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Vagneur: Tickling those boogie keys

If you listen to Dr. John, the Night Tripper, boogie and blues piano man extraordinaire, he’ll tell you that God is a song. God, the great spirit, the creator, bondye, Buddha, whatever you wish, based on all the religions of the world, but a song is either good or bad, and if we weave our religions and souls together just right, we get a beautiful song.

I first heard boogie-woogie at my grandmother’s house on Bleeker Street, that “eight to the bar” takeoff on piano-based blues, played faster than blues and with an incessant and easily recognizable bass line. Ed Dunklee, nationally recognized master of the ivories and sometimes house guest, used to hit a boogie-woogie beat on Grandma’s well-aged upright that got my attention at a very young age. Ed could make a piano sing in all kinds of ways, but when he boogied down with that 12-bar blues progression, everyone in the house would gather ’round, smiling wide and wanting more. That’s when I got the bug — the bass was relatively easy to hammer out, but I’m still working on the many right-hand intricacies of the phenomenon.

The audience lets you know it’s working — a little nonchalant toe-tapping at first, quickly moving up to the knees, and before you know it, the hips start the gentle, almost involuntary and instinctual swaying back-and-forth movements that go with sexual arousal, with maybe a backward glance over the shoulder. Don’t play it too fast — keep the undulating rhythm natural — that’s how people do it when no one’s looking.

Not your bag, you say? Locally famous for their aerie on Aspen Mountain (among other reasons), the Grateful Dead played a lot of boogie-woogie-style rhythm, especially during long jam breaks, and it’s clear that guys like Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis have their feet solidly in the eight-beat bar. Charlie Daniels, Asleep at the Wheel and Christina Aguilera all have put a boogie-woogie stamp on their music at different times.

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s Texas season in Aspen, and there’s a great swell of elegant, intelligent women with lilting accents who can use wit and charm with an ease and incisiveness akin to the flourish of a ballet dancer’s arabesque. And speaking of Texas, we also should remember that Marshall, Texas, claims to be the “birthplace” of boogie-woogie, a claim seldom disputed and likely correct, as near as anyone can decipher. Oh, sure — Chicago would like to think of itself as the home of, and maybe that’s true, but we’re talkin’ birthplace, baby. Dancing around this claim are accounts of famous 12-string guitar blues legend Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) dabbling in boogie-woogie licks in northeast Texas, pure backup to the claim of what was emerging as a new form of music in and around Marshall.

The “sixth Stone” and “the glue that held the whole thing together,” according to Keith Richards, Englishman Ian Stewart was one of those great piano players that could put a boogie beat to almost anything he played. During a 1980s wedding at the T-Lazy-7, where we shared the stage, Ian Stewart captured my allegiance forever by dressing up the tried-and-true, ubiquitous “You Are My Sunshine” with his classic styling of just such a beat. One of my most-prized possessions is a vinyl Rocket 88 album, recorded live in Europe (1985), featuring Stewart on piano, blistering a solo rendition of the perennial favorite “Roll ’em Pete.” He died the next day from a heart attack, at 47. Stu, as he was called, already has gone down as one of the great boogie and blues piano players of the 20th century.

What kind of music can you say deeply relates to religion, even voodoo, and sex in one genre? I’m talking boogie-woogie, and I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Listen to or play a riff today, and get a smile on!

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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