Robert Odell, Jr. is the senior video editor for the Take Me Back to Beale project, a 100-year chronicle of Beale Street History.
John "Piano Red" Williams aka Memphis Piano Red
John "Piano Red" Williams, also known as Memphis Piano Red, was an albino African American barrelhouse blues pianist. Barrelhouse blues is a loud, percussive type of blues piano music that was originally designed to be heard in noisy bars or taverns. Piano Red played on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee between 1930-1980. After playing in various clubs, bars, and saloons for many years, Williams finally made his recording debut more than three decades after his career began.
What Is an Albino?
An albino is a person or animal that has an absence of pigment in their skin and hair (which are white) and their eyes (which are typically pink).
John "Piano Red" Williams of Beale Street; who performed in Memphis, is sometimes confused with Willie Lee Perryman, also an albino African American.
Willie Lee Perryman lived from 1911-1985. During his career, Perryman performed as "Piano Red" and also as "Dr. Feelgood." He was a self-taught pianist and, like John "Piano Red" Williams of Beale Street, Perryman played barrelhouse blues. It has been suggested that music historians credit Perryman's 1950 recording, "Rocking With Red," as giving birth to the term "rock and roll" in Atlalnta.
Born in Tennessee
Piano Red's Hometown
John "Piano Red" Williams was born in Germantown, Tennessee on April 16, 1904. Some reports say in the year 1904 while others say 1905.
The City of Germantown:
- Began in 1833 as the hamlet of Pea Ridge
- Was renamed Germantown in 1836
- Was incorportated in 1841
- Includes the site of the historic Nashoba Plantation
- Was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War
- Was decimated by Yellow Fever in the 1870's
- Had a temporary name change to Neshoba during World War I.
John "Piano Red" Williams
- Had ten other siblings (six played musical instruments)
- Started playing piano at age 13 (he was taught by one of his sisters)
- Was influenced by local Germantown piano blues players
- Moved to Memphis in 1930 (often playing in Beale Street bars)
- Played an upright piano
- Played barrelhouse blues, piano music only in the Memphis area
- Worked as a furniture mover
- Played after hours at clubs on Beale Street in Memphis, TN from 1930-1980
- Made his recording debut in 1969
In a docudrama entitled Take Me Back To Beale (Book II) an actor portrays John "Piano Red" Williams.
The docudrama, reenacts John "Piano Red" Williams playing at The Gray Mule saloon on Beale Street. In the film, John "Piano Red" Williams is playing the tune, Piano Red's Boogie. Piano Red's Boogie was a song made famous by another musician called "Piano Red", Willie Lee Perryman, of Atlanta, GA.
Hoboing Helped to Develop His Unique Style
The practice of hopping on freight trains in order to travel from one place to another is often referred to as hoboing. Memphis Piano Red hoboed and rode freight trains for more than 25 years. The terms hobo, hoboed and hoboing were coined around 1890 in the Northwestern region of the United States.
While hoboing, Memphis Piano Red:
- Lived in and visited various states
- Developed his solid and vivacious piano sound
- Developed his strong, blues laden vocals
While riding to a musical performance with Arne Brogger of the Memphis Blues Caravan, Memphis Piano Red saw a passing freight train and was quoted as saying, "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."
Memphis Piano Red Traveled with the Memphis Blues Caravan
The Memphis Blues Caravan was designed to place pioneering blues legends, such as Memphis Piano Red, Furry Lewis, and Joe Willie Wilkins' together on national and international tours. It was the "brain child" of Arne Brogger of Memphis, Tennessee.
Memphis Piano Red
Does the actor look like Memphis Piano Red?
Memphis Piano Red was featured on the "Old Time Barrelhouse Blues" album with Guitar Slim. Guitar Slim was best known for the million-selling song, "The Things That I Used To Do", that was listed in The Rock and Roll hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
Red Found Dead
On February 5, 1982 in Memphis, Tennessee, John "Piano Red" Williams was found dead in his Memphis home on Walker Street.
The upright piano that produced the boisterous, rhythmic sounds that Piano Red's fingers commanded, bore witness to the grizzly events that ended in front of it in Red's living room. Hearing the chaotic, clash of an imminent break in, Piano Red grabbed his shotgun and confronted the intruder. Before he could pull the trigger, Red's trusty weapon was somehow wrenched from his hands and became the instrument of his demise. In a sinister, adrenaline laced rage, the intruder mercilessly attacked Piano Red, beating him to death with the butt of the estranged shotgun.
Out of the blue, the voice of Piano Red had been abruptly, silenced and his pioneering, musical hands had been suddenly stilled and no one was ever charged.
© 2015 Robert Odell Jr
Robert Odell Jr (author) from Memphis, Tennessee on January 14, 2018:
I am happy that you enjoyed this tidbit of Beale Street's musical history. Much success to you with your music.
Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on December 27, 2017:
I love barrelhouse and boogie piano. I play some of Red's music at venues here in Australia.