal and piano; probably Oscar Woods - guitar; unknown scrub board; and unknown male - 2nd vocal – October 31, 1937
The 1951 Los Angeles Session with Lloyd Glenn and Joe Pullum
Although it was a session recorded in Los Angeles in 1951, Lloyd Glenn played piano for 5 recordings with Joe Pullum on vocals; Tiny Webb on Guitar; Billy Hadnott, scrub board, and Bob Harvey on drums. This collaboration between Glenn and Pullum is suggestive of the possibility that Glenn and Pullum might have possibly known each other by way of mutually having known some the 8-10 piano men that Glenn says were the basis of his piano style based on their performances at Glenn’s house in San Antonio during the range of years from 1912 to 1922.
Further Information is Welcome
I have not researched the history of San Antonio blues as thoroughly as I would like, so if anyone has any information to enhance this study, I would welcome their input and gladly recognize their contribution. If anyone knows the names of artists who were performing (especially piano) in San Antonio in the decade from 1912 to 1922, I would love to hear from them. (They may email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or cal me at 210-884-0990.)
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