[Monday Notes no. 79] Pete Johnson was one of the greatest boogie-woogie pianists, Roll ‘Em Pete was one of his favourite pieces. On this recording he is accompanied by singer Joe Turner, another blues specialist. The two musicians provide an outstanding performance, a duet that sums up the most salient features of the blues.
The song has the classic 12-measure strophic form that characterises almost all blues, the first introductory part is played by the piano. The second verse features Joe Turner singing the short lyrics of the song.
The subject of the song is love. Despite its simplicity, the tune has that harshness and tragic sense of life that often characterises the blues, and which is summed up in the verse:
Well, you’re so beautiful, you’ve got to die someday, All I want’s a little loving, just before you pass away
Joe Turner sings with a steady, strong voice, in a serious, and unadorned tone. In the duet with the piano, the solo instrument is not the voice but the piano; Pete Johnson improvises embellishments and blues phrases throughout the song. These improvised phrases are supported by the left hand accompaniment, which does not even break for a moment.
Roll ‘Em Pete, left hand accompaniment
This accompaniment provides both rhythmic and harmonic support, includes all the notes of the chord and gives the right hand the freedom to play and improvise freely.
This stylised figure is typical of the boogie woogie piano and its apparent simplicity should not mislead: playing this figure for a few minutes non-stop is a prohibitive task for any pianist. In fact, this figure implies a lot of hard work for the weaker fingers and playing it for a few minutes requires exceptional technique.
It seems that Pete Johnson, aware of his skill and the spectacular nature of his pianism, used to prolong the performance of Roll’Em Pete to the extreme, reciting verses from other songs or improvising new ones on the spot.
In addition to being a great master of the piano, Pete Johnson is also considered one of the fathers of Rock’n’Roll, music that only began to spread many years after this recording.
Until next Monday!