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Stylistic origins blues
folk music
Honky Tonk
Cultural origins 1910's southern United States
Typical instruments Piano
Mainstream popularity low but influential in the 1940s
Fusion genres
Rockabilly, Rock and Roll, Jump blues
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Boogie-woogie is a style of piano-based blues that became very popular in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but originated much earlier, and was extended from piano, to three pianos at once, guitar, big band, and country and western music, and even gospel. Whilst the blues traditionally depicts a variety of emotions, boogie-woogie is mainly associated with dancing. The lyrics of one of the very earliest, "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie", consist entirely of instructions to dancers:

Now, when I tell you to hold it, I don't want you to move a thing.
And when I tell you to get it, I want you to Boogie Woogie!

It is characterized by a regular bass figure, an ostinato and the most familiar example of shifts of level, in the left hand which elaborates on each chord, and trills and decorations from the right hand.


It is not strictly a solo piano style, but is also used to accompany singers and as a solo part in bands and small combos. It is sometimes called "eight to the bar", as much of it is written in common time (4/4) time using eighth notes (quavers) (see time signature). The chord progressions are typically based on I - IV - V - I (with many formal variations of it, such as I/i - IV/iv - v/I, as well as chords that lead into these ones.

For the most part, boogie-woogie tunes are twelve-bar blues, although the style has been applied to popular songs like "Swanee River" and hymns like "(Just a) Closer Walk with Thee."

Typical boogie woogie bassline:

Typical boogie woogie bassline on 12 bar blues progression in G



The origin of the term boogie-woogie is unknown, according to Webster's Third New International Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word is a redoubling of boogie, which was used for rent parties as early as 1913. Blues historian Robert Palmer wrote that the boogie-woogie style bass pattern may have been created in the logging and turpentine camps and oil boomtowns of Texas, Louisiana, and the Mississippi Delta circa 1900. Palmer also reports that Willie Dixon told Karl Gert zur Heide, author of "Deep South Piano" that in Mississippi before the term boogie was used, the eight to the bar bass patterns were called "Dudlow Joes".[1][2] ref.

In an interview with NPR blues singer and pianist Marcia Ball stated that "Boogie woogie started out with a bunch of different names, depending on where you were. Apparently there was a song by a guy named Dudlow, Joe Dudlow. He’s the first guy that a lot of them heard that was playing that kind of um… [playing]. And so they called it that for a while, Dudlow Joe." [1] The precise origin of boogie-woogie piano is, however, uncertain; it was no doubt influenced by early rough music played in honky tonks in the Southern United States. W.C. Handy and Jelly Roll Morton both mentioned hearing pianists playing this style before 1910. According to Clarence Williams, the style was started by Texas pianist George W. Thomas. Thomas published one of the earliest pieces of sheet music with the boogie-woogie bassline, "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues" in 1916, although Williams recalled hearing him play the number before 1911. The term "boogie" itself was in use very early, as in Wilbur Sweatman's "Boogie Rag" recorded in April, 1917. link

'The Fives', which was composed by George and Hersal Thomas from Texas, was copyrighted in 1921 and published in 1922, deserves much credit for the development of modern Boogie Woogie. All modern Boogie Woogie bass figures can be found in "The Fives," including swinging, walking broken-octave bass, shuffled (swinging) chord bass (of the sort later used by Ammons, Lewis, and Clarence "Pine Top" Smith), and the ubiquitous "oom-pah" ragtime stride bass.[3]

A song titled "Tin Roof Blues" was published in 1923 by the Clarence Williams Publishing Company. Compositional credit is given to Richard Jones. The Jones composition uses a boogie bass in the introduction with some variation throughout.[4][5] In February of 1923 Joseph Samuels' Tampa Blue Jazz Band recorded the George W. Thomas number "The Fives" for Okeh Records, considered the first example of jazz band boogie-woogie.

Jimmy Blythe's recording of "Chicago Stomps" from April 1924 is sometimes called the first complete boogie-woogie piano solo record.

The first boogie woogie hit was "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" by Pinetop Smith (1928 in music) recorded in 1928 and first released in 1929. Pinetop's record was the first boogie-woogie recording to be a commercial hit, and helped establish boogie-woogie as the name of the style. It was closely followed by another example of pure boogie-woogie, "Honky Tonk Train Blues" by Meade Lux Lewis, recorded by Paramount Records; 1927 in music, first released in March of 1930. The performance emulates a railroad trip, perhaps lending credence to the 'train theory'.

Late 1930s: Carnegie Hall

Boogie-woogie gained further public attention in 1938 and 1939, thanks to the From Spirituals to Swing concerts in Carnegie Hall promoted by record producer John Hammond. The concerts featured Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson performing Turner's tribute to Johnson, "Roll 'Em Pete", as well as Meade Lux Lewis performing "Honky Tonk Train Blues" and Albert Ammons playing "Swanee River Boogie'. "Roll 'Em Pete" is now considered to be an early rock and roll song.

These three pianists, with Turner, took up residence in the Café Society night club in New York City where they were popular with the sophisticated set. They often played in combinations of two and even three pianos, creating a richly textured piano performance.

1930s-1940s: Swing

After the Carnegie Hall concerts, it was only natural for swing bands to incorporate the boogie woogie beat into some of their music. One of the first to do this was the Will Bradley orchestra, starting in 1939, which got them a string of boogie hits such as the original versions of "Beat Me Daddy (Eight To The Bar)" and "Down The Road A-Piece," both 1940, and "Scrub Me Mamma With A Boogie Beat," in 1941. The Andrews Sisters sang some boogies, and Tommy Dorsey's band had a hit with an updated version of Pine Top's Boogie Woogie in 1938, which was the swing era's second best seller, only second to Glenn Miller's "In the Mood". After the floodgates were open, it was expected that every big band should have one or two boogie numbers in their repertoire, as the dancers were learning to jitterbug and do the Lindy Hop, which required the boogie woogie beat.

Key figures

Amongst the many pianists who have been exponents of this genre, there are only a few who have had a lasting influence on the music scene. Perhaps the most well known Boogie-Woogie pianist is Albert Ammons. His 'Boogie Woogie Stomp' released in 1936 was a pivotal recording, not just for boogie woogie but for music. Some of the flattened sevenths in the right hand riffs are similar to licks used by early rock and roll guitarists. Ammons' two main compatriots were Meade 'Lux' Lewis and Pete Johnson. Before these three were playing piano, the two leading pianists were Jimmy Yancey and 'Pine-Top' Smith. Both of these pianists used bass patterns similar to ragtime and stride piano, but the distinctive Boogie-Woogie right hand licks were all ready in use. Currently, Boogie-Woogie is being taken forward by pianists such as Rob Rio, Silvan Zingg and particularly Axel Zwingenberger, whose records and performances have a great influence on the contemporary scene.

Derivative forms

In 1939 country artists began playing boogie woogie when Johnny Barfield recorded "Boogie Woogie". "Cow Cow Boogie" was written for, but not used in, the 1942 movie "Ride 'em Cowboy". This song by Benny Carter, Gene DePaul, and Don Raye successfully combined Boogie Woogie and Western, or Cowboy music. The lyrics leave no doubt that it was a Western Boogie Woogie. It sold over a million records in its original release, and has now been recorded many times.

The trickle of what was initially called Hillbilly Boogie, or Okie Boogie (later to be renamed Country Boogie), became a flood beginning around late 1945. One notable country boogie from this period was the Delmore Brothers "Freight Train Boogie", considered to be part of the combined evolution of country music and blues towards rockabilly. In 1948 Arthur Smith achieved Top 10 US country chart success with his MGM Records recordings of "Guitar Boogie" and "Banjo Boogie", with the former crossing over to the US pop chart, introducing many people to the potential of the electric guitar.[2] The Hillbilly Boogie period lasted into the 1950s, the last recordings of this era were made by Tennessee Ernie Ford with Cliffie Stone and his orchestra with the great guitar duo Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West. Bill Haley and the Saddlemen recorded two boogies in 1951.

The boogie beat has continued in country music through the end of the twentieth century. The Charlie Daniels Band (whose earlier tune "The South's Gonna Do It Again" uses boogie-woogie influences) released "Boogie Woogie Fiddle Country Blues" in 1988,[3] and three years later in 1991 Brooks & Dunn had a huge hit with "Boot Scootin' Boogie". [4]

More representative examples can be found in some of the songs of Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills, and subsequent tradition-minded country artists such as Asleep At The Wheel, Merle Haggard, and even George Strait.

The popularity of the Carnegie Hall concerts meant work for many of the fellow boogie players and also led to the adaptation of boogie-woogie sounds to many other forms of music. Tommy Dorsey's band had a hit with "T.D.'s Boogie Woogie" as arranged by Sy Oliver and soon there were boogie-woogie songs, recorded and printed, of many different stripes. Most famously, in the big-band genre, the ubiquitous "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," which was revamped recently by Christina Aguilera as her 2006 hit, "Candyman."

In the many styles of blues, especially Chicago blues and (more recently) West Coast blues, most pianists were influenced by, and employed, the traditional boogie woogie styles. Some of the earliest and most influential were Big Maceo Merriweather and, later, Sunnyland Slim (perhaps the greatest of all Chicago blues pianists). Otis Spann and Pinetop Perkins, two of the best known blues pianists, are heavily boogie-woogie influenced, with the latter taking both his name and signature tune from Pinetop Smith.

The boogie-woogie fad lasted from the late 1930s into the early fifties,[6] and made a major contribution to the development of jump blues and ultimately to rock and roll, epitomized by Jerry Lee Lewis. Boogie woogie is still to be heard in clubs and on records throughout Europe and North America. Big Joe Duskin displayed on his 1979 album, Cincinnati Stomp, a command of piano blues and boogie-woogie, which he had absorbed at first hand in the 1940s from Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson.[7]

In classical music, the composer Conlon Nancarrow was also deeply influenced by boogie-woogie, as many of his early works for player piano demonstrate. "A Wonderful Time Up There" is a boogie woogie gospel song. Povel Ramel's first hit in 1944 was Johanssons boogie-woogie-vals where he mixed boogie-woogie with waltz. John Lee Hooker took the Boogie-woogie style over to guitar from piano, creating the Boogie song "Boogie Chillen".

Beginning in the 1970s, and continuing to this day, artists such as George Frayne (Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen), keep (mostly) traditional boogie style alive with songs such as "Rock That Boogie", "Too Much Fun", "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar", and others. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century Jools Holland has been instrumental in keeping the boogie-woogie tradition alive. Also, multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee experimented with boogie-woogie in his 2006 soundtrack for the game Bully, in the song "Fighting Johnny Vincent".

Influence in popular culture

  • In the Universal movie "Ray" (in which Jamie Foxx won the academy award for his portrayal of Ray Charles). Foxx as Charles asked if his producers want him to do a "Pete Johnson thing" on the piano while in the recording studio. He then proceeds to play a boogie in the style of the seminal boogie-woogie musician Johnson.

See also


  1. ^ "Deep Blues" by Robert Palmer 1981 page 150
  2. ^ E. Simms Campbell, “Blues,” in Jazzmen, ed. F. Ramsey and C.E. Smith (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939) 112-113
  3. ^ History of Boogie Woogie Retrieved April 11, 2008
  4. ^ see section on Tin Roof Blues
  5. ^ additional information on this song and songs based on it
  6. ^ "Deep Blues" by Robert Palmer 1981 page 130
  7. ^ Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. p. 108. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.  

A Left Hand Like God - A History of Boogie-Woogie Piano by Peter Silvester. Da Capo Books - 1988

External links



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