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Boogie Woogie Piano

n a period when jazz meant rhythm and the music

was played mostly for dancing, solo pianists were
constantly searching for ways to attract attention.
Those with less musical skill than Art Tatum - and that
includes almost everybody who ever played the piano
had trouble trying to compete with the big bands to win
the approval of the dance-crazy public.
Some discovered they could please dancers with a
fast-paced blues style. They added repeated eighth notes
in the bass line rather than quarter notes and repeated
figures, often mterspersed with single-note runs, with
the right hand. The style came to be known as "boogie
woogie." Two of its most important boogie boogie
pianists had strong ties to Cleveland.

Cow COW Davenport

Cow Cow Davenport

One of the earliest

blues piano players,
Cow Cow Davenport,
moved to Cleveland in
1930 and spent the last
25 years of his life here
after playing in New
Orleans ' historic
Storyville district ,
performing with Bessie
Smith, and composing a
number of songs ,
including some that
became boogie woogie

Charles Davenport was born in Anniston, Alabama
in 1894, one ofeight children of a minister and a church
organist. He taught himself to play the organ and began
taking piano lessons at the age of 12. His religious
parents objected to his playing blues and ragtime. "So,
whenever I'd get a chance," he once told an interviewer,
"I would slip away from my home to practice on some
neighbor' s piano." He said his grandmother had always
told him that if he disobeyed his parents, "The boogie
man would get him." He began calling his piano music
"boogie music."
When Davenport was 16, his parents, fed up with his
interest in ragtime piano, sent him to the Alabama
Theological Seminary. He was promptly expelled for
playing ragtime or "boogie music."
He went to Birmingham and began playing for dancers
at honky tonk joints. When they began dancing to his
piano styles, he started calling his music boogie-woogie.
When he was 20, Davenport went to Atlanta and got
jobs playing piano at bars and brothels. Within several
years, he was touring the South with a carnival tent
show, playing in the Storyville section of New Orleans,

and working with Bessie Smith on the vaudeville circuit.

In his late 20s, Cow Cow teamed up with singer Dora
Carr. After playing theatres in the South, they went north
(in 1923) to Pittsburgh and New York City. He said, "I
went directly to the Okeh record company and they sent
me to Clarence Williams. I began to record my numbers
and Clarence began to publish them. One ofthe first was
"Cow Cow Blues." He later recalled, "I was trying to
imitate a train and originally called the song the 'Railroad
Blues. ' I was trying to get in a part where the switchman
boarded the train from the cow-catcher on the front ofthe
locomotive. The word ' cow' somehow stuck with me."
He later began referring to himself as "Cow Cow."
Davenport claimed his 1923 recording of "Cow Cow
Blues" was the first boogie woogie recording. Long
before the boogie woogie craze of the late 1930s and
early ' 40s, Davenport took the basic 12-bar blues and
added an eight-to-the-bar left hand bass line.
He made dozens of records as a leader and as a
singer, including "J Ain't No Iceman." Another early
song which he co-composed was "I'll Be Glad When
You' re Dead, You Rascal You." The Davenport song
became a classic vehicle for Louis Armstrong.
Davenport also made a number of piano rolls of his
primitive style. He carried dozens of rolls in the trunk
of his car and sold them at his performances, just as
many o$er musicians later sold their records, tapes and
CDs at gigs. With his record and piano roll sales, Cow
Cow was making more money than he had ever made
before and later said, "I had to go back home and show
off." He said he " showed off (his singer) Dora (Carr)
too much and somebody took her away from me."
By 1927, Davenport found another musical partner
named Ivy Smith. They spent a great deal of time
performing in Chicago.
One night in the late 1920s in Pittsburgh, Davenport
said he met a pianist named Pinetop Smith, who, in
Davenport's words, "was trying to copy my piano style."
Smith was also calling his piano music "boogie woogie,"
but, according to Davenport, "Smith really didn 't know
what he was playing." Ironically, in the mid-1930s,
Smith ' s "Pinetop' s Boogie" became the first widely
recognized example ofthe boogie woogie style. Smith' s
song was recorded by Bing Crosby and it triggered
national interest in the style. The Tommy Dorsey big
band made a record of "Boogie Woogie" and it sold
more than four million copies. It became the most
popular of Dorsey' s many hit records.
While the music of his younger admirer was being
played nationally, Davenport was having trouble making
a living as an entertainer. In 1930 (at the age of36), he
moved to Cleveland where his sister lived and opened a
record shop. He continued to compose and tried to tour


Cleveland Jazz History

several more times, but his popularity was fading and he

was forced to sell his tour bus. At one point, he opened
a cafe in Cleveland.
In the 1940s, several of Davenport's old songs were
resurrected. In the midst ofthe boogie woogie boom, Ella
Mae Morse, Ella Fitzgerald, and others made hit records
of his best remembered song, "Cow Cow Boogie."
After Davenport finally achieved some national
attention, he was afflicted with a partial paralysis that all
but deprived him ofthe use ofhis right hand. Unable to
play, he went to New York City in 1942, and worked as
a washroom attendant at the famous Onyx Club, a
citadel of bebop, on 52nd Street.
After regaining the use of his hand, he played a
number of local gigs in Cleveland and married a singer
named Peggy Taylor who also happened to be a snake
charmer. Newspaperman Julian Krawcheck, who had
formed a jazz organization called the Hot Club of
Cleveland, invited Davenport to play at some of the
club' s sessions at the Cabin Club at East 105th and
Euclid. "He must have been in his late 50s," recalled
Krawcheck, "but he looked to be in his 60s."
"One night, he brought his wife to sing and she
brot!ght a snake with her! Oh, my God," recalled
Krawcheck, "I was scared to death! 1 didn't know what
to do. 1 wanted to stop the music and tell the people to
run like hell!" Krawcheck said Davenport' s wife was
never invited back.
In the early 1950s, Davenport and his wife became
involved in theatrical productions at Cleveland' s
Karamu House.
Davenport died of hardening of the arteries in 1955
at the age of 61 at his home on East 92nd Street in
Cleveland. He was buried in Cleveland's Evergreen
Davenport never won the wide recognition he
probably deserved as an early pioneer of jazz piano, a
developer of the boogie boogie style, and as the
composer of several classic jazz songs.

Freddie Slack
Probably the most popular boogie woogie piano
player of the 1930s and '40s, Freddie Slack, a native of
La Crosse, Wisconsin, came to Cleveland in 1935 to
play with the Ben Pollack Orchestra at the Mayfair
Casino, a plush nightclub in the Ohio Theatre Building
on Euclid Avenue. A year later, Slack left the Pollack
band and joined Jimmy Dorsey' s Orchestra which
included Cleveland trumpeter George Thow and
drummer Ray McKinley.
In 1939, McKinley teamed up with trombonist

Will Bradley to form a

new big band and hired
Slack to play piano and
arrange. With so many
big bands playing at the
time, success for the
new Will Bradley-Ray
McKinley band
depended on a
distinctive sound. The
Bob Crosby Orchestra
had become popular by
playing big band
arrangements of
Freddie Slack
dixieland jazz.
McKinley and Slack had heard Cow Cow Davenport,
Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and others playing
boogie woogie with small groups and wondered how a
big band would sound playing boogie woogie jazz. They
decided to experiment with the eight-to-the-bar form.
McKinley remembered, "We were playing one of
those songs one night at the Famous Door and two
songwriters were there. There was a part where I had a
drum break, and for some reason or other, instead of
playing the break, I sang out,
Oh, beat me, daddy, eight to the bar!
After the set, McKinley said one of the songwriters
"called me over to the table and asked if they could
write a song using the vocal break."
"Beat Me, Daddy, Eight to the Bar," composed by
Don Raye and Hughie Prince and played by the Will
Bradley Orchestra with drummer Ray McKinley and
pianist Slack became a big national hit. The band quickly
made a series of other popular big band boogie woogie
records including "Fry Me, Cookie, With a Can ofLard,"
"Scrub Me, Mama, With a Boogie Beat," and "Bounce
Me, Brother, With a Solid Four." Slack became the
national personification ofthe boogie woogie piano style.
Two years later (in 1941), Slack formed his own
band, but he had little success until he hired a singer he
had met with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. Ella Mae
Morse's recordings with Slack's band of Davenport's
"Cow Cow Boogie" and "Blacksmith Blues" helped put
the new Capitol Record Company in the black.
Slack appeared in two Hollywood movies but gave
up the band business in the early 1950s.
In August of 1965, at the age of 55, Slack was found
dead in his Hollywood apartment ofundetermined causes.
It was 30 years after he had come to Cleveland to play at
the Mayfair Casino and 25 years after he had become the
most popular boogie woogie piano player in the country.