Toronto Blues Society Newsletter June 2014 – Loose Blues News

TBS-logo_300Blues on Film: Vann “Piano Man” Walls – The Spirit of R&B is a beautifully shot, lovingly edited and sometimes shocking documentary that delves into an R & B pioneer who is not that well known in Canada, even though he made a profound impact on many of the local musicians who went on to create a healthy, thriving blues scene in Montreal. It will be screened at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, 506 Bloor St West on Sunday June 15th at12:30 pm as part of the NXNE film fest.

Vann “Piano Man” Walls was orchestra leader, composer and arranger, as well as house piano player at Atlantic Records between 1949-1955, 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 much later), 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!“

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 and Vann met a young woman named Ruth. They married in 1963 and 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, w i t h  a  c a p e, deerstalker cap, and calabash pipe. He was playing in Montreal for many years but was “under the radar“ of the local blues scene until he hooked up with Michael Jerome Browne and the Stephen Barry Blues Band who backed him up at shows and on the recording In The Evening in 1997.

Back when he was on tour with Frank “Floorshow” Culley, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Vann had given a young Dr. John some piano tips and the Doctor 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.

It took seventeen years of courage and patience before Steven Morris could complete a d o c u m e n t a r y devoted to this most underestimated R & B pianist, singer and composer who ever existed. Seventeen years of chasing leads to pay homage to one who made a fortune for, both literally and figuratively, a swarm of artists, and especially, record label executives. Under its watchful eye, Morris’ camera delivers a testimony that invites one to both meditate and admire as it details how Vann Walls and his fellow artists were cheated, far and wide, by the under assistants of the musical arts.

All this documented with revealing interviews from Ruth Brown, Ry Cooder, Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic, Jerry Wexler and especially Dr. John, once Vann Walls’ student, to commit to memory what the musical world owes to this pianist, who spent the last thirty years of his life in Montreal.