Piano Red (Willie Lee Perryman) Interview
Interviewed by: Chris Strachwitz
Location: Magnolia Ballroom – Atlanta, GA
Date: August 26, 1962
(16:17) LISTEN HERE: Piano Red Interview
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Chris Strachwitz: Would you mind starting out just telling me where you were born and when?
Piano Red: Well, and I was born in Hampton, Georgia.
Chris Strachwitz: In Hamilton?
Piano Red: H-A-M-P-T-O-N.
Chris Strachwitz: Hampton, Georgia. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Piano Red: That’s right.
Chris Strachwitz: Did you start playing piano pretty young age?
Piano Red: From a kid on. From a kid on, that’s when I started playing piano.
Chris Strachwitz: Who were some of the fellows that you heard back in those days that you thought were pretty good? Can you recall any of them?
Piano Red: Well, I tell you, they had house dance piano players. What they did, they had house dances, would take the furniture out of the front rooms. It was guys like Cofile(?) West. No big names, but those was the piano players. Ted Wright.
Chris Strachwitz: Ted Wright was another one. Of course, they didn’t make records in those days, but were they locally known?
Piano Red: They was locally known all over town.
Chris Strachwitz: Would they play in a barrel house or just at the private parties?
Piano Red: Just at different houses.
Chris Strachwitz: Just a different houses.
Piano Red: Because they didn’t play anything but blues, mostly.
Chris Strachwitz: Did they play mostly slow blues-
Piano Red: That’s right.
Chris Strachwitz: … or did they have any fast things?
Piano Red: Well, every once in a while they’d have something fast like the old Daybreak Blues. It was nice.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, is that right? When did you first ever hear of this style of boogie-woogie that came in? Can you recall?
Piano Red: Well, I can’t exactly recall the years, but, in fact, that was something different. It was after the Lindy Hop, and just over a period of time these things change like that, so when boogie-woogie cam
e in, it was something different.
Chris Strachwitz: Was it a certain record, maybe, or do you think it was a certain fellow that made it popular?
Piano Red: Well, I know mostly it was, but right off hand I can’t remember his name. But people start to doing all types of boogies immediately following up this boogie-woogie style of playing.
Chris Strachwitz: You weren’t the only one in your family to play. I know that you have a very famous brother too.
Piano Red: Oh, his name was Speckled Red. He was older than I was, but he never was around home. He always wandered from town to town, so when I was coming up, I didn’t be around him much.
Chris Strachwitz: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Were there any other members of your family that played music?
Piano Red: No, just me and him.
Chris Strachwitz: Uh-huh (affirmative). Who were some of the other players that you can remember back from the ’20s? Can you remember any of the people around here in Georgia that you recall?
Piano Red: Eddie Heywood. I don’t mean Eddie Heywood, Jr. Eddie Heywood, his home was in Atlanta, and he got to be famous. As famous… and also his son, he’s still in the business, but I’m talking about his dad. He was one of those old-type players, but he got a lucky break with Bessie Smith, and he left and started playing for her. Eddie Heywood’s daddy did.
Chris Strachwitz: Did he play piano, Daddy Heywood?
Piano Red: That’s right.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah. Is that right?
Chris Strachwitz: Huh. In the low-down blues field, can you recall any of the guitar players…..?
Piano Red: We had some like a Curley Weaver, Charlie Hicks, and a Barbeque Bob. All those guys was the one that carried their guitars without cases and played on the corners on Saturday afternoons.
Chris Strachwitz: They would play mostly on the corners. Is that right?
Piano Red: That’s right.
Chris Strachwitz: Uh-huh (affirmative). When did they first start playing in joints, in beer joints, before they…
Piano Red: Well, that was way down the line because they used to didn’t allow you to play in beer joints because it’d cause such a big confusion, pedestrians in the way and all like that, so they’d make them move on while they wasn’t spending… Well, they didn’t have any money to spend, they’d just be around.
Chris Strachwitz: Did you play mostly private houses and house parties all to through the ’20s?
Piano Red: Well, yes. That’s all we did, something like that. Maybe at a school might have something and we’d get a chance to be on the program or something like that.
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right? Were did you spend your time during the ’30s? Can you remember? Were you mostly around here in Georgia?
Piano Red: Well, I tell you, I went up to a place up around Tallulah Falls. That’s when I was beginning to get paid for playing then. Nothing much but-
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right? When was this, approximately? Can you recall?
Piano Red: This was around 1931–32.
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right? Where did you play there?
Piano Red: Clyde’s Rest Camp. It was a big place where people stopped, tourists. In fact, that area up there, people went from up there from all over the country. It’s a summery zone up through there.
Chris Strachwitz: Was that mostly for white people?
Piano Red: That’s right. It was for white people around-
Chris Strachwitz: What sort of music would you play for them? Could you play the same kind of blues for them?
Piano Red: I noticed way back then, most people, older people… we didn’t have any kids, they didn’t allow them out at those clubs at night. But the older people, they went for the music with the beat. You didn’t have to sing anything much, they just liked a certain beat.
Chris Strachwitz: Can you recall any tunes that you particularly were playing at that time?
Piano Red: We did numbers like Let’s Have a Good Time Tonight, which I know you don’t remember, and something like this same thing I’m talking about, the Daybreak Blues; it’s kind of fast. Something like Margie and all of those things. That was in the time that Margie was big. Things like that.
Chris Strachwitz: Were you playing it all by yourself or did you have a group?
Piano Red: Corrine, Corrina. Oh, I liked that. About three of us would be together.
Chris Strachwitz: Did you have a drums in …?
Piano Red: Yeah, we had drums, and maybe we had a sax or something that would blow every once in a while.
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right? Where did you go from there?
Piano Red: Well, in the winter we would have to leave anyway. I was living in Atlanta, I’d come back to Atlanta and start on my old usual house dances. But during that time, though, I had built myself up to where I was known around places like the schools and we would get jobs at the different schools and things like that.
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right? I was just wondering, who would organize these house parties and how would they contact you?
Piano Red: No, it would be just on my side of town.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, I see.
Piano Red: It wouldn’t be no special somebody for contact. Somebody at this party tonight would say, “We going to have one Friday,” so Friday they’d had one, and Monday they’d have one. Like that. They’d tell me, so we’d get word around like that.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, that’s very good. Then, during the ’30s, you kept playing around here in Atlanta?
Piano Red: Well, not exactly around Atlanta. I started wandering about then, from town to town, after I found out I could make a buck playing. We would go from towns like… through South Carolina, North Carolina, and the lower parts of Georgia, all around. We would play, and the guys would be glad for musicians to come in town. They would give us what they could take in the door just for us to stop over and play.
Chris Strachwitz: Would you play mostly colored dance or mostly white?
Piano Red: Mostly colored.
Chris Strachwitz: Mostly colored. Well, when did you first start recording?
Piano Red: 1950.
Chris Strachwitz: 1950. Is that right?
Piano Red: Yeah. I was playing out at a radio station in Decatur, and the guy was in town from Victor Records. His name was Steve Sholes and he listened at the program. I gave him a phone number for him to contact me, and he called me and asked me how would I like to make records. So, after I braced myself and got myself together, I told him, “Fine.”
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right? Which one was the first one, Red’s Boogie?
Piano Red: Rockin’ with Red and Red’s Boogie.
Chris Strachwitz: That’s certainly a fantastic record.
Piano Red: Yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: Well, you did well
Piano Red: Well, that was the biggest record I had. It went over a million and a half.
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right?
Piano Red: Yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: I bet it’s still selling.
Piano Red: Over across the water, I get statements from it today.
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right? Yeah, I know. As I told you, you have fans all over the world, really. Especially in France and England, people are very fond of blues.
Piano Red: Yeah, I gets a lot of mail from England, too. London, England.
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right? Really, your style, what would you call it, because it’s kind of a blend between blues and pop and …?
Piano Red: We call it blues and rhythm. That’s what we call it.
Chris Strachwitz: Blues and rhythm. Have you worked fairly steady with a certain group? I remember the band on the record that I have on an album, you had a couple of horns and a trumpet. Or did you-
Piano Red: Oh, they was just studio bands.
Piano Red: But now, since 1958, we have been together, our own group, you see, and it makes it much different. We gets a better sound, and we have more time for rehearsal and all like that.
Chris Strachwitz: Mm-hmm (affirmative). When did you last see your brother?
Piano Red: Oh, he came to see me two years ago.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, is that right?
Piano Red: Yeah. I tell you what I did. I wrote to the Federation of Musicians. Somebody told me he was in St. Louis, and sure enough they found him for me.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, is that right? The union got in touch with him ….
Piano Red: That’s right. I hadn’t seen him since 1924 until three years ago.
Chris Strachwitz: I noticed that, for Victor, you recorded quite a bit and then you came back, and now recently on Okeh. When did you start this Dr. Feelgood thing?
Piano Red: Well, that’s when we started. I got a radio show that’s called Dr. Feelgood Show, and we wrote that from the show, Dr. Feelgood Show.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, is that right? That’s certainly a very popular record. On the West coast, that old fellow, Rockin’ Lucky , he plays that thing every day, almost.
Piano Red: Yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: Did you ever hear this fellow Fats Waller back in..?
Piano Red: Yeah. I tell you, I liked him better than any piano player. In fact, to be frank with you, I just did us a session back last Wednesday and I did a number that he did a long time ago with the same beat he had: Sin to Tell a Lie with a up beat.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, yeah. I sure remember.
Piano Red: Remember?
Chris Strachwitz: I think you certainly transpose a certain amount of his character, I think. Don’t you think that you have this liveliness of …?
Piano Red: Yeah. I used to rather the listen to him than anyone I knowed because, at that time, he was the greatest.
Chris Strachwitz: Is there more of the old timers that you could tell us anything about?
Piano Red: Not off hand,. I can’t remember any of the old timers. After so long a time, they changed towns and things like that, and you don’t hear anything from them until someone come through and tell you maybe they’ve passed on. Like Leroy Carr and all those guys. They was blue singers, but they were great in they day.
Piano Red: Tampa Red. This thing about Rockin’ with Red, I got the idea from his style a long time go.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, is that right?
Piano Red: Yes. I used to listen to him when I was a kid, and that’s where I got the idea for that style.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah. He made records of that type of back in the ’20s, I remember.
Piano Red: That’s right.
Chris Strachwitz: Kind of on the touchy side. Do you remember any others beside Tampa that you took after?
Piano Red: Well, during that time, there wasn’t too many blues and rhythm artists. Like Bessie Smith, like I was telling you about, well, her sister Mamie Smith and all those. Well, it either had to be them, somebody like Fats. During that time, about five or six artists would be famous in our territory, throughout here. Of course, up east it probably was different.
Chris Strachwitz: But didn’t the local fellows, like you say, the people who played the piano, they have quite a local reputation ….
Piano Red: Oh, yeah. They were known. They were known because they went around, like I did, from house to house. Maybe if they had something kind of big at the school, they would invite us out.
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right? Would you go there by yourself, at a school function, for example, or would you have a group with you?
Piano Red: Oh, yeah. Sure. We wouldn’t have no group.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, just by yourself.
Piano Red: They probably couldn’t hear us, but they’d get with the beat and start patting their hands.
Chris Strachwitz: Right. Yeah. When did you first sing the song Fattenin’ Frogs for Snakes? …
Piano Red: Well, I tell you, a guy named Sneed. This guy wanted to help me write Pay it no Mind. He used to use that phrase all the time, so one morning at the breakfast table, we got it together. He teaches at Montgomery State College and he lives in New York, so on spending the night as he comes through, we stop and try to get something ….
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right? That’s very interesting because I think that is a pretty old blues, in way, isn’t it?
Piano Red: He says that it had been a song before.
Chris Strachwitz: Uh-huh (affirmative). That’s very interesting. Do you use your group that you play with, for example, tonight? Do you use that for the recordings, for the Okeh session?
Piano Red: That’s right. They go anywhere I go. If they don’t go, then I stay.
Chris Strachwitz: Could you tell me the names of the fellows in the band?
Piano Red: Oh, yeah. We got Curtis Smith, Roy Lee Johnson.
Chris Strachwitz: What does Curtis Smith play?
Piano Red: Guitar.
Chris Strachwitz: Guitar.
Piano Red: This is a unusual group I got. In fact, Curtis Smith plays guitar; Roy Lee Johnson plays guitar; Beverly Watkin, that’s the girl guitar, she plays guitar; and Howard Hobbs, we call him Long John, he plays amplified bass; Bobby Tuggle plays drums.
Chris Strachwitz: Who was that? Who’s at drums?
Piano Red: Bobby Tuggle.
Chris Strachwitz: Bobby Tuckle?
Piano Red: T-U-G-G-L-E.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, Tuggle. Uh-huh (affirmative).
Piano Red: Then I’m on the piano.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah, I bet. Well, that’s certainly quite a band….
Piano Red: I tell you one reason that the records that I made with Victor didn’t take off. It was because we had to rush up and get anybody to play on it. It’s different now. We got our own group. The engineers now have developed sound more, they can get a better sound, so that’s… it was two problem: the engineering and the sound, which we have… We got control a pretty good ways over it now.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah, you sure have a good sound now.
Piano Red: Thank you. I would like to say this. If you’ll notice the blues and rhythm that we play have soul, and that makes it different now. It’s a lot of rock and roll, but it’s different between rock and roll and blues… Rock and roll is just a beat and a noise, and if you listen closely, you’ll hear soul behind blues and rhythm.
Chris Strachwitz: That’s very great to hear. I think that’s certainly true. I think it’s a shame that this rock and roll has kind of driven out rhythm and blues in many areas …..
Piano Red: Well, I tell you what it’s doing. I hate to say it, but they said blues and rhythm would do the same, but it’ll never… But it’s fading. It’s fading.
Chris Strachwitz: I think that it may be so. Has anybody contacted you about ever going overseas, or have you ever thought ….?
Piano Red: No, they haven’t, but I’m with agency now , and anything might happen anytime.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, I see. I sure hope so, especially with your records. They’ve been going pretty good, I imagine. Well, thanks-