Piano Red

If Ya Ever Been Rocked, You Know Just What I Mean

Piano Red has been called by many the grandfather of rock ‘n’ roll. Some say he was the originator. The first. For years he was an Atlanta gem, obscured by the smoky windowpanes of Muhlenbrink’s Saloon in Underground Atlanta. The 1970s Underground Atlanta. Not today’s gentrified Mall Cop version, but the exciting, rough Underground where live music blasted from dark and dingy clubs, drunken tourists carelessly tripped down the cobblestone streets and locals would venture for real entertainment. It could’ve been Atlanta’s French Quarter, but crime got the best of it.

Before the pickpockets and the knife-welding thugs won, the shining light, the reason for heading to Underground Atlanta if you were a member of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton or any one of a number of other touring British musicians, was to see Piano Red, “Dr. Feelgood,” as he called himself, “the man who made people happy with his music.”

Born William Perryman, October 19, 1911, with albinism, this son of a sharecropper took his stage name from the instrument he played and the color of his skin. The career he started in Atlanta, playing with contemporaries like Blind Willie McTell and his own brother, Speckled Red, forged a sound that people are still rockin’ and a-boppin’ to today.

It was in the Spring of 1979 that Red and I first met, though I knew him years earlier from his music, and had spent more than a few nights at Muhlenbrink’s. We got together that afternoon for what we thought would be a quick interview. It ended up lasting well into the evening hours, him telling me stories about his past, remembering events that happened decades ago as if they had occurred just yesterday. At 67, and until his death in 1985, Red was as clear and as sharp as a man half his age, his youthfulness, he claimed, retained by his lifelong dedication to music. With a resounding voice he would laugh about his life, from a time when no one ever even imagined life in the U.S. without segregation, let alone the integration of Black and White music, to the (then) present, when some of the world’s best-known contemporary rock ‘n’ roll musicians began seeking him out, to pay tribute, and, to genuflect at the hands of the originator of the music to which they’d dedicated their own lives.

Abraham J. Kamor, the Director of Leasing for the current Underground Atlanta, remembers well Piano Red’s days at Muhlenbrink’s Saloon. “Muhlenbrink’s was on Lower Pryor Street, near what is now Johnny Rocket’s and the entrance to the food court. You used to walk in the front door and he sat at an upright piano to the left. He was a great musician, sitting in the window, banging at the keys. One of the greats, a true icon.”

Kamor not only remembers Red from Muhlenbrink’s, but years prior, when the piano man was a customer at Kamor’s father’s clothing shop. “He used to buy his tuxedos at my father’s store, Fashion Tailors, at 11 Edgewood Avenue. He would come in and pick out pink tuxedos…a lot of groups would come in. I remember The Platters,” Kamor continues, listing many R&B groups from yesterday’s hit parade who shopped where Red got his pink, powder blue and other brightly-colored tuxedos that, for years, were the mainstay of Red’s stage attire.

It was during the last decade-plus of his life that Red started to capitalize on the foundation he had laid over the decades. Through the foresight of others, and his own pride, Dr. Feelgood, the man who once seemed relegated to being a piece of Atlanta nostalgia at best, or a novelty at worst, moved center stage. He exchanged his pastel tuxedos for brown tweeds and a more contemporary wardrobe. He spent more time touring outside of Atlanta, and accepting invitations to perform at festivals in Europe, like the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, where response to his set demanded the release of a live album.

After Muhlenbrink’s Saloon closed, and Underground Atlanta stood empty a second time, Red took up temporary residence in Atlanta at the Excelsior Mill (the current Masquerade), an old mill on North Avenue that had been converted into a bar/restaurant and concert hall by two brothers, Rocky and Mike Reeves.

It is from one of those nights in 1984 that a new CD, The Lost Atlanta Tapes, has emerged. Mike Reeves, a longtime stalwart of Atlanta music who was also owned the Peanut Palace and the Cotton Club, and now co-owns Smith’s Olde Bar, had the foresight to record Red, issuing a limited run of some of the music captured on tape by engineer Tomas Valenti. Having newly “discovered” the original master tapes of the ten songs first released, along with other masters long thought lost, this new collection adds a new chapter to Red’s legacy, capturing not only the spirit that was so much a part of Red’s life, but the roots of rock ‘n’ roll.

“Rockin’ With Red,” Red’s first single, which ushered in the ’50s and a new sound, is included here, as are other Perryman-penned compositions important to the Piano Red canon, most notably “The Right String (But The Wrong Yo-Yo)” and “Dr. Feelgood,” songs in which Red doesn’t just tickle the ivories, but pounds them. The inclusion of the eight “new” tracks broadens the familiar Piano Red repertoire, adding barrelhouse boogie, New Orleans swing, and some rollicking honky-tonk into his blues and rock mix. In fact, while some of the cuts of the first release may have been included because they were more popular or familiar to Piano Red fans, it’s the “previously unreleased” material that now stands out. “She’s Mine,” “Baby, Please Don’t Go” and “Shake, That’s All Right,” all Perryman originals, are the real thing. And Red’s rendition of Huddie Ledbetter’s “Cotton Fields”? You just don’t hear such things anymore.

Backed by George Miller on bass and James Jackson on drums, two musicians who seem to have long disappeared, The Lost Atlanta Tapes proves the trio a tight and cohesive unit, with Red squarely at the helm. The CD is also a moving testament to Red’s belief in the power of music and the deep spiritual well from which he drew his inspiration. In fact, that belief resonates in each and every one of his 18 performances here.

“I meditates a lot,” Red confessed to me over thirty years ago. “I found out over a period of years that stuff is coming from God, not me. I used to think I was doing it. It takes quite a while sometimes for you to go into those things (a meditative state) because if you hear some of the sounds around you, you can’t go into these things. But when you go into these things, whatever you might call it, why it’s just like you in that music world. And then you can think of things, have in mind what you want to write about. And the words will come to you. Just as plain as day. And then when you come out, you has to put it down right then. If you don’t, you’ll forget it. It won’t come back to you. I used to go down in the basement when I came home from work, everybody asleep, ain’t no phone to ring. That’s the best time to get it. But, it come in when it get ready, not when you want it to. Sometimes you may have to go back upstairs, go to sleep, wait for another night. But you can tell when it’s comin’ in. It’s just like a person”

Despite the gold records he was awarded, the acclaim he received, including being inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1983 and receiving the group’s Pioneer Award, Red told me there was one thing he hoped to achieve. “I just wish I could explain in words what music will do. But they’ll have to listen to know what I’m really talking about.” Through recordings like The Lost Atlanta Tapes, we can still listen – and we know.

Live photo of Piano Red courtesy of Tony Paris Archives.