Memphis Piano Red

by Arne Brogger

John "Piano Red " Williams was a Memphis native. He spent his working life as a furniture mover and played piano after hours at clubs, parties and gatherings. He never recorded for a label, major or minor, and lived quietly in a house on Walker Street in Memphis. Like most blacks with the sorbique "red," he was albino.

In his living room sat a large upright piano, next to the wall to the left as you entered the house. Across the room was a couch and various chairs -- all arranged "audience style" facing the piano. It was obvious that Red enjoyed the company of many a fan.

Home Brew...

It was a hot summer day when I arrived at Red's house to discuss the idea of him joining the Memphis Blues Caravan. Red was friendly and outgoing from the start, and the idea of playing on the road was just what he wanted. He would have left that afternoon if I had asked him. We sat on the porch. (In Memphis, white folks sit in their backyards. Black folks sit on the porch. It says something about who is more welcoming and sociable, I think.) Red offered some refreshment: home-brewed beer. After two or three large glasses of this wonderful stuff, you were lucky to be able to stand.

Later, Red sat at the piano and played, and the room filled with neighbors, kids and old folks, ready for whatever might happen. Red's left hand rolled, and pretty soon someone started the barbecue. Red joined the Caravan and played on every gig we ever did.

On The Road Again...

He loved the road and always, at the end of each tour, wanted to know when we were going out again. On tour, he and Furry Lewis were roommates. They sat together on the bus and Red looked out for Furry. He always addressed him as "coud'n Furry." They were the Sunshine Boys of the blues and kept up a lively and running commentary on everything that transpired.

Red had an amazing memory and would regale us with details of past trips... which highways we took, the names of the diners and motels we ate and slept at, incidents at various shows and other minutia. Whenever he saw me, I always received the same greeting, "Hey li'l brother," in his peculiar, high-pitched voice.

On stage, Red often strayed from the straight 12-bar progression of the standard blues. Using the AA-B phrasing of the lyric, when Red finished the A verse, you never new where the song might go after that. His left hand seemed to have a mind of its own. But eventually, it all worked out. One of his favorite songs was "The Black Stallion." ("I'm gonna ride a black stallion, ride it all through the land. Gonna fix all you women so you can't love no other man.") He took this tune as his personal talisman and usually closed his set with it.

You Can Play The Fool...

Red was a powerfully built man, even at age 80. Years of moving furniture had left layers of muscle that were still rock-hard. His disposition was calm and sweet, but no one thought lightly of teasing him. One night during his performance, some members of Joe Willie Wilkins' band were giving him a hard time from the wings of the stage. It interrupted him and he lost his train of thought. The anger that flashed across his face was a truly frightening sight. The perpetrators made themselves scarce when he came down off the stage, but Red found them later in the dressing room. He was very quiet and low key. "You know, you fellas can play the fool all you want. But I'm the one left up on the stage with a wet ass." They apologized quickly.

What Can You Say...

Red had a uniquely poetic way of expressing himself, which made him a joy to listen to. I remember a late fall afternoon with the sun low in the sky. He and I were riding to a solo date somewhere in North Dakota. We had stopped at a railroad crossing and were waiting for a freight train to pass. On both sides of us were stubbled fields of corn which had been harvested some weeks before. As we sat there, Red said, "That train reminds me of the Delta, hoppin' freights and sitting on top of the car ... watching my shadow, long and waivery, skipp'n across the field." What can you say when someone has just said it all.

The Passport...

In 1979, I booked Red at the Molde, Norway Jazz Festival. Red had never crossed the ocean but was eager to go. I had sent many members of the Caravan to play this particular festival and had worked out a routine to overcome one rather prickly situation: getting a passport. In order to get a U.S. passport, the applicant must produce a birth certificate verifying his birth in the United States. If you were black and born in the South before 1920 or so, there was no such thing as a birth certificate. Maybe your name was written in a Bible somewhere, but as far as official recognition of your birth was concerned, nothing existed.

The routine was simple. I flew the artist into Washington, D.C. They played a club called Blues Alley for room, board and a "hat pass." In addition, the young lady who booked the room (whose name I unfortunately can't remember but whose kindness I will never forget) would take whomever I sent over to Congressman Ford's office. He represented the district that included Memphis. His staff would politically fix the situation so that a passport could be issued. All of this was done in about 24 hours.

On reaching Norway, all the artists who played this festival were treated like visiting Royalty, aand Red was no exception. He said he had the time of his life.

Death Letter Blues...

In 1980, I got a letter from Melvin Lee, Joe Willie's bass player, saying that Red was dead. He had been found in his living room, in front of the piano, beaten to death with the butt of his own shotgun. Someone had tried to break in and had been confronted by Red. Somehow, they had wrenched the shotgun from his hands and killed him. No one was ever charged.

"I'm gonna ride a black stallion, ride it all through the land. Gonna fix all you women so you can't love no other man...."

Go To:

Robert Johnson / W.C. Handy / Willie Dixon

The Delta Map / The Essays / The Index

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The Blue Highway
For the 'Buked and Scorned

Copyright © 1995-2004 by Arne Brogger