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The Greatest Ragtime

The Greatest Ragtime Of The Century

Biograph BCD 103

Classic Ragtime, Blues And Stomps, Solos From Rare Piano Rolls

Scott Joplin
Jelly Roll Morton

Eubie Blake
Thomas "Fats" Waller
James P. Johnson
Jimmy Blythe


Played by Jelly Roll Morton

1. Shreveport Stomp (4:43)
Ferd "Jelly Roll Morton" © 1924 Melrose Bros.
(Cincinnati, Ohio - September, 1924)
Vocalstyle 50481 - Instrumental

2. Sweet Man
(Words by Toy Turk, music by Maceo Pinkard)
© 1925 by Leo Feist, Inc.
(Chicago - Dec. 1925)
Capitol 1334 - word roll

3. Tom Cat Blues
by Melrose and "Jelly Roll" Morton
© 1924 Melrose Bros.
(Cincinnati, Ohio - Nov. 1924)
Vocalstyle Song Roll 12983

Played by Thomas "Fats" Waller
4. A New Kind Of Man With A New Kind Of Love For Me (3:18)
(by Sidney Clare and Leon Flatow)
© 1924 Jerome H. Remick & Co.
(Orange, N.J. - August 1924)
Standard Play-A-Roll 0677 - word roll

5. Nobody But My Baby (Is Getting My Love)
(by Clarence Williams and Andy Razaf)
© 1926 Clarence Williams Music Pub. Co,.
(New York, N.Y. - August 1927)
QRS Word Roll 3997

6. Got To Cool My Doggies Now
words and music by Bob Schafer
Babe Thompson and Spencer Williams
© 1922 Clarence Williams Music Pub. Co., Inc.
(New York, N.Y. - March, 1923)
QRS Word Roll 2149

Played by Scott Joplin
7. Maple Leaf Rag (3:11)
Scott Joplin
© 1899 John Stark & Son, Sedalia, MO
(New York, N.Y. - April 1916)
Connorized 10265 - Instrumental

8. Weeping Willow Rag
Scott Joplin
© 1903 Val a. Reis, St. Louis, MO
(New York, N.Y. - 1916)
Connorized 10277 - Instrumental

9. Something Doing
Scott Joplin & Scott Hayden
© 1903 Val A. Reis, St. Louis, MO
(New York, N.Y. - May 1916)
Connorized 10278 - Instrumental

Played by James P. Johnson
10. Steeplechase Rag (2:25)
James P. Johnson
(New York, N.Y. - May 1917)
Universal 203179 - Instrumental

11. Twilight Rag (2:17)
James P. Johnson
Played by James P. Johnson & Edwin E. Wilson
(New York, N.Y. - November 1917)
Metro-Art 203274 - Instrumental

Played by Eubie Blake
12. Charleston Rag (3:04)
Eubie Blake © August 8, 1917
(New York, N.Y. - late 1917)
Metro-Art 54174 E - Instrumental

13. It's Right Here For You
Perry Bradford © 1920
(New York, N.Y. - February, 1921)
Mel-O-Dee Song Roll S2949

14. Fare Thee Honey Blues (3:56)
Perry Bradford © 1920
(New York, N.Y. - February 1921)
Mel-O-Dee Song Roll S2949

Played by Jimmy Blythe
15. Mr. Freddie Blues (2:03)
J. Henry Shayne
© 1924 Chicago Music Publishing Co., Inc.
(prob. Chicago, 1926) (release date uncertain)
National 7984

Played by Jimmy Blythe and Charles Clark

16. Regal Stomp (also known as Bow To Your Papa) (2:18)
(prob. by Blythe & Clark)
(prob. Chicago, 1931)
(release date uncertain)
Capitol roll A-13. Selection 12

Produced by Arnold S. Caplin
© (P) 1987
Biograph ® Records, Inc.

The piano rolls on this compact disc were digitally recorded directly from a 1910 Steinway 65/88 note player.

Biograph is pleased to release this compact disc (CD) containing classic hand-played ragtime, jazz and blues piano rolls representing the greatest pianists from the period 1915 – 1930.

When a player piano operates, the operator pumps pedals to activate the player mechanism. The pumping creates a vacuum inside the player action. As the player piano roll begins to unroll (from the top spool, across a tracker bar that “reads” each perforation or note, to the bottom take-up spool), a pneumatic motor engages which drives the movements of the piano mechanism. As perforations trigger the notes that are to play, a series of valves and pneumatic levers in the piano action cause the notes to play from the inside. All of these movements – of pedal pumping, of paper unrolling, of air rushing in and of notes being activated from within – represent a different kind of ambient “noise” than you may be used to on other CDs. But we felt you would want to experience these almost-live performances as if you were personally sitting at the controls pumping the rolls and watching the notes play. It’s the next best thing to having a party and watching and hearing these giants of the keyboard while they performed live.

Ferd “Jelly Roll” Morton (1890-1941) was an early jazz pioneer whose own musical odyssey extended all the way from solo piano ragtime to semi-arranged hot band jazz, some of the best ever recorded. His contribution to jazz was enormous.

Morton’s piano rolls provided fascinating musical comparisons with his 78 RPM recordings of the same numbers. The Morton roll of SHREVEPORT STOMP is considerably longer than his Gennett solo.

SWEET MAN is a puzzle for collectors for it is the only Morton performance found on the Capitol roll label to date. Jelly may have shied away from making more rolls for Capitol because he may have been required to work up arrangements on pop tunes on the day, rather than his own compositions which he obviously preferred to record.

TOM CAT BLUES is essentially the same melody as MIDNIGHT MAMA but with different lyrics. Jelly recorded MAMA in 1926 for QRS.

Thomas Wright Miller (1904-1943) was born in New York in a large family. His mother sang in the church choir and his father, a deacon, often preached on street corners. Tom showed an early interest in playing the portable organ used in these outdoor services. By 1914 he acquired the nickname “Fats” from his young friends. By 1919 he was able to hold down the evening job at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem. After hours, from 10 P.M. on, he searched out the jazz pianists who played all night long in the Harlem cubs. Before long he knew he wanted to play like James P. Johnson, who was 10 years older. Shortly thereafter, he met his idol. Johnson was impressed with Waller’s musicianship and potential and decided to tutor him. By the time Fats was 18 he landed his first cabaret job as Willie “The Lion” Smith’s replacement at Leroy’s. In 1922 Johnson, who had been making blues song rolls for QRS, left town to go on the road with a show. Before he left he took Fats to a QRS offices in New York to see if he would be needed while James P. was away. By early 1923 Fats was at QRS working on the arrangement for his first roll. GOT TO COOL MY DOGGIES NOW, which the company released in March 1923. Fats was still 18!

A pianistic device Johnson picked up from black pianist Fred M. Bryan, the “backyard tenth,” and which Johnson passed on to Waller, can be heard in the second chorus of DOGGIES. Listen to the bass line where the thumb hits just before the beat and the little finger plays (10 notes lower) on the beat. That’s a backward tenth.

Almost 18 months later, Fats made an interesting – and brief – appearance on a rival label, the Standard Music Roll Company of Orange, N.J., just a few miles away. The tune – A NEW KIND OF MAN WITH A NEW KIND OF LOVE FOR ME – was popular enough. The Waller version, heard on this CD, is extremely rare and important to those studying his style. Fats played some novel arpeggios and treble runs for the first time on rolls. He inserts a break during the first chorus to good effect, also a departure for him, and for the first half of the third and final chorus, he plays constantly changing three-note bass chords, an effect that must have required considerable rehearsing.

The third Waller roll presented here, NOBODY BUT MY BABY, is one of the last ones he made for QRS. It’s one of Fats’ most exciting roll performances. The minor eight-bar intro sets a gutty pace, each of the three choruses is different, and the entire performance is reminiscent of the marvelous two-handed piano solos he cut for RCA Victor about the same time.

Next we turn to Scott Joplin (1868-1917), the most important single figure in the establishment of the classic ragtime format at the turn of the century. Joplin’s tour-de-force, MAPLE LEAF RAG, set the standard for all classic rags to follow – four themes instead of just three, with the four strains nearly always arranged like this: AABBACCDD. On Biograph BLP-1006Q, six Joplin hand-played rolls appeared for the first time on LP. The three that were re-recorded for this CD are among the best and most lyrical.

Joplin’s genius was a composer. He was a master of the lyrical melodic line and a master at linking together themes that fit well. When a Joplin rag captures you, you find yourself humming the strains.

James P. Johnson (1894-1955)
was a completely different kind of pianist and composer. Johnson was a carefully trained technician who played in competitive environments. The noisy Harlem nightclubs and rent parties where Johnson performed demanded hard-driving relentless piano pounding. The ticklers at the keyboard were performers first and composers second (if at all). It was more important to be able to outplay the other guy, be able to play for long hours without leaving the piano (someone might sit down and take your job away), be able to play without looking at the keys (so you could check out the women in the room), be able to play a number in any key that a singer require to make her sound good. Stamina and on-the-spot inventiveness counted for more than the lyricism that was Joplin’s great strength. You can hear the difference between Joplin and Johnson in STEEPLECHASE RAG and TWILIGHT RAG. These three-theme rags are based on short melodic ideas or riffs which are repeated over and over to flesh out the tune. They are very pianistic and depend on split-second execution; great to dance to but hard to hum or whistle.

Eubie Blake (1883-1983), though considerably older, was a close friend to both Johnson and Waller and began making piano rolls in 1917. His first issued roll, CHARLESTON RAG, dates from 1899 when he composed it as a sixteen-year old (but before he knew how to get it written down). CHARLESTON RAG best sums up Eubie’s own style of playing ragtime; lots of minor and major contrasts, lots of breaks and lots of walking bass.

In late 1920 Eubie was asked to make piano rolls for the Mel-O-Dee roll label. His rolls of IT’S RIGHT HERE FOR YOU and FARE THEE HONEY BLUES are characteristic of his playing style during this period. In IT’S RIGHT HERE, listen to the whole tones at the start of the first chorus, the interlude that follows and the variety in the third chorus with the unusual bass work. FARE THEE HONEY contains excellent breaks and a fine interlude with good bass work.

Eubie lived to become ASCAP’s oldest living member. He died in 1983, five days after his 100th birthday.

As far as we know, Jimmy Blythe (1901-1931) never ventured to New York. As a result, he knew the New York pianists (Joplin, Johnson, Waller and Blake) only through their records and piano rolls.

Blythe was perhaps the best of the Chicago South Side pianists. He appeared on hundreds of small group recording sessions for Vocalion, Paramount and Champion. He was also almost a staff pianist for Paramount (the record label) and he made hundreds of piano rolls for the Capitol Music Roll Co. of Chicago. (Most of these pop song rolls for the average roll buying public; many were sold through the Sears Roebuck catalog as Supertone rolls. But a few were hard-core blues performances. Despite his prolific musical output, Blythe remains a fairly obscure figure about whose life and family is little known.

One of his finest piano roll solos is presented here: MR FREDDIE BLUES. The roll is extremely rare – only one specimen survives. The roll was recorded for the National Piano Co. of Grand Rapids, Michigan. National made special coin-operated pianos that held eight single-tune rolls. A customer could select exactly the tune he wanted (from a tune list displayed on the piano), drop a nickel and hear just that number. He could play the same tune over and over if he wished and not have to wait for the number to come up again in rotation order (which is how most of the coin-operated pianos worked). National pianos were placed “on location” – in restaurants, road houses and saloons – wherever they would attract lots of business (and nickels). The rolls were probably ordered from the Company by the route men who owned several of these pianos and traveled from one location to the next to keep the instruments in good repair, change the rolls and collect the coins. The rolls for the “juke-box” pianos had simple labels which gave only the titles and the serial numbers of the pieces. There is no mention of Blythe as artist on the roll, but it’s only two choruses shorter than the Paramount 78. Chorus for chorus, it’s the same performer.

The final Blythe performance, REGAL STOMP, has never been reissued until now. It is a rare duet by Blythe and his nephew Charles (Charlie) Clark. They recorded it on Champion 16451 on March 20, 1931, in Richmond, Indiana. The title for that recording was BOW TO YOUR PAPA. The Capitol roll of this duet must have been recorded at about the same time because Blythe died seven weeks later (on Sunday, June 14, 1931).

REGAL STOMP was probably a fun throwaway duet that Blythe and Clark worked up to play at parties. The performance here, after a four-bar intro, consists of an ad lib version of two choruses of the pop tune ‘DEED I DO. The dynamic duo then switched to the same chord sequence used in the tune AIN’T SHE SWEET to finish the performance.

It’s almost tragic that more of these wonderful performances didn’t survive, on the other hand, how lucky we are to be able to hear the performances that do survive, as if we were right there, live!

- Michael Montgomery

June, 1987

Produced by Arnold S. Caplin

Recording Engineer: Ken Glaza, K&R Recording, Digital Editing/Final Mastering: Dr. Toby Mountain, NDR Studios
Liner Notes: Michael Montgomery

Rolls pumped and tempos selected by Michael Montgomery.
Booklet and Art design: Hal Wilson
Cover Art: Hal Wilson
Special thanks to Dr. Charles Weisner for his assistance
Library of Congress catalog number: 87-743117

© (P) 1987 Biograph ® Records, Inc. P.O. Box 109, Canaan, New York 12029

A catalog of previous issues will be sent to you on request.

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