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Boogie-Woogie Flu Sufferers, Unite

Music commentator and admitted carrier of the "Boogie-Woogie Flu," Mitch Myers, takes us on an audio tour of the history of this unique American musical genre.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

And I'm Rebecca Roberts.

Want to boogie? That term has become slang with many meanings. But it started out meaning something very specific.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia Of Rock & Roll states that the term boogie derives from the jazz-based boogie-woogie, a piano style that featured a hot rhythm based on eight to the bar figures played with the left hand.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: Commentator Mitch Myers was recently bitten by the boogie-woogie bug. And was inspired to put this story together.

Mr. MITCH MYERS (Music Commentator): Me? Yeah, I got it bad, meaning good. No I'm not talking about Iraq and pneumonia. I'm talking about the boogie-woogie flu. It's been going around for nearly a century and it's still highly contagious.

According to late musicologist Bob Palmer, West African words bugger(ph) and bug meant to beat as in to beat on a drum. This, Palmer argued, could be the linguistic route of the American term boogie.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MYERS: The slang boogie-woogie most likely evolved from booger rooger(ph), a phrase first coined by Texas blues Blind Lemon Jefferson. Booger rooger referred to an old-fashioned rent party, or just a wild musical good time.

(Soundbite of song, "Pinetop's Boogie-Woogie")

MYERS: Pinetop's boogie-woogie was the first boogie tune to become a hit.

(Soundbite of "Pinetop's Boogie-Woogie")

Mr. MYERS: This song was recorded in the 1928 by Clarence "Pinetop" Smith. Smith hailed from Alabama but settled in Chicago. For a time, "Pinetop" lived in the same rooming house as two other piano players: Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. All three men drove cabs for a living but they were serious musicians. And Pinetop showed the other two his timeless boogie-woogie.

Mr. CLARENCE SMITH (Jazz Pianist): And listen to you all, this is my parents' half stroke(ph). I want everybody to dance just like I tell you.

Mr. MYERS: Now if you listen to Lux Lewis' "Honky Tonk Train Blues," you can hear how boogie-woogie echoed the railroad rhythms of old steam locomotives from the early 20th century.

(Soundbite of "Honky Tonk Train Blues")

Mr. MYERS: Two fisted boogie-woogie was all the rage by the late 1930s. Pinetop Smith had died of a gunshot wound in Chicago by then so the top boogie piano players were Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Kansas City's own, Pete Johnson.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MYERS: The jumping boogie sound even made it into high society when those three, calling themselves the Boogie-Woogie Trio, performed at Carnegie Hall for the now famous Spiritual Swing Concert in 1938.

(Soundbite of music)

MR. MYERS: And these same boogie rhythms eventually became the building blocks of rock 'n' roll. You can hear it on the ruckus arrival of one Jerry Lee Lewis on Sun Records.

(Soundbite of song, "Lewis Boogie")

Mr. JERRY LEE LEWIS (Singer): (Singing) My name is Jerry Lee Lewis, I come from Louisiana. I'm gonna do you a little boogie on this here piano, doing mighty fine, I'm gonna make you shake it, I'll make you do it and make you do it until you break it, it's called the Lewis boogie, in the Lewis way, Lord, I do my little boogie woogie every day.

Mr. MYERS: In "Hellfire," Nick Tosches' biography of Jerry Lee, Nick recounts the scene where young Lewis was playing a Pentecostal hymn at a chapel service, and the preacher shot him a glance of reproach for he was playing it boogie-woogie style. And he beat the boogie so hard there was nothing left of the hymn, nothing but the sounds of the Holy Ghost that inspired it.

(Soundbite of song, "Lewis Boogie")

Mr. LEWIS: (Singing) It's good, this way. I'm going to do my little boogie-woogie everyday.

Mr. MYERS: Even before Jerry Lee and the dawning of rock 'n' roll, boogie-woogie was shifting away from the piano to electric guitar. Scaling down was chugging wrist this to an even simpler, more repetitive style. The most famous boogie man of all time is John Lee Hooker, whose primal "Boogie Chillen" was a hit in the modern record label in 1948.

(Soundbite of song, "Boogie Chillen")

Mr. JOHN LEE HOOKER (Singer) (Singer): One night, I was laying down, I heard mama and papa talking. I heard papa tell mama to let that boy boogie-woogie, because it hit him and it had to come out. Well, I felt so good and I went on boogie-woogie just the same, yes.

MYERS: John Lee's fanatical one-chord stomps and haunting stream of consciousness boogies have inspired musicians like Van Morrison, ZZ Top and Los Lobos. One boogie band from the 1960s was Canned Heat and they took John Lee Hooker as their own personal savior.

(Soundbite of song, "On The Road Again")

Mr. BOB HITE (Vocalist, Canned Heat): Well, I'm so tired of crying, but I'm out on the road again, I'm on the road again, well, I'm so tired of crying, but I'm out on the road again. I'm on the road again...

Mr. MYERS: Canned Heat boogied the world over including an appearance at the original Woodstock Festival in 1969 where they played what else? The "Woodstock Boogie." The Heat even made recordings with John Lee Hooker, establishing their own claim to the boogie throne.

In the 1970s, heavy rock groups grabbed the boogie and ran wild. Bands like Black Oak Arkansaw, Foghat and ZZ Top altered boogie to new, sometimes, ridiculous heights.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MYERS: Fully amplified and stretching their boogies into marathon concert performances, these groups brought boogie to the baby boomers who apparently liked what they heard.

(Soundbite of music)

MYERS: This was no boogie-woogie. Somewhere along the line of woogie was lost and became just plain old boogie. Catch phrases like born to boogie and boogie till you puke were soon transformed into songs.

(Soundbite of music)

MYERS: Disco tunes like "Boogie Nights" and "Boogie Oogie Oogie" had little in common with the original boogie-woogie style. Still, boogie is now an essential part of our nation's great musical lexicon. It can be found in hard rock, country music, rock-a-billie, rhythm & blues and Texas swing.

(Soundbite of song, "Hillbilly Boogie")

Mr. TOM CHAPLIN (Vocalist, Delmore Brothers): (Singing) We were just a plain old hillbilly band was the plain old country style, we'd never played the kind of songs that it drives anybody wild...

MYERS: Over the years, the Delmore Brothers performed "Hillbilly Boogie," Ella Fitzgerald sang "Cow Cow Boogie," and everyone from Louis Jordan to Asleep At the Wheel recorded "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie."

And please, no request for the "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B."

(Soundbite of music, "Luther Played the Boogie")

Mr. John Cash (Singer): (Singing) When the Luther plays the boogie woogie, Luther plays the boogie woogie, Luther plays the boogie woogie, Luther plays the boogie woogie, Luther plays the boogie woogie, Luther plays the boogie woogie, Luther plays the boogie woogie...

MYERS: In recent years, British rock revivals like Evan Lee and Jules Holland helped keep boogie alive. So did Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside, until he died in September 2005.

Throughout his noble career, Robert Lee Bernside, much like Alvin Lee, Jerry Lee, John Lee and all the other great boogiemen, unlocked the not-so-secret history of American roots music.

That is, R.L. boogied like he was going out of style, which he never has and hopefully, never will.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: Commentator Mitch Myers is the author of "The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables And Sonic Storytelling."

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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