Vann Walls Inducted in to the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame

wvmhf logoOn October 24th, 2015 Vann Walls was inducted in to West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. Terry Adams, founding member of innovative group NRBQ, introduced Vann and he, and the band, performed at the concert after the ceremony. Vann grew up in Charleston, WV before moving north to Columbus, Ohio in his twenties. Other members of the Hall of Fame include Bill Withers, Johnnie Johnson, Connie Smith and many other important and interesting musicians. The WVMHF was created ten years ago and has an extremely strong educational component. We strongly encourage you to pay a visit to their beautiful web site:

Montreal, December 1st, 2014

WVMHoF logoThis morning a press conference was held in Charleston, West Virginia where it was announced that Vann Walls would be inducted in to the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. This fantastic news means Vann will stand aside such luminaries as Bill Withers, Johnnie Johnson, Connie Smith and many, many other fine musicians. The ceremony will be held in October, 2015. Our film has been invited to play as part of the celebration as well as be part of a city-wide arts/music fest to be held there in late June. To read more about this non-profit institution and its splendid ten year history then please follow this link:

Brad Wheeler, on NXNE, June 14th, 2014


“Everybody’s talking up the Canadian premiere of Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood,’ a film covering 12 years of a family’s life, starring Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. But the musicologists among you might wish to check out ‘Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R & B,’ a story about a lost piano man and a documentary on the origins of rock and roll.”

-Brad Wheeler, on NXNE, June 14th, 2014.

After Hours: How a film captured the life of Van “Piano Man” Walls

Original article link

image13In 1995, Steve Morris had the opportunity to interview a legend of popular music at the historical National Film Board Studio 2 in Montreal.

The subject, a weathered-looking, elderly African-American man clad in a suit with a Star of David chain draped around his neck, was seated in front of a grand piano under the glow of carefully-placed studio lights. When questioned where his musical inspiration comes from, the man answered in a graveled voice:

“It always comes from the heart. If it don’t come from there, you’re wasting your time.”

This mantra has been echoed by countless musicians throughout the years, but it didn’t take away from Morris’s sweet satisfaction in knowing that after five years of being brushed off, he finally had his first on-camera interview with rhythm and blues pioneer Vann “Piano Man” Walls.

Before leaving the studio that day, Vann glanced at the studio control room, and in a solemn admission, told Morris that he had one more album left in him. This turned out to be a defining moment in the development of the film Morris hoped to create.

Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R&B was released in late 2013 after much delay, and is the directorial debut of Morris, who has long been involved with the National Film Board of Canada. It debuted at the Montreal Film Festival last year, and has since played at the 2014 Sherbrooke and Memphis International Film Festivals.

It tells the decades-spanning story of American-born rhythm and blues pianist Vann Walls, who was regarded by peers and music fans as a dynamic innovator in popular music, rising to fame as a session musician for R&B kingpin Atlantic Records during the 1940s and 50s. It was during this time that Vann was credited as an essential musician on Atlantic’s first major hit records, including Joe Turner’s Chains of Love.

Morris highlights the essential points in the timeline, including his move from New York to Montreal in the late 50s, his decent into obscurity following the advent of rock n’ roll, and his timely resurgence in the waning years of his life. Morris carefully balances these stories as they branch out from the central plot of Walls recording his final studio album, 1997’s In The Evening with the tenured Stephen Barry Band.

In the film, Morris interviews an impressive cast of prominent figures in 20th-century popular music, including Atlantic Records Chairman/CEO Ahmet Ertugun, legendary producer Jerry Wexler and former R&B starlet Ruth Brown, all of whom have since passed away.

Morris says the significance of interviewing these musical greats while they were still alive is not lost on him.

“The film took a long time to make. Maybe it’s the pressure I put on myself, but every time I’d think about it, I’d get tense, thinking ‘My God, I gotta get them before they pass on.”

The success of the interviews hinged on two major struggles Morris encountered during the making of the film: Vann’s stubbornness to open up to him and Wexler’s notorious temper. Both delayed progress for a number of years.

Other featured interviews include some of Walls’s local peers, such as Blues guitarist and former understudy Dr. John, Montreal-based ethno-musicologist Craig Morrison, and Michael Jerome Brown, who contributed guitar and vocals to Vann’s final album.

Another roadblock that Morris encountered was production funding. After filming hours of footage, the project was left in limbo until Toronto-based businessman Peter Dowbiggin invested in the project. Morris insists the film would never have been finished without his help.

An interesting aspect of Morris’ directing style is how he lets the interviews tell the story of “Piano Man” Walls. Little voice-over narration is contributed on his part, and the choice of B-roll footage and soundtrack music to fill the gaps between sequences helps the film transition from one scene to the next.

Morris says he originally had no desire to place himself into the film but under the suggestion of senior editor Heidi Haines, he agreed to provide narration where the story needed a bridge.

“We kind of bartered a position where my narration would be scant. In an 83-minute film, there’s only three minutes of me speaking. But Heidi is a seasoned veteran in editing and I had to respect her decision.”

Another point worth considering is that the viewer only sees Vann as a man in the twilight of his life. While the creative energy is still very evident, Vann’s signature eccentric showmanship is long gone. However, the way he is described by everyone who knew and worked with him can convince even the most skeptical of viewers.

Vann “Piano Man” Walls is presented as more than the life story of a music icon. It is a testament to the rich music culture of Montreal, namely when it comes to jazz, blues and R&B. Vann was not only a part of that for 40 years, but he established himself as a disciple in that culture by the time he passed away in 2000.

Vann “Piano Man” Walls will play at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto as part of the North by Northeast Arts Festival on Sunday, June 15.

Chris Dowbiggin is a broadcast journalism student at Sheridan College. You can follow him on twitter @ChristopherPJD.

Prince Arthur Herald
Photo Credit: Steve Morris

Toronto Jazz FM 91 Interview with Danny Marks

JAZZ.FM91, Jazz and the Arts is Canada’s only broadcaster and registered not-for-profit charitable arts organization dedicated to enriching the cultural, educational and community experience of our audience. Running many essential community outreach projects to support emerging artists and local jazz legends, JAZZ.FM91 gives opportunities for thousands of promising young students and emerging artists to gain experience in music and broadcasting.

JAZZ.FM91 is a listener-supported station, become a donor today and help keep jazz strong – on the air, and in the community! To learn more, visit:


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.

North by North East Film Feast

NXNE-film-laurel-2014_400x218Presented in partnership with Hot Docs, NXNE Film returns to the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema from June 13-15. Our film will play at 12:30 PM on June 15th, 506 Bloor St. W. @ Bathurst, Toronto, 416.637.3123.
This is the 20th edition of this important film and music festival and R & B is proud and honoured to have been invited.
C U there or be square!

Like a Fallen Angel

839587-martin-bolduc-producteur-steven-morrisLa Nouvelle, April 11th, 2014

Dominic Tardif

The First edition of the “Sherbrooke World Film Festival” gets under way at “La Maison du Cinéma” and the “Salle du Parvis” this weekend from April 10th to the 13th. Forty features, sixteen documentaries and twenty-three shorts will be shown, including Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R & B, a vibrant tribute to one of the pillars of American secular music. Director Steve Morris and producer Martin Boluc recall the man.

Searching for Sugar Man (2012): the bright story about the curious destiny of Rodriquez, an unknown singer in his homeland, the United States, but a cult figure in South Africa. J’m’en va r’viendre (2011): portrait of Stephen Faulkner, revered Quebec singer, who can hardly pay his rent. A Band Called Death (2012): film about an Afro-American trio that preceded punk music, which no one, absolutely no one, can recall. Documentaries exhuming marginal figures as unique as they are fascinating seem to be coming out of the woodwork these days and are taking part in the writing of the alternative history of popular music. An alternative history in which those who were unjustly removed from our collective memory are finally being treated like the heroes they really are.

Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R & B, a tribute to the late pianist of the same name who experienced glory as house piano player and band leader at Atlantic Records from 1949 to 1955, before marrying and settling in Montreal, and sinking in to oblivion for more than forty years, falls in to this category of film that works to make a wrong right.

“It is true that the timing is good,” admits producer Martin Bolduc, all the while making the point that Mr. Morris has been working on the documentary since 1990, thus taking more than twenty years for it to finally see the light in a dark cinema. “Vann had been messed over for copyright so he was suspicious, he thought I was going to exploit him,” adds the filmmaker.

Session musician to some of the biggest names of his era (including Ruth Brown and Big Joe Turner), piano teacher to the legendary Dr. John, pioneer at one the biggest labels in the western world, Vann was relegated to second fiddle by the advent of Rock and Roll, the big wave breaking over North American youth.

“He set down roots in Montreal for love and also because his kind of music was suddenly less popular. R & B was usurped by white musicians: once Elvis Presley arrived in 1956 the blacks were tossed aside. Pat Boone’s music in the fifties was a carbon copy of the black originals, measure by measure. The film allows one to understand a large slice of American popular music as well as understand how a lot of those black musicians were taken advantage of,” said Morris.

In Montreal during the sixties, seventies and eighties, Vann Walls is reduced to tinkling the ivories in taverns and motel lounges to make a living. “He was never a bricklayer or a dishwasher and always managed to make a dignified living as a musician even if it meant playing Samba,” added Monsieur Bolduc.

Steven Morris crosses paths for the first time with the great forgotten one in a classroom and discovers to his surprise that he knows, more or less, the man in question. “I had enrolled in a class on the history of the Blues and the professor invited Vann as a guest toward the end of the semester. He played the piano like a fallen angel. I realized that not only did I have Vann’s music in my collection, on Blues compilations, but also that I had music by Vann backing up other artists as musical director, arranger and session musician.”

The record collector persevered with a Mr. Walls who was proving to be recalcitrant until, after an interview for the project, asked to see the studio control room. “Vann took one look at the forty-eight track console and at that moment admitted that he would like to make a new album, that he had one last album left in him. I said to him,’ I’ll produce the album but you must let me film it.’ I had something on which to hang the narrative line. It was at that moment that I understood how the film was going to be made.”

In the Evening, ultimate Vann Walls album, of which the documentary records the creation, will receive a Juno nomination in the category of best Blues album and will note a certain return to a state of grace. “He was so proud. I hung out with him for ten years and it was always I who took the initiative to call him. The only time he ever called me was the day he listened to the album for the first time. He’d had a few drinks and said, ‘Son, I am really proud.’ He was really pleased.”

Link to original article (translated from French)

Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R & B

Saturday April 12th, 8 PM

La Maison du cinéma (63, rue King Ouest)



Le Devoir-Review

logo-devoir1-300x103Le Devoir, Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th of October, 2013


Montréal, Qc

It took seventeen years of courage and patience before Steven Morris could complete a documentary devoted to the most underestimated R & B pianist, singer and composer who ever existed: Harry Vann Walls. 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.

Thanks to this film, presented this week as part of the program of the “Festival du nouveau cinéma” (FNC), one learns, or relearns, a fact of paramount importance regarding the evolution of American popular music: Vann Walls was, in the 1950s, the house piano player at Atlantic Records, famous for having produced the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Charles Mingus and other fallen angels of Jazz and Blues.

As such, Vann Walls punctuated the singing voices of Big Joe Turner, Lavern Baker, Ruth Brown, etc. 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.

That said, Morris accomplished the following feat: he convinced 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. This film being a must see, let us hope that a distributor steps up to the fold.


FILM PREMIERE: Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R&B

logo_festivalMontreal, Tuesday, October 15, 2013– Mate & Orchard Productions Inc. is proud to announce the world premiere of Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R&B at the 42nd Festival du nouveau cinéma. Steven Morris’ feature-length documentary about rhythm and blues pioneer Vann “Piano Man” Walls is in competition as part of the “Focus” section.

Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R & B is a film for anyone interested in Rhythm and Blues, the father of Rock and Roll. Harry Vann, alias Vann “Piano Man” Walls, was one of its pioneers. He was the East Coast’s finest Rhythm and Blues pianist, became composer, arranger and orchestra leader at Atlantic Records from 1949 to 1955, came to Montreal and lived happily ever after in obscurity… until a fateful night in 1990.

That evening, with Dr. John the Night Tripper, led to a series of events, starting with the director befriending Vann Walls at McGill University, which eventually culminated in the film being launched a full twenty-three years later.

The documentary follows Vann and several of his peers, including musicians Dr. John, Ry Cooder, Ruth Brown– the original “Queen of R&B,” Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, legendary record producer Jerry Wexler and more, as it wades through his adventure of musical history and performance.

From New York City to Montreal, from Boston to Sarasota, the viewer takes an intimate voyage in to the studio as Vann produces the final album of a career that spanned more than sixty-five years. Wrapped around this recording project is the story of Vann’s fascinating life and his lasting contribution to a musical form now heard all over the world.


October 15, 2013: 9pm at Cineplex Odéon Quartier Latin


October 18, 2013: 3pm at Cinema du Parc