Personalities | Albert Ammons | Thirties | Jazz & Blues

Albert Clifton Ammons was born in Chicago, Illinois in March 1907. As a young man he learned from Jimmy Yancey, who cast a long shadow over Chicago blues pianists through his work at rent parties, social functions and after-hours jobs.

Ammons came to know other pianists and the blues specialists gathered together in Chicago to create a coterie, echoing what was happening with the stride pianists in Harlem. Among the Chicago group, in addition to Yancey, were Clarence ‘Pine Top’ Smith, Jimmy Blythe, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Hersal Thomas and Ammons’ close friend Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis. Ammons was the youngest of these men and he learned from all of them. He also drew inspiration from stride-piano great Fats Waller, a major star in black entertainment circles. Lewis and Smith had recorded boogie in the 1920s, and among blues pianists boogie-woogie, with its eight-beats-to-the-bar pattern in the left hand, became an adjunct to the basic style.

Ammons’ Big Break

Ammons worked at jobs outside music, led his own swing combos and played with other bandleaders until his big break: a residency at the Club DeLisa, the most important nightspot on Chicago’s South Side. This engagement, which began in 1935, led to his discovery by John Hammond and his first recordings, for Decca, in February 1936.

In 1938, Ammons was invited to appear in New York for Hammond’s Spirituals To Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. He served as accompanist to Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Bill Broonzy, and had his own feature number, ‘Boogie Woogie’. He was also teamed with Lewis and Kansas City pianist Pete Johnson for two selections, ‘Jumpin’ Blues’ and ‘Cavalcade Of Boogie’. The audience response, which can be heard on the Vanguard recording of the event, was a clear indicator that boogie-woogie had arrived. The occasion also served as a launch pad for this trio of pianists.

The Boogie-Woogie Trio

Ammons, Johnson and Lewis were linked for several years; they appeared in duo or trio settings, occasionally with the addition of vocalist Big Joe Turner, and recorded for Vocalion, Blue Note and Victor. They toured the US, using Café Society in New York as a base, and also appeared in movies and on radio broadcasts. In the autumn of 1941, Ammons and Johnson had two half-hour radio shows per week on WABC in New York.

The Rhythm Kings

In 1944, during his final extended New York engagement, Albert Ammons recorded two sessions for the Commodore label. One was a solo date, while the other involved an all-star aggregation billed as Albert Ammons & His Rhythm Kings – the same name that Ammons had used on his first recording session. When he returned to Chicago the following year, he signed with the brand-new Mercury label and began a new series of Rhythm Kings recordings. Until this time, the thematic material used in boogie-woogie was usually the blues or simple, riff-based melodies; Ammons, however, began to adapt his thundering left-hand patterns to pop...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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