PIANO RED (aka DOCTOR FEELGOOD)
Born William Lee Perryman, 19 October 1911, Hampton, Georgia
Pianist / singer / songwriter / bandleader / disc jockey
Willie Perryman, like his brother Rufus, was an albino black man with reddish hair which earned him the name Piano Red. He was born to poor sharecropper parents in a small Georgia town, 32 miles south of Atlanta. It's not clear how many siblings there were, at least nine. The Perryman family moved to Atlanta in 1917, when Willie was six years old. Perryman told Norbert Hess : "My parents were not into music, my daddy couldn't play nothing. I started in music when I was like twelve banging 'round on the piano. My mother had bought a piano. She paid a dollar a week. It was a used piano, but it was good. The more I banged the more interested I got."
Willie and his older brother Rufus (1892-1973) were the only two in the family who became musicians. Both brothers had very poor vision, an effect of their albinism, so they could never take formal music lessons, couldn't even see much of the keyboard of the piano, and basically learned and played by ear. Willie looked at Rufus playing, but he didn't learn from him. With a 19-year age gap between the two, Rufus had already left the house (in 1925) when Willie was still quite young and they wouldn't see each other again until 1960. Rufus became a well-known musician under the name Speckled Red and recorded prolifically during the 1930s. In the early 1930s, an itinerant Willie Perryman played house parties, juke joints and barrelhouses in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. He made his first recordings in 1936 for Vocalion, with Blind Willie McTell, but these were never issued and the masters have since disappeared. It was during this session that he got the nickname Piano Red.
After divorcing his first wife, Willie moved back to Atlanta in 1941, and married his second wife, Carrie Lou Bailey. He then took a day job in an upholstery factory, despite his failing sight, and continued playing on weekends, until he was "rediscovered" in 1950 by RCA's Steve Sholes. Four tracks were cut on July 25, 1950, at WGST radio station in Atlanta. The first RCA single, issued on November 11, coupled "Rockin' With Red" with the instrumental "Red's Boogie". Both sides charted, peaking at # 5 and # 4 respectively on the R&B charts. Red was surprised at his sudden success with a style he had been playing for twenty years. "Rockin' With Red" has been covered by quite a few artists, under a variety of titles : "Rock Me", "She Sure Can Rock Me", "She Knows How To Rock". The latter title was used for the versions by Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, both recorded (but not released) in 1957. Willie's next two sessions, again under the supervision of Steve Sholes, yielded further hits in the shape of "The Wrong Yo Yo" (# 10), "Just Right Bounce" (# 10) and "Laying the Boogie" (# 8), but then the hits dried up for a full decade. "The Wrong Yo Yo" became his signature tune and went on to become his most recorded song. Rock n roll fans will be familiar with the Carl Perkins version on Sun.
Red continued recording for RCA, then for its subsidiary Groove (1954-56) and returned to the parent company in 1957 when Groove folded. Numerous singles and EP's were released and even a live LP in 1956, quite unique in those days. He didn't change his style much over the years : two-fisted barrelhouse piano playing and loud vocals, a result of trying to make himself heard above a torrent of voices and clinking bottles in the joints back in the 1930s. The Saturday Review of Literature called him "a true primitive" who "assaults the piano with a savagery ordinarily reserved for African war drums". He usually recorded with his own band. Bob Rolontz, who produced Red during his stay at Groove, said : "Red used to play a lot of wrong notes, so I had to have musicians who understood him."
Red's last session for RCA took place on March 2, 1958, in Nashville. Chet Atkins who oversaw the date told Willie : "I'm a country man. All I can do is to sit and listen until you all tell me when you think it's allright." This was no problem because Red always knew what he wanted to record long before he entered a studio, and the songs were well rehearsed. The RCA Victor contract wasn't renewed, but Red didn't depend too much on record sales. His daily radio show, many local gigs and out-of-town weekend dates kept him busy. There were sessions for Checker and Jax in 1958-59 and then there was an 18-month lull before he entered a studio again.
In the spring of 1961, Red was signed by Columbia, where his records were issued on the OKeh subsidiary. By this time he had changed his name to Doctor Feelgood, which was also the title of the first single for his new label. Recorded on May 31, 1961, it wasn't released until January 1962 (credited to "Dr. Feelgood and the Interns") and charted three months later, peaking at # 66 (pop). The other side, "Mister Moonlight", was recorded by the Beatles in 1964 on their "Beatles For Sale" LP. The second OKeh single, a remake of "Right String But the Wrong Yo Yo", also charted (# 84 in August 1962). Red stayed with Columbia until 1966, had further singles and an LP released, but there were no more hits. His music was now finally out of fashion. Willie came off the road in 1969, after which he found steady work at the Muhlenbrink's Club in Atlanta for the next ten years. He went back to calling himself Piano Red. In 1974 and 1977 he paid visits to Europe, playing in Switzerland, Germany and the UK before enthusiastic audiences. He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall Of Fame in 1983. Shortly after his fifth European tour in 1984, he was diagnosed with cancer. He was in and out of hospital, but his strong willpower never deserted him and he even cut another record. Yes, in early 1985 Piano Red, then 73 years old, had a minor country hit with yet another version of "Yo Yo", in a duet with country singer Danny Shirley. Six months later he lost his struggle with cancer and died at DeKalb General Hospital in Atlanta.
Piano Red's music is infectious and happy and has stood the test of time well, though many of his songs are in the same key and many of them are similar. Feel-good music indeed. It was a pleasure to listen to the entire Bear Family box again.
More info : http://rock-n-roll.40s-50s.info/pianored/en/story.html
Acknowledgements : Norbert Hess, Wikipedia.
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