Willie “The Lion” Smith – (1897-1973)

Willie “The Lion” Smith is among the big three of the Harlem Stride Piano (Fats Waller and James P. Johnson were the other two.) Willie the Lion Smith got his nickname “The Lion” during World War I when he showed extraordinary bravery in combat. His origins were unique—his father was Jewish and families he worked for as a child saw that he was raised in that faith. His life was filled with unique adventure. His music was somewhat more lyrical and sentimental than the other stride players, but his tune The Fingerbuster showed that he could really play that stride piano. Another of his many claims to fame is that he bought Fats Waller his first pair of long pants. The Lion told Fats, “You can’t be playing these rent parties in short pants! You can’t play piano dressed like a bum.”

Here are three examples of Willie the Lion Smith’s music. First, here is Echoes of Spring (from the 1958 LP The Legend of Willie The Lion Smith.) This shows the lyric side of “The Lion:”

Thanks to TheMemoryOfAllThat for the YouTube

The next tune is The Fingerbuster recorded in 1964, Willie’s “flag waver” or showboat tune. Notice in later years, he was always chewing on a half smoked cigar and always wearing a Derby hat. He understood that the piano player can’t just play the piano, he has to also put on an act. The Fingerbuster was Willie’s response if a smart aleck at the bar would shout, ” show ’em how it’s done:

Thanks pappyredux for the YouTube

Finally, Here is Rippling Waters recorded in 1939 and what is claimed by an earlier generation of fans as his greatest recording session. Willie the Lion Smith had a lyrical sense all his own.

Thanks to Stephen Taylor for the YouTube

About Richard Rollo

I am a retired Community College Instructor. I taught Political Science 1 American Government for 22 years in Southern California. I am originally from Northern Minnesota. My earliest years were spent in the living quarters of a rural Duluth Winnipeg & Pacific Railway Depot. Then my family joined the great 1950's migration to Southern California where I joined up with fellow baby boomers in overcrowded schools.
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