Born Albert Clifton Ammons, 1 March 1907, Chicago, Illinois
Boogie woogie pianist.
Albert Ammons was one of the Big Three of late-'30s boogie woogie along with Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis. Arguably the most powerful of the three (he had a thundering, rock-steady left hand), Ammons was also enormously versatile, incorporating swing, jazz, pop tunes and blues into his repertoire.
The first generation of boogie woogie pianists (1920-30) included people like Clarence 'Pinetop' Smith, Jimmy Yancey, Cow Cow Davenport, Hersal Thomas and 'Cripple' Clarence Lofton. Like Johnson and Lewis, Albert Ammons belonged to the second generation, who carried the music into a new era during the period between 1930 and 1940.
Ammons was born in Chicago, which became the focal point of the boogie woogie style in the late 1920s. Both his parents were pianists, so it is not surprising that he started playing the instrument at an early age. Apart from the influence of his father, himself an accomplished boogie woogie player, Albert's interest in the style arose mainly from his friendship with Meade Lux Lewis (1905-1964), who lived in the same apartment block for several years. Pinetop Smith also moved there later and Ammons learned a great deal from Smith, whose life came to a violent end in 1929.
Albert's professional career had a slow start. He began playing in the mid- 1920s as a soloist in a few clubs in and around Chicago, supplementing his meagre income by driving a taxi. He spent five years (1929-34) playing in a number of bands which have not gone down in history as among the greatest ensembles of their era : first the Francis Moseley Stompers, then William Barbee and his Headquarters Orchestra and finally Louis P. Banks and his Chesterfield Orchestra. However, the experience of playing in a band served him well. It took him into theatres and clubs where he was obliged to learn and employ harmonic chord sequences as a member of the rhythm section as well as taking improvised solo choruses.
Ammons formed his own band, the Rhythm Kings, in 1934. Of this sextet, Ike Perkins (guitar), Israel Crosby (bass) and Jimmy Hoskins (drums) would continue to play with him for many years. Albert proved that boogie woogie, essentially a piano solo style, could be played by a small band. He made his first recordings in February 1936 (for Decca, with the Rhythm Kings), a four- song session including what is probably his most famous number, "Boogie Woogie Stomp", an adaptation of "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" from 1928. In 1938, Ammons appeared at Carnegie Hall (the "Spirituals To Swing" concert) with Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis, an event that contributed greatly to launching the boogie woogie craze of the late 1930s and early 1940s. This resulted in a long-standing residency at New York's Cafe Society and numerous recording sessions.
In 1939 Ammons recorded for the Solo Art and Blue Note labels, some tracks in duet with Meade Lux Lewis. Personally, I consider the piano duets of Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson for RCA Victor from May 1941 as the Holy Grail of boogie woogie. Tracks like "Boogie Woogie Man", "Sixth Avenue Express", "Pine Creek" and "Walkin' the Boogie" have lost none of their magic, 70+ years later. But Albert's irresistible rise was brought to a temporary halt in the summer of 1941 when he managed to cut off the tip of one of his fingers while preparing a sandwich. Following the Musicians' Union recording ban of 1942-1944, he returned to the studio in 1944 to record for Commodore with Don Byas, Hot Lips Page and Vic Dickenson.
Though the international craze for boogie woogie soon petered out, Ammons continued to work steadily throughout the 1940s. He recorded for the Mercury label from September 1945 until January 1949, sometimes partnered with his son, the outstanding tenor sax player Gene Ammons (1925-1974). The Mercury recordings have sometimes been dismissed as being bland and commercial. It is true that the choice of material can be criticized. Tunes like "In A Little Spanish Town" and "Margie" are not exactly of the most inspiring kind. But the juxtaposition of a well-known melody and a left hand pounding out 6 or 8 beats to the bar in a regular boogie rhythm was an innovation which many others have tried to imitate since. The best example is Albert's only chart entry, "Swanee River Boogie" (# 5 R&B in February 1947). Countless pianists, including Fats Domino, have copied Ammons's boogie arrangement of the old Stephen Foster favourite.
The last few years of Ammons's life were blighted by ill-health. In the mid-40s he endured a period of paralysis in both hands. He appeared to have made a full recovery and played at the inauguration of President Harry Truman in January 1949, but he died later that year, aged only 42.
The exciting boogie woogie style of Albert Ammons (and also Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis) was an important component among the many influences which were being conflated into rhythm and blues and, later, rock n roll.
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Acknowledgements : Peter Silvester, Tony Watts, Eddy Determeyer.
With Pete Johnson :
Dik, September 2012
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