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Author Topic: Cripple Clarence Lofton - Obituary  (Read 2149 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Cripple Clarence Lofton - Obituary
« on: July 18, 2007, 10:05:59 AM »
Given the enthusiastic discussion of Cripple Clarence Lofton elsewhere I though folk might be interested to read the only obituary accorded to Lofton (Jazz Monthly, November 1957 p. 31-32). Should some of you find this familiar it's becuase over the years I've posted this to various internet groups (under different monikers) in a vain attempt to raise "Lofton awareness".

Cripple Clarence Lofton In Memoriam
Albert J. McCarthy

The death at Cook County Hospital, Chicago, on January 9, 1957, of the boogie woogie pioneer "Cripple" Clarence Lofton has occasioned little comment even in the specialist jazz magazines. There was a reference to it in Jazz Hot and a short column in Record Research, but the fact does not apparently rate a line in Down Beat or in the other mass circulation musical journals. One more link with the past has gone and the era in which Lofton flourished seems even remoter from us in time than it really is. There is an aspect of this matter which I shall mention later, but for the moment I want to assemble the pitifully few facts known about this flamboyant and eccentric personality.

Lofton was born in a small town in Tennessee on March 28, 1896 according to Mr. Erwin Helfer, who contributed the piece on his death in Record Research. It is not certain when he moved to Chicago, but it can have been no later than the mid-'twenties. Mr. Helfer suggests that the possibility of work in the Chicago vicinity may have attracted him there in the first instance, for Lofton had said that he was seldom paid for any recording sessions and his club work was hardly of the type that would earn him much money. However, it is obvious from the references to him made by William Russell in his chapter on Boogie Woogie in the book Jazzmen, that he did manage to eke out some sort of existence through playing, for at least the period when Russell was in contact with him. I make no apology for quoting from Russell once more, for the truth of the matter is that it is about the only source of information on Lofton to which one can refer. Here is what he says on page 196-7 of Jazzmen, on Lofton's performance:?

"No one can complain of Clarence's lack of variety or versatility. When he really gets going he's a three-ring circus. During one number, he plays, sings, whistles a chorus, and snaps his fingers with the technique of a Spanish dancer to give further percussive accompaniment to his blues. At times he turns sideways, almost with his back to the piano as he keeps pounding away at the keyboard and stomping his feet, meanwhile continuing to sing and shout at his audience or his drummer. Suddenly in the middle of a number he jumps up, his hands clasped in front of him, and walks around the piano stool, and then, unexpectedly, out booms a vocal break in a bass voice from somewhere. One second later, he has turned and is back at the keyboard, both hands flying at lightning-like pace. His actions and facial expressions are as intensely dramatic and exciting as his music."

A little later, Russell gives some idea of the sort of life that Lofton led:?

"Almost as soon as he walks in a place, he takes over the show and is sitting at the piano strutting his stuff. Or else he has found a girl, and is tearing up the dance floor. In spite of being lame, he could probably win a "shag" contest. Soon he leaves, and wanders down Chicago's dark streets until he comes to the next tavern or club that has a piano. Finally the dawn catches up on Clarence and he hurries home to bed to be ready for another big night."

This was written in 1938, and since that date I cannot recall seeing anything new about Lofton in print, other than a reference in a now defunct U.S. magazine concerning the 1943 Session recordings which were, as it happened, to be his last. In the 'twenties and 'thirties he was a formidable figure in the cutting contests which took place on Chicago's South Side, but the gradual decline of interest in authentic boogie and the disappearance of the rent parties and the environment which fostered the music led to his retirement from the scene. In his later years he suffered from poor health and his last wife, Estelle Lofton has survived him.

Totally inadequate as these bare facts are when considering Lofton's life, they are still less sketchy than the known facts of some of his colleagues such as Romeo Nelson, Bozo Nickerson and Will Ezell. The truth is that the boogie music of the 'twenties is very poorly documented and that no consistent effort has been made by jazz critics or collectors in America to search for the facts. Yet, even though neglect may be deplorable on a human level, it probably accounts in part for the fact that Lofton's work maintained a purity throughout the years that is almost unique. I have commented on a number of occasions that boogie woogie is a form that seldom survives contact with the concert platform, for divorced from a function (essentially that of providing a background for dancing )it loses its strength and becomes diluted and unimaginative. Anyone familiar with the earliest work of Meade Lux Lewis, to name one example, must be saddened by the mechanical formula which has replaced the creativity of his Blue Note period. Lofton and Yancey, although dissimilar artists, both retained the creative element in their work to the end, and both missed the opportunity of playing at concerts or fashionable night clubs.

Lofton must rank as one of the finest boogie pianists. Stylistically a primitive, his playing was marked by a savage intensity that has only been equalled by Speckled Red. There was a sombre, almost sinister side to his work, exemplified by such solos as Had a dream and South End Boogie (readers interested in release numbers of sides mentioned are asked to refer to the discography which follows), and within the field in which he operated he was an imaginative performer. Like Yancey (a blues pianist rather than a pure boogie man) his themes were limited in number, yet he could always create fresh and interesting variations on familiar material. Perhaps his most famous number is Streamline Train which, ironically enough, has recently become popular in a skiffle version. This was first heard in embryo as On the wall, a title he recorded in 1930 with a good blues singer, Louise Johnson. The definitive version is on Solo Art, but one almost equally as good can be heard on either the Vogue LP or EP, originally recorded for Session. Careful listening to this track will reveal an unsuspected complexity and variety in the different choruses and it also employs, at one point, a favourite device of Lofton's?the reiteration of a single treble note to give added percussive force to the solo. The same characteristic is found on I don't know which first saw the light of day as Strut that thing. This side is typical of Lofton in its abrupt switch of ideas, for if he thought up a new variation he would often stop in mid chorus and start developing the latest one! The fives also repays careful listening, for there is a logic in the relentless building up of the solo that is impressive. In some ways this is more formal in structure than most of Lofton's recorded sides. South end boogie is, in its field, a minor masterpiece. The left hand is rock-like and provides a striking contrast to the right hand with its treble variations, while the effect of the whole piece, gaunt and forbidding, is almost hypnotic. Of a similar pattern is Had a dream, another rather sombre theme. Pinetop s boogie woogie has none of the lightness and humour of the original version, but becomes something of a tour de force in Lofton's hands. It is perhaps somewhat unfortunate that the London LP, derived from Solo Art initially, does not show Lofton at his best. The four sides originally issued on that label would make a fine half of an LP in the London "Origins of Jazz" series, and suitable couplings could be found. Fortunately, the Vogue LP is very good and remains one of the finest boogie records available.

Lofton was an excellent accompanist, as collectors who know his sides with Bumble Bee Slim, Louise Johnson and Red Nelson will be aware. His vocals were in the humorous fashion characteristic of so many of the pianists who were in Chicago during the heyday of the rent party era. However, it is as a soloist that Lofton's fame will largely rest, and it is a pity that so few examples of his playing are available.

It is a sad commentary on the state of jazz appreciation that Lofton did not record once during the current recording boom. It seems essential, as the pioneers pass on one by one, that those who remain should be given the opportunity to record at leisure and that their reminiscences should also be taped. Huge gaps exist in our knowledge of various facets of jazz, yet no serious attempt is being made to contact the ever dwindling group of musicians who can help fill in the particulars. Surely the profits from such functions as the Newport Jazz Festival could be usefully employed in the formation of a trust whose responsibility it would be to aid researchers into the history of jazz, and in building up a library of records, both musical and documentary, of a nature which the commercial companies will not undertake ? The time for this is already late, but unless something of the nature is planned at once there seems little hope of ever gathering the material which is so essential to form a clear picture of jazz in its many stages. At this moment, Luckey Roberts, well known ragtime pioneer, and Speckled Red, to name only two musicians, are alive and active. Both deserve to be recorded in the manner of the Jelly Roll Morton Library of Congress sides and there is little doubt that what they could tell us would be of considerable interest. Little help can be expected from certain of the more famous U.S. critics who seem to he intent purely on commercial gain, but there are still plenty of collectors who would help in such a venture if they could receive some financial aid. It does not seem unreasonable that a small fraction of the money made on jazz today should be devoted to research. Whether anything will, in fact, be organised, is quite another matter.

Lofton died as he lived?in obscurity. In seventeen years of recording he made only forty sides. Some years ago a collector who lived in Chicago told me that he possessed quite a few private pressings by Lofton. Unfortunately, subsequent moves resulted in the loss of his letter and I am now unable to recall his name. However, there is a slender clue here, which if followed up by enthusiasts on the spot, may bring some interesting sides to light. Certainly Lofton was deserving of more than the neglect that was his lot throughout much of his lifetime?although a minor figure in the history of the music as a whole, it should not be forgotten that it was through such men, that jazz reached the position which it holds today. The simplicity and vitality of a Lofton may yet hold lessons for others.


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Re: Cripple Clarence Lofton - Obituary
« Reply #1 on: July 18, 2007, 01:55:05 PM »
You're right, that sure interested me, I wasn't even sure when he died before now, thanks for posting this!

Offline dj

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Re: Cripple Clarence Lofton - Obituary
« Reply #2 on: July 18, 2007, 02:42:42 PM »
collectors who know his sides with Bumble Bee Slim, Louise Johnson and Red Nelson

As Blues & Gospel Records states, Lofton claimed to be the accompanist on Louise Johnson's recordings, but Son House insisted that she accompanied herself.  If it was Lofton, one wonders what he was doing in Grafton in 1930 and why he didn't record anything else at the time.  If it was Johnson, one wonders how Lofton knew the records, as they can't have been big sellers.

I guess it's no longer considered that Lofton ever accompanied Bumble Bee Slim.  Does anyone know which of Slim's records Lofton was thought to have played on back in 1957? 


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