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..well I know some of the oldest songs that is - Furry Lewis, referring to John Henry and Casey Jones

Author Topic: Romeo Nelson  (Read 670 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Romeo Nelson
« on: May 17, 2012, 12:47:33 AM »
I note that Romeo Nelson died in Chicago this day 1974 aged 72. From the notes to Rugged Piano Classics - Origin OJL 15 (No date on record but was reviewed in Blues Unlimited 35, August 1966) I've extracted the following which may, or may not, be of interest. I just love Nelson's final comment.  ;)

We have, courtesy of Pete Welding of Downbeat Magazine and Testament Records, considerable original material on one musician: Romeo Nelson. This was developed in the course of an interview with Romeo conducted by Pete and Erwin Helfer in February, 1964. We present this information at length with the thought that Romeo Nelson's life and career are in many ways representative of those of the other artists on this record.

Romeo Nelson was born in 1902 in Springfield, Tenn, At the age of six, his mother moved to Chicago, taking Romeo and his brother with her. Romeo attended school there until 1915 when his family moved again -- to East St. Louis, Illinois, directly across the river from St. Louis proper. Here it was that Nelson became interested in music thru a man some years older than himself, remembered by Romeo as "Window", who played piano and sang in the taverns along the river front.

Romeo's family moved backed to Chicago in 1919 or so, soon after he had picked up on the piano, and the young man began to play around the city; he supported himself from that time until the 1940's, in fact, through a combination of music and gambling. His playing was confined mainly to house rent parties. These gigs netted him in the neighborhood of 15 or 20 dollars a week, putting him in the income bracket of an unskilled laborer.

It was while working house rent parties that Romeo ran into a number of other pianists around the city -- Clarence "Pinetop" Smith was particularly helpful to younger pianists, showing them figures on the keyboard; Romeo also remembers meeting and playing with such as Cow Cow Davenport and Clarence Lofton, as well as such unrecorded piano men as "Dollar Bill" and "Katy Red", These house rent parties in the Chicago area were exciting affairs, and extremely common in the 20's and 30's. Word would go around about the various parties to be held during the evening, and people would go to the houses where their favorite pianists would be playing. No admission was charged, but people paid for the food and spirits they consumed. The piano player was hired for a set fee by the person throwing the party. The celebrations would go on well into the small hours by which time the guests were all pretty drunk, Romeo recalled, "You could get away with anything -- just hit the keyboard with your elbows and fists, it didn?t make no difference to them, they were so drunk by then. But me, I wasn't a drinker -- didn't smoke neither -- so I used to play all the time I was working at one of those parties. In fact, that's where you get your ideas for new things. You try something out, and if you like it then you just work with it, until you have it all shaped up." Romeo was never much of a singer, he said, but it didn't matter much at the parties, because there was usually someone standing around the piano itching to sing himself. He remembers accompanying singer Red Nelson at some of the parties.

After Clarence Williams, who was an early influence on Nelson, via phonograph records, Romeo's fondest words were for Pinetop Smith, a man of great good humor and one eager to share his knowledge of the piano with others. Romeo said that the term "boogie woogie" was associated with the music that still bears the name only after Pinetop's record with that title in December 1928.

It was through the well-known Tampa Red that Romeo got to make his own records. Tampa was rooming in the home of Romeo's father-in-law. Mr. Foster, a native of Macon, Ga., as was Tampa Red. Tampa and Romeo got to be good friends, and one day the guitarist asked Romeo to accompany him to the studio while he cut come records for Mayo Williams. While there, Tampa urged Romeo to audition for Williams, Romeo recalled that he sat down at the piano and ran through a popular song, whereupon Williams asked him if he could play any blues or barrelhouse music. The pianist was happy to oblige and when he had finished playing, Williams told him he wanted to cut some stuff for him. On Thursday, Oct. 9, 1929, Nelson cut his classic performance of "Head Rag Hop" for Williams. The number was one he played at house rent parties which gave Tampa Red the idea of interjecting comments through the performance to simulate a party atmosphere.

Romeo recalled the big result of his recordings was that he began to command more money for playing house parties. After his records came out, he did play a few taverns in Chicago, among them the Subway, Tip Top, and Swan Clubs, all on the South Side,

Romeo continued his playing-gambling career until World War II, when he gave up the life for the steadier one of a regular job. He first did construction work, and then settled down to the less demanding trade of janitor, one he has stuck to ever since. "I never was much for hard work," he stated, "that's why I took up the piano in the first place."

Offline banjochris

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Re: Romeo Nelson
« Reply #1 on: May 17, 2012, 09:44:04 AM »
Thanks for this! Such a shame he only recorded four sides and didn't keep playing.

Offline harry

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Re: Romeo Nelson
« Reply #2 on: May 17, 2012, 11:11:09 AM »
Thanks, This should be of interest on this site. It is to me anyway.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Romeo Nelson
« Reply #3 on: May 17, 2012, 11:15:23 AM »
I wonder how much interviewing Pete Welding and Erwin Helfer did. Be great to see more of it than the tantalizing bits in these notes. Erwin himself is full of great stories about meeting (and playing with) the old players.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Romeo Nelson
« Reply #4 on: May 17, 2012, 12:17:40 PM »
Erwin himself is full of great stories about meeting (and playing with) the old players.
When Erwin was the UK in October 1973 touring with the Chicago Blues Festival I spent quite sometime talking with him. He was 37 at the time and, quite rightly, held very forthright views concerning the treatment of black musicians in Chicago, especially the way they were patronised by white fans. He also berated Living Blues over a "racist editorial" which he said he had written to them about but they refused to publish the letter. He left an indelible imprint on my psyche.  :o
« Last Edit: May 17, 2012, 12:19:43 PM by Bunker Hill »

 


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