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6/13/12

Meade Lux Lewis: Last solo session


When you hear the name, Meade Lux Lewis, chances are that his extraordinary Honky Tonk Train Blues comes to mind. Lewis recorded it for the Paramount label in 1927 and performed it in 1938 and '39 at the two "From Spirituals to Swing" Carnegie Hall concerts. It was at the 1938 concert that Lewis caught the ears of Alfred Lion, who made him the first artist to record for his new label, Blue Note. Meade Lux Lewis joined with Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson to form The Boogie Woogie Trio, which ignited a brief but rollicking fad that had the big bands boogying onto the charts as the Swing Era rose to its peak.

I met Meade Lux Lewis in 1961 when NBC hired me as a talent scout of sorts for "Chicago, and All That Jazz," a Dupont Show of the Week special presented in early "Living Color." He had not recorded a solo session in ten years, so I suggested that we do one, and he liked the idea. He seemed pleased when I told him that I wasn't looking for yet another rendition of his famous hit, and asked if he could do tunes that he hadn't done before—I liked that idea. He also wanted to do a few tracks on a celeste, so that was arranged.

At the bottom of this post (below the photo) is a link to one of the piano selections, You Were Meant for Me, a standard written by Nacio Herb Brown in 1929 for an early film musical, "The Broadway Melody". It has appeared in numerous films over the years and is not the type of song one might expect Meade Lux Lewis to play, but he told me that he had "liked it for many years." This may well be the most unusual version of this song.

The original Riverside cover illustration by Peter Max.
I don't think the album did very well, but I'm glad we made it, because Meade Lux only had one more session, with a band, before he was killed in a Minneapolis car accident. He was only 58. 

There is an interesting story behind the original album cover, which was designed by Ken Deardoff, who was Riverside's in-house Art Director. What most people don't know, because it is far from apparent, is that Ken commissioned a young relatively unknown illustrator to come up with a cover painting. It would win 26-year-old Peter Max the Society of Illustrators' Advertising Gold Medal for 1963. By the end of the decade, Peter Max's unique style—dubbed "Cosmic Art" and very different from this cover—had captured the imagination of  new generation. Ken Deardoff gets the usual design credit on the album, but nowhere is there any mention of Peter Max.

I took this photo of Meade Lux Lewis in the studio. Amazingly, it's almost focused!

4 comments:

  1. Chris, the TV show you mentioned is this?
    http://youtu.be/W022m4oRLr4

    Do you have more of the episodes in your archive?

    Thanks for today's story.

    Ehsan

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, Ehsan, your link is to excerpts from that show. The whole program lasted an hour and is available on an 80-minute VHS tape (check Amazon) that includes some fillers. I should point out that this was originally taped in color, at a time when the technology was new and did not allow editing, This means that the hour was done in real time, with one untaped run-through, so—these being elderly artists—the more spirited performances occurred prior to taping. It was impossible to preserve the color tape, for some reason, so all that is left is a Kinescope in b&w, which is what the VHS contains. When the taping was over, some of us boarded a bus for Webster Hall where the Verve album that bears the same name was made in the middle of the night. If you read what blurbist Scott Yanow wrote about this album on AllMusic and elsewhere, be warned that it contains the usual supposition-based Yanow nonsense. —Chris

      Delete
  2. "Here is one of the piano selections..." you say. Is there a link or something to the selection? I can't find one.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Ted,

    I should have made it "at the bottom of this post" rather than "here. I am correcting that. In the meantime, just scroll down to the link bar that you will find below the studio shot of Meade Lux Lewis. I just tried it and it works.

    ReplyDelete