Black Jewish History Month: Willie “The Lion” Smith

Today in Black Jewish History Month, Willie “The Lion” Smith.

How Are YOU Jewish: Patrilineal

 William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith, a.k.a. “The Lion”, was an American jazz pianist and one of the masters of the stride style, usually grouped with James P. Johnson, and Thomas “Fats” Waller as the three greatest practitioners of the genre from its Golden Age, c. 1920–1943.

William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith was born in Goshen, New York. His mother and grandmother chose the names to reflect the different parts of his heritage; Joseph after Saint Joseph (Bible), Bonaparte (French), Bertholoff (biological father’s last name), Smith (added when he was three, step-fathers name), and William and Henry were added for “spiritual balance”. In his memoir he reports that his father, Frank Bertholoff, was Jewish. Willie was at least somewhat conversant in Yiddish, as he demonstrated in a television interview late in his life. Willie’s mother, Ida Oliver, had “Spanish, Negro, and Mohawk Indian blood”. Her mother, Ann Oliver, banjo player and had been in Primrose and West minstrel shows (He also had two cousins who were dancers in the shows, Etta and John Bloom). According to Ida, “Frank Bertholoff was a light skinned playboy who loved his liquor, girls, and gambling.” His mother threw Frank out of the house when “The Lion” was two years old. When his father died in 1901, his mother married John Smith, a master mechanic from Paterson, NJ. The surname Smith was added to that of “The Lion” at age 3. He grew up living at 76 Academy Street in Newark.

When he was about roughly six, he went downstairs to the basement of his Academy Street home and found the organ his mother used to play. It was not in good shape, and nearly half of the keys were missing. After his mother discovered his interest in the instrument, she taught him the melodies she knew. One of the first songs he learned was Home! Sweet Home!. His uncle Rob, who was a bass singer and ran his own quartet, would teach Willie how to dance. Willie entered an amateur dance contest at the Arcadia Theater and won first place and the prize, ten dollars. After that, he focused more on the music playing at the clubs.

Willie had wanted a new piano very badly, and every time he thought his mother was able to afford it, there was a new mouth to feed. Willie got a job at Hauseman’s Footwear store shining shoes and running errands, where he was paid five dollars a week. “Old Man” Hauseman gave that much because he liked that he could speak Hebrew and also because Willie wanted to buy a piano with the money. As it turns out, Marshall & Wendell’s was holding a contest: the object was to guess how many dots there were in a printed circle in their newspaper advertisement. He used arithmetic to help guess the number, and the upright piano was delivered the next day. From that day forth, he sat down at the piano and played it. He would play songs he heard in the clubs, including Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin, Cannonball Rag by Joe Northrup, Black and White Rag by George Botsford, and Don’t Hit that Lady Dressed in Green, which he descried as “the lyrics to this song were a sex education, especially for a twelve year old boy.”. His other favorites he picked up from the saloons were She’s Got Good Booty and Baby, Let Your Drawers Hang Low

By the early 1910s he was playing in New York City and Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Smith served in World War I, where he saw action in France, and played drum with the African-American regimental band led by Tim Brymn. He also played basketball with the regimental team. Legend has it that his nickname “The Lion” came from his reported bravery while serving as a heavy artillery gunner. He was a decorated veteran of the 350th Field Artillery.

Around 1915, he married Blanche Merrill (née Howard), a song writer and lyricist who wrote a number of songs and lyrics for Broadway shows from about 1912 through to 1925, particularly for Fanny Brice. Smith and Merrill are thought to have separated before Smith joined the Army in 1917 serving as a corporal (he claimed sergeant was his rank), but they were still living together in Newark, New Jersey at the time of the 1920 census. Merrill was white and Smith was the only black man living in their apartment building at the time.

He returned to working in Harlem clubs and in rent parties where Smith and his contemporaries James P. Johnson and Fats Waller developed a new, more sophisticated piano style later called “stride.” also after the war, where he worked for decades, often as a soloist, sometimes in bands and accompanying blues singers such as Mamie Smith. Although working in relative obscurity, he was a “musician’s musician”, influencing countless others including Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, and Artie Shaw.

In the 1940s his music found appreciation with a wider audience, and he toured North America and Europe through to 1971. To leave the US, he needed a birth certificate. He went to the Orange County Courthouse, and he found it, but discovered that the paper said he was born on November 25, in contradiction to his mother telling him he was born on November 23. Willie “The Lion” Smith died in New York City. His autobiography, Music on My Mind, The Memoirs Of An American Pianist written with the assistance of George Hoefer, was published by Doubleday and Company in 1964. It included a generous foreword written by Duke Ellington. It also includes a comprehensive list of his compositions and a discography. His students, include such notable names as Mel Powell, Brooks Kerr, and Mike Lipskin. With the latter, he made 2 albums: a 2 LP set of playing and reminiscences, The Memoirs of Willie the Lion Smith, done in 1965, and an album of solos and duets from 1971: California Here I Come, which coincided with Mike’s relocation from New York to Marin County.

He was present during the taking of the famous Jazz photograph A Great Day in Harlem in 1958, however he famously was sitting down resting when the selected shot was taken, leaving him out of the final picture.

Willie Smith had 10 brothers and a sister (including half-siblings). His older brother Jerome would die at the age of 15. His other older brother, George, became an officer in Atlantic City, and he would pass away in 1946. Willie said of George, “Our paths didn’t cross very often in later life. His friends and connections were always on the other side of the fence from mine.” His half brother Robert owned a bar on West Street in Newark. His half brother Melvin lived on Mulberry Street in Manhattan. His other two half brothers, Norman and Ralph, he had no idea what became of them. All of the other siblings lived to the ages of 3 to 7.

He was, for a short while, working as a Hebrew cantor in a Harlem Synagogue.

The liner notes his 1958 LP The Legend of Willie “The Lion” Smith (Grand Awards Records GA 33-368) reports: “Duke Ellington has never lost his awe of the Lion’s prowess.” It quotes Duke Ellington as stating “Willie The Lion was the greatest influence of all the great jazz piano players who have come along. He has a beat that stays in the mind.” This LP is also noted for its album cover, featuring a painting of the Lion by Tracy Sugarman. Ellington demonstrated his admiration when composing and recording the highly regarded “Portrait of the Lion” in the 1940s.

Orange County (NY) Executive Edward Diana issued a proclamation declaring Sept. 18 Willie “The Lion” Smith Day in Orange County, the date of the first Goshen Jazz Festival.

This is Black Jewish History Month on Manishtana’s Musings.


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