Clarence "Pine Top" Smith

Clarence “Pine Top” Smith (1904-1929) of Orion, Pike County, was an internationally acclaimed blues pianist who is cited as one of the originators of modern “boogie-woogie” music—an upbeat mix of blues, jazz, and ragtime that is also sometimes known as “barrelhouse music.” His 1928 release, “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie,” is believed to be the first instance of the use of the phrase “boogie woogie” in a recorded song and was a major and influential hit. He was also known for his comedic, witty, and lyrical banter that he famously “rapped” over the driving rhythms of his piano playing, and for this he is also considered by some to be one of the founding fathers of rap. He was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1991.

Smith was born in January or June of 1904 in the tiny community of Orion, north of Troy, Pike County, to Sam and Molly Smith; he was one of five children. At the time of his birth, most African Americans in the region worked as sharecroppers, and the Smiths likely did as well. The family moved to Troy soon after his birth. His nickname “Pine Top” is believed to have originated from his childhood love of climbing trees.

Little is known about his early years, but it is likely that Smith had his first exposure to the piano in a local church and had his first exposure to blues music on front porches and in small bars and clubs known as juke joints. By his early teens, Smith was already playing house parties in the Troy area. At some point, he, and perhaps the family, moved to Birmingham, Jefferson County, which was then a regular destination for traveling blues shows. He was based there for several years, playing in local venues. He connected with fellow blues musicians in Birmingham, including barrelhouse piano player Robert McCoy of Aliceville, Pickens County. With a home base in Birmingham, he soon began to travel and perform. As a teenager, Smith was credited as a member of the “Mattie Dorsey’s Big Four” show in an appearance in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1919.

Smith began performing at the dawn of the “Roaring Twenties” and the “Jazz Age,” when new types of music generated a craze for big bands and wild dancing. Smith and other solo piano players had to compete with noisy crowds in southern beer halls (sometimes called “barrelhouses”), house parties, turpentine camps, brothels, theaters, and juke joints to win the approval of the dance-crazy public. In these environments, he and similar musicians blended ragtime, sacred, jazz, and blues music into the boogie-woogie style that traveled with the musicians who migrated to the northern cities. Solo blues musicians like Smith were also under pressure to carry the show alone and had to be all-around entertainers. Smith found he could add excitement to his performance by “rapping” to the audience, encouraging the dancers, and giving instructions, like calling “the girl with the red dress on” to “shake that thing” and “mess around.”

By age 16, Smith (and perhaps his family as well) had joined the thousands of African Americans who left the South and headed north as part of the Great Migration. He arrived in Pittsburgh, which had a renowned thriving jazz and blues scene and a burgeoning black urban middle class that supported top-notch entertainment. He soon found regular work in the lively nightclubs, dance ballrooms, and theaters of the Hill district—the heart of the city’s night life—where he was exposed to the abundant talent playing in these venues.

Smith also gained experience on the southern traveling roadshow circuit, performing with acts such as the Raymond Brothers, the Whitman Sisters, and Matt Dorsey’s Pickaninnies. The renowned Wiregrass native Gertrude “Ma” Rainey had also relocated to Pittsburgh and hired Smith to join her entourage of performers. They toured on the vaudeville Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) theater and tent show circuit, where he performed as a piano player, singer, tap dancer, and comedian. As his reputation grew, he toured with other prestigious acts including Birmingham native Coot Grant and her husband Wesley “Kid” Wilson and Butterbeans and Susie. From Pittsburgh, he played all over the South, including in Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans on the TOBA circuit. He also is known to have played in Detroit and lived for short periods in St. Louis and Omaha, Nebraska, where he played clubs and “rent” parties. He returned to Pittsburgh between tours, performing in local clubs and cabarets, and on one trip in 1924 he met Sarah Horton of Charlotte, North Carolina. They married on October 11, 1924, and would have two children.

Sometime after his marriage, Smith met Charles Edward “Cow Cow” Davenport, a veteran piano player from Anniston, Calhoun County, who had toured extensively and was working as a talent scout for Brunswick/Vocalion Records based in New York and Chicago. Davenport was very impressed with Smith and is quoted as saying “Boy, look here, you have got a mean boogie-woogie.” There is great debate among music historians as to who first used the term “boogie-woogie,” with Davenport claiming he brought the expression with him from Alabama. On Davenport’s recommendation, and in hopes of recording, Smith moved his wife and son, Clarence Jr., in the summer of 1928 to Chicago, where they shared a rooming-house with piano players Albert Ammons and Meade “Lux” Lewis.

Smith’s recording sessions in early December were disappointing. But he was gaining notoriety performing at Chicago rent parties and speakeasies and a regular performance at the Forestville Tavern that was frequented by visiting musicians, including Jelly Roll Morton (born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe), Tampa Red (born Hudson Woodbridge), and Earl Hines. Smith returned later in the month to record “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” and struck gold. This was the first pure boogie-woogie barrelhouse music to be recorded, and two months later, it was a major hit. In January 1929, he returned and recorded six more songs, including “Pine Top Blues,” “I’m Sober Now,” and “Jump Steady Blues.” On March 13, 1929, Smith recorded a ninth song that was never released, and he was scheduled to return to the studio to record the next day again. He had little chance to enjoy his success or fulfill a promising career.

On the night of March 14, Smith left home to rehearse with Ernest Wallace. Walking home, Smith stopped in the Masonic Adams Lodge Hall to hear music and joined in the dancing. A fight broke, and Smith was accidentally shot in the scuffle. He was taken to the hospital but never regained consciousness. He died at 1:18 a.m., leaving behind his wife, two children, and 11 recordings.

Smith is cited as one of the most influential musicians of the 1920s, and his “Pine Top Blues” is considered a groundbreaking and seminal recording. Many musicians have covered his classic of the boogie-woogie repertoire over the years, and the style became a major craze in the 1930s and 1940s. The song was a major hit for Cleo Brown in 1935 and for Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra in 1938, eventually selling more than five million copies. Bing Crosby and Lionel Hampton also recorded versions of the song. Joe Willie Perkins recorded “Pine Top’s Boogie” in 1950 and became so associated with the song that he was later known as “Pinetop” Perkins. As acoustic, then electric, guitar players emulated the boogie-woogie rhythm, it became a crucial component in the birth of rock and roll. In 1967, a memorial statue designed by Claes Oldenburg was erected near the site of his death. Smith was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1991. One of his talking recordings, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” was featured on a 2000 Yazoo Records compilation, The Roots of Rap: Classic Recordings from the 1920s and 30s.

Smith was buried in Restvale Cemetery near Chicago alongside many other blues greats, including Muddy Waters (born McKinley Morganfield), Earl Hooker, and Magic Sam (born Samuel Gene Maghett). As of 2021, his grave remains unmarked and there are no known photographs of him.

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