Willie Smith was born Henry Joseph Bonaparte
Bertholoff on November 25, 1897 in Goshen New
Son of Frank Bertholoff and Ida Oliver.
Raised in Newark New Jersey.
Willie was a pianist
who stood at the
center of the New
York City jazz world
during the 1920s.
Willie’s Finger Buster
He performed at the
nightclubs in New York
neighborhood. He also
He is known as a pioneer of stride piano, which
was the first important solo piano style in the
Stride piano is a style of jazz piano playing in which
the right hand plays the melody while the left hand
plays a single bass note or octave on the strong beat
and a chord on the weak beat.
He is less well known than the other pianists of
the 1920s such as James P. Johnson and
Thomas P. “Fats” Waller. This was only
because he made few recordings under his
own name until later in his career.
Smith’s musical life began when he found an
organ missing half its keys in the basement of
the family home, and began trying to imitate
the music he heard his mother play in church.
At this time he was about 6.
His Uncle Rob gave him some pointers, and he
began hearing ragtime hits from Scott Joplin’s
“Maple Leaf Rag” and George Botsford’s “Black
and White Rag.”
Maple Leaf Rag
Ragtime piano is rhythm in which the
accompaniment is strict two-four time and the
melody, with improvised embellishments, is in
In search of bigger things Smith moved to
Atlantic City, New Jersey. He heard ragtime
pianist Eubie Blake, and it wasn’t long before
he was making trips into New York City to hear
other piano players.
His career was interrupted when he was enlisted
in the U.S. army in 1916 and became an
artillery gunner. His unit was sent to France
where he dodged poison-gas canisters and
inspired an officer to say, “Smith, you’re a lion
with that gun.” And from there on he was
known as Willie “The Lion” Smith.
After his war duties
were over he
landed a job at a
club, Leroy’s. He
would play solo
d on any given
night some of the
Robinson or Bert
Smith’s 78 rpm record
that Mamie Smith
made, “Crazy Blues,”
is generally regarded
as the first blues
recording. It became
a bestseller and
started a decade-
long trend in blues
vocal recordings by
Edward Kennedy “Duke”
Ellington was a pianist
who looked up to
Willie. He later wrote
the introduction to
Ellington declared that:
“the Lion has been the greatest
influence on most of the great piano players
who have been exposed to his fire, harmonic
lavishness, his stride–what a luxury. Fats
Waller, James P. Johnson, Count Basie, Donald
Lambert, Joe Turner, Sam Ervis and of course I
swam in it. Even the great Art Tatum showed
strong patterns of Willie Smithisms after being
exposed to the Lion”
New jazz trends had overshadowed Smith’s
status as a top jazz attraction. He had an
interest in classical music and took classical
piano and theory lessons from a German
immigrant, Hans Steinke, in the 1930s.
He began to write short, classical-influenced
original compositions, to which he turned
when he finally got the chance to record.
After making some small-band records
with a group he called Willie the Lion Smith
and His Cubs in 1935, he was signed to the
Commodore label and in 1939 released the
group of sides for which he was best
Several were Smith originals, with names like
"Passionette" and "Echoes of Spring"--little
tone poems on the piano that mixed jazz
elements with classical harmonies.
His solo recordings from
1939 are often
reckoned to be his
finest work, but he
went on making discs
well into the 1960s and
beyond, some of them
including his own
spoken comments and
repartee, as he
playing at the keyboard.
His fame spread when
Artie Shaw and
arrangements of his
toured Europe in 1949
and again in the mid
'60s; appeared in the
film Jazz Dance in
1954 and wrote his
memoirs, Music On
My Mind in '65.
Willie “The Lion” Smith lived
through six decades of music
and, despite the changes in
musical styles over those
years; he remained true to
himself and his own style.
He recorded a final album in Paris in June 1972
and played right up until his death in April
1973. Today, his spirit and his legacy still live
on through his music.
"All About Jazz." musicians.allaboutjazz. All About Jazz, 25 Nov 2010. Web. 2 Aug
"Dictionary.com." Dictionary.reference. Dictionary.com. Web. 2 Aug 2013.
Hoefer, George. "Willie the Lion Smith Biography." musicianguide.com. Net
Industries, n.d. Web. 24 Jul 2013.