William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith (23 November 1893[1] – 18 April 1973), aka "The Lion", was a Jewish American jazz pianist and one of the masters of the stride style, usually grouped with James P. Johnson, and Thomas "Fats" Waller as the three greatest practitioners of the genre from its Golden Age, c 1920 - 1943.


Smith was born in Goshen, New York. In his memoir he reports that his father, Frank Bertholoff, was Jewish, and his mother Ida Oliver, had "Spanish, Negro, and Mohawk Indian blood". "Frank Bertholoff was a light skinned playboy who loved his liquor, girls, and gambling." His mother threw Frank out of the house when "The Lion" was two years old. When his father died in 1901, his mother married John Smith, a master mechanic from Paterson, NJ. The surname Smith was added to that of the "The Lion" at age 3.

By the early 1910s he was playing in New York City and Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Smith served in World War I, where he saw action in France, and played drum with the African-American regimental band led by Tim Brymn. Legend has it that his nickname "The Lion" came from his reported bravery while serving as a heavy artillery gunner. He was a decorated veteran of the 350th Field Artillery[2].

Around 1915,[3] he married Blanche Merrill (née Howard), a song writer and lyricist who wrote a number of songs and lyrics for Broadway shows from about 1912 through to 1925, particularly for Fanny Brice. Smith and Merrill are thought to have separated before Smith joined the Army in 1917 serving as a corporal (he claimed sergeant was his rank), but they were still living together in Newark, New Jersey at the time of the 1920 census.[3] Merrill was white and Smith was the only black man living in their apartment building at the time.[3]

He returned to working in Harlem clubs and in rent parties where Smith and his contemporaries James P. Johnson and Fats Waller developed a new, more sophisticated piano style later called “stride.”[4] also after the war, where he worked for decades, often as a soloist, sometimes in bands and accompanying blues singers such as Mamie Smith. Although working in relative obscurity, he was a "musician's musician", influencing countless others including Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, and Artie Shaw.

In the 1940s his music found appreciation with a wider audience, and he toured North America and Europe through to 1971. Willie "The Lion" Smith died in New York City. His autobiography, Music on My Mind, The Memoirs Of An American Pianist written with the assistance of George Hoefer, was published by Doubleday and Company in 1964. It included a generous foreword written by Duke Ellington. It also includes a comprehensive list of his compositions and a discography. His students, include such notable names as Mel Powell, Brooks Kerr, and Mike Lipskin. With the latter, he made 2 albums: a 2 LP set of playing and reminiscences, The Memoirs of Willie the Lion Smith, done in 1965, and an album of solos and duets from 1971: California Here I Come, which coincided with Mike's relocation from New York to Marin County.

He was present during the taking of the famous Jazz photograph A Great Day in Harlem in 1958, however he famously was sitting down resting when the selected shot was taken, leaving him out of the final picture. This is discussed in depth in Jean Bach's award winning 1994 documentary on the history of this photo, released on DVD. A fine sampling of Willie's recorded output, from 1925 - 1953 ( approximately 5 CDs ) can be found on the now out of print French label, Chronogical sic Classics.


The liner notes his 1958 LP The Legend of Willie "The Lion" Smith (Grand Awards Records GA 33-368) reports: "Duke Ellington has never lost his awe of the Lion's prowess." It quotes Duke Ellington as stating "Willie The Lion was the greatest influence of all the great jazz piano players who have come along. He has a beat that stays in the mind." This LP is also noted for its album cover, featuring a painting of the Lion by Tracy Sugarman. Ellington demonstrated his admiration when composing and recording the highly regarded "Portrait of the Lion" in the 1940s.

Orange County (NY) Executive Edward Diana issued a proclamation declaring Sept. 18 Willie "The Lion" Smith Day in Orange County, the date of the first Goshen Jazz Festival.[5]


External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Willie "The Lion" Smith. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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