Vann “Piano Man” Walls: In the evening

Intheevening_300Vann “Piano Man” Walls: In the evening

by Craig Morrison

This album is by one of the greatest blues and rhythm & blues pianists. Born Harry Eugene Vann on August 24, 1918, in Middlesboro, Kentucky, he grew up in Lynch, Kentucky, and Charleston, West Virginia. A year after he was born, his mother married her second husband, named Walls. Listed on his old records as Harry Van Walls, or Van “Piano Man” Walls, he is also known as Cap’n Vann. Most people just call him Vann.

From age six, his mother, a piano teacher who played in the Baptist church, taught him to read and write music. Vann also played in the Baptist church. He left home in his late teens and toured the South in medicine shows, minstrel shows, carnivals, and circuses. Influenced by Art Tatum, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Count Basie, and especially Jay McShann, Vann developed an instantly recognizable blues piano style. He calls it bluegrass blues, saying: “I don’t play like nobody else.”

According to Vann’s own handwritten account, he first joined the Musician’s Union in Charleston in 1942, where he played solo in clubs like the Alhambra, the Silver Slipper, and the Gypsy Tea Room. Saturday afternoons he did a thirty-minute spot, sponsored by Buttercrust Bread, on WCHS radio. Bandleader Cal Greer heard him on the radio and brought him along for six or seven months of gigs on the mining town circuit in the coal belt of West Virginia, Virginia, and Ohio. When Greer took sick, the band broke up and Vann returned to Columbus, Ohio, where they had played earlier.

For the next four years or so, Vann led his own band at a regular gig at the American Legion Hall. They backed dancers, comedians, and singers, and played in the style of Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford (“I eased my blues in on top of it” said Vann). In 1947, sax player Frank “Floorshow” Culley spotted him. Vann recalls: “He said his friend Ahmet [Ertegun] had a record company…he was looking for a blues pianist and I would fit the bill.” The company was Atlantic Records, and Culley eventually persuaded Vann and his musicians to come to New York City for a session in early 1949. They backed Culley on several tunes, including “Cole Slaw,” and went on tour.

Vann returned to New York (the rest of his band didn’t) and became a staff pianist and arranger at Atlantic until 1955, working with the cream of rhythm and blues artists. Many recordings he played on were big hits, notably Big Joe Turner’s “Chains of Love” (co-written by Vann though he didn’t receive his royalties for it until recently), the Clovers’ “One Mint Julep,” Ruth Brown’s “5-10-15 Hours” and “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” and the Drifters’ “Such A Night,” featuring Clyde McPhatter. In Big Joe Turner’s “Boogie Woogie Country Girl” you can hear him call out “Swing it Vann!” Vann also worked with hit songwriter Doc Pomus, blues greats Brownie McGhee, Sticks McGhee, and Sonny Terry, bandleaders Freddie Mitchell and Joe Morris, and trumpeter Hot Lips Page.

Atlantic issued several records by Vann as a leader, including “After Midnight” and “Blue Sender” from 1952, still in print today. Besides Atlantic, Vann’s session work has been issued on literally hundreds of singles for labels big and small: London, Grand, Apollo, Teen, Sound, MGM, Swan, Sue, Chime, Cherry, Smash, Courtesy, Capitol, Savoy, Memo, Derby, King, and Columbia.

On a visit to Atlantic City to spend some money on the Boardwalk, Vann met members of the Nite Riders, a band based in Philadelphia. While still living and working in New York, Vann began hanging around Philadelphia playing sessions and doing gigs. In 1954 he joined the Nite Riders. The next year they came to Canada to play Montreal’s famed Esquire Showbar. Booked for two weeks, the Nite Riders were so popular they stayed for nineteen. They toured extensively in the northeastern U.S. By 1960, the group was based in Hartford, Connecticut, where they opened their own recording studio. The band lasted nine years and made many highly sought after recordings, including a pair of instrumentals on the Capitol label: “The Vacation Train” and “Night Ridin’” (issued under the name Doc Starkes and the Night Riders).

On that first trip to Montreal, Vann met a young woman named Ruth. Her friends encouraged her to go see a terrific band, and she says: “I walked in and I forgot to walk out!” They married in 1963 and are still together. Vann settled in Montreal, working for a few years with his group, Cap’n Vann and the Pirates, dressed in full regalia. He is also known for dressing up as Sherlock Holmes, with a cape, deerstalker cap, and calabash pipe.

While on tour with Frank “Floorshow” Culley, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Vann had given a young Dr. John some piano tips. Dr. John returned the favor in 1990 when he and Doc Pomus initiated Vann’s appearance at the Piano Blues Who’s Who festival in New York City, his first show there in 40 years. The festival included Johnnie Johnson, famous for his work with Chuck Berry, and Memphis blues legend Booker T. Laury. That summer, when Dr. John played the Montreal Jazz Festival, he brought Vann up for a guest spot. These events started a chain that led to him playing the blues festival circuit, becoming the subject of a documentary film (still in progress), and eventually to this recording.

 

In performance, Vann puts his audience in a spell. In a sequined top hat, fingers racing and dancing on the keyboard, he is a real entertainer. His playing proves why Vann is a legend: because he is the real thing and he delivers the goods! He calls his singing and playing style “banging and barking”—yes it’s vigorous, but do not be fooled, there is a lot of finesse there too.

In February 1997, Vann “Piano Man” Walls received a Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award at their eighth annual gala celebration held in New York City. Introduced by Aretha Franklin and Ruth Brown, he went straight to the piano, got a standing ovation for his performance, and then walked over to receive the award for his artistry and his lasting contribution to the development of popular music. Other honorees that night included the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.

On this album Vann “bangs and barks” in his charming, inimitable way, accompanied by Montreal’s best blues band, the Stephen Barry Band, featuring Michael Jerome Browne’s vocals. Their long career includes several fine albums, and they give Vann sympathetic backing on a nicely varied repertoire. Vann reprises some of his earlier songs, including “Chains of Love” (from 1951) and “After Hours Session” (done with Frank Culley in 1949 and based on Avery Parrish’s “After Hours”), plus some of his recent, often humorous, compositions from his gig repertoire.

By covering their songs, Vann pays tribute to some other great keyboard players. “In the Evening” comes from blues star Leroy Carr’s last session in 1935 (where it was called “When the Sun Goes Down”). Bill Doggett had a huge hit in 1956 with the instrumental “Honky Tonk.” “Misty” is Erroll Garner’s enduring jazz standard, written in 1954, and Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” is from his first Blue Note album in 1962. It was a top ten hit the next year for Mongo Santamaria.

In the evening of a long and successful career, Vann “Piano Man” Walls has produced a wonderful album for your listening enjoyment.