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Backwater Blues: the stride piano of JAMES P. JOHNSON

12 rare solos – transcribed from piano rolls

Jazz Archives #100(12”) 

RLP-117 118 A
RLP-117 118 front
RLP-117 118 back.jpg
RLP-117 118 A.jpg
RLP-117 118 B.jpg


  1. Charleston (2:12) (Johnson – Mack)

  2. I’ve Got My Habits On (2:50) (Smith – Schafer – Durante)

  3. Vampin’ Liza Jane (2:52) (Marian Dickerson)

  4. Gypsy Blues (3:16) (Sissle – Blake)

  5. Don’t Tell Your Monkey Man (3:11) (Lukie Johnson)

  6. Daintiness Rag (2:07) (James P. Johnson)


  1. It Takes Love to Cure the Heart’s Disease (2:39) (James P. Johnson)

  2. Make Me a Pallet on the Floor (3:33) (Shelton Brooks)

  3. Backwater Blues (3:28) (Bessie Smith)

  4. Railroad Man (3:15) (Schoebel – Erdman – Meyers)

  5. Baltimore Buzz (2:31) (Sissle – Blake)

  6. Caprice Rag (1:50) (James P. Johnson)

   This is the second Riverside “Jazz Archives” album devoted to the lusty Harlem style of JAMES P. JOHNSON (1891-1955), master of stride piano and unquestionably one of the greatest and most satisfying-to-hear of all jazz pianists. This pounding, good-time piano style achieved wide popularity largely through the recordings of Johnson’s protégé and sometime pupil, Fats Waller, yet to his fellow musicians there was never any question as to who was the stride-piano “king.”

   Thus you could consider James P. as a foremost example of the “musician’s musician,” greatly respected and acknowledged as a master by his co-workers, but – although gaining success in various ways at various times during his career – never achieving the sort of public recognition his vast talents so richly deserved, and today almost forgotten.

   James Price Johnson was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on February 1, 1891. He studied piano first with his mother and then with private teachers. By the age of 15, when his family had moved to New York City, he was earning as much as $9 a week by his playing, and was irrevocably a professional musician. It wasn’t long before jazz musicians, particularly other piano players, began to take notice and, by the time the 1920s rolled around, to admire him. Pianist Cliff Jackson recalls his first meeting with James P. as taking place in Washington, D.C.:

   “It was during the prohibition,” Cliff remembers. “I was making a lot of money on liquor, and I walked into the room at this big party and told the guys to set everybody up. I had noticed a big fellow sleeping on a couch in the corner, but I didn’t pay him much attention until after someone asked me to play the piano. I started playing Carolina Shout and this fellow, without moving, opened one eye and asked: ‘Who are you?’ I got pretty mad, because I was quite well known in Washington and I figured this guy had some nerve asking who I was! So I answered him with the same question, but when he told me he was James P. Johnson I couldn’t play any more. He asked me to continue, but I just couldn’t.”

   There was a great deal of competition for supremacy in Harlem piano circles. Such men as Jackson, Waller, Luckey Roberts and Willie “The Lion” Smith often engaged in long “cutting contests,” learning from each other as they competed. But Jimmy Johnson was not one you tried to beat; he was the one you tried to emulate. He was the established “king”; it was accepted that his ideas were bigger and his technique better. For Cliff Jackson to continue to play Carolina Shout  - which was probably James P.’s best known cutting-contest “display piece” – after learning the identity of the man on the couch would have been uncharacteristically daring, not to say foolhardy.

   Johnson was also a notable composer, another of his big talents that seems to have rather quickly faded from public memory, although he wrote several quite successful musical comedy scores in the ‘20s. Charleston remains a very familiar tune to this day, but ask people who know it who James P. Johnson was and most of them will surely be unable to tell you. That song, which was part of the score of a 1923 hit show, “Runnin’ Wild,” is undoubtedly his most famous composition, but there were many others that were widely heard during the ‘20s, including Old-Fashioned Love and If I Could Be with You One Hour Tonight.

   Johnson’s career as a piano roll artist probably began just before the 1920s. (It is not possible to be precise about the date, since some early rolls listed in discographies have never been seen by anyone we know, and others – like the Caprice and Daintiness rags included here – carry no specific dating information.) It is certain, though, that he was one of the better sellers and, as a result, was perhaps the most prolific piano roll-making jazz pianist of the day, a day that lasted until the late ‘20s, when the ever-growing spread of radio and the phonograph record made the player piano close to obsolete. The dozen selections that make up this album, like the contents of the precious James P. collection on Riverside, are of course all from this period, having been transcribed from original rolls that have managed to survive through the years, some in the hands of jazz collectors, others in dusty attics or storerooms.

   From 1921 on, James P. was also far from idle in the matter of recordings, and as accompanist to such singers as Bessie Smith (with whom he recorded, among other numbers, the classic Backwater Blues – a piano roll version of which can be heard here), Ethel Water and others.

   In the 1930s, Jimmy Johnson retired from public performances and the lusty world of “rent parties” and stride-piano cutting contests to concentrate on writing concert music based on traditional Negro themes. His Harlem Symphony was completed in 1932 and presented as ballet much at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre four years later. In 1940 he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralysed for a time, but he returned to jazz activity in the mid-‘40s, recording, appearing for a while at a Greenwich Village night club, and in 1947 making several appearances on programs of the “This Is Jazz” radio series conducted by critic Rudi Blesh (he can be heard on some selections derived from this source on “Bechet” – Riverside RLP 149). In 1949 he was on the West Coast, where he wrote the music for a Los Angeles stage production, “Sugar Hill.” But if this signaled a desire to repeat his earlier songwriting successes he had little chance to world at it, for a second stroke in 1951 left him without the power of speech, and he remained bedridden and hopelessly inactive until his death on November 17, 1955.

   It was a tragically anti-climatic and unfitting end to the life of the man who had once been the central figure of that hard-playing, hard-living school do Harlem pianists. It cannot rally be hoped that recordings such as these will be able to rescue his memory from comparative oblivion. But for those who will listen, here is lasting proof of the enormous talents and remarkable spirit of James P., who welded elements of ragtime and the blues and show tunes into a robust, striding piano style that many have followed but none (not even Waller) could ever surpass

   A note for discographer, on the original piano rolls and the months in which they were made Caprice Rag and Daintiness Rag were both cut for the obscure Metro-Art label, bearing numbers 203106 and 203176, respectively, and probably having been made shortly after 1920. Backwater Blues was the last to be made; it is Imperial 06522, from June, 1927. The others are all QRS rolls, with the following dates (and numbers): in April, 1921 – Monkey Man (1338) and Heart’s Desease (1339); in September, 1921 – Gypsy Blues (1674); in November, 1921 – Baltimore Buzz (1738); in January, 1922 – I’ve Got My Habits On (1814); in February, 1922 – Vampin’ Liza Jane (1836); in July, 1923 – Railroad Man (2302); in June, 1925 – Charleston (3143); in September, 1926 – Pallet on the Floor (3626)


   Riverside’s other Johnson LP, also transcribed from piano rolls, is –

JAMES P. JOHNSON: Rare Solos (RLP 12-105)

Other notable piano albums in the “Jazz Archives” series include –

Young FATS WALLER: piano roll solos (RLP 12-103)

The Amazing MR. WALLER (RLP 12-109)

The Golden Age of RAGTIE (RLP 12-110)

RAGTIME Piano Roll CLASSICS (RLP 12-126)

JELLY ROLL MORTON: Classic Piano Solos (RLP 12-111)

Notes written by CHRIS ALBERTSON

Cover designed by KEN DEARDOFF

Re-mastered 1961 by JACK MATTHEWS (Components Corp.) on a HYDROFEED lathe


235 West 46th Street New York 36, N.Y.

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