Born January 31, 1906, in Elmar, Arkansas, died in New Orleans, Louisiana, on July 17, 1984.
Considered by musicians and music historians the father of the modern blues piano style, Roosevelt Sykes possessed a much-copied keyboard style and a fine voice that, for over half a decade, brought him a vanguard of followers in America and Europe. His playing served as a model for such blues pianists as Peter Chatman, a. k. a. Memphis Slim. During the 1930s he performed solo piano pieces and with sidemen ranging from jazz drummer "Big" Sid Catlett to slide guitarist James "Kokmo" Arnold. A genial man with a vibrant personality, Sykes had an ability to entertain as well, often bringing audiences blues and rag-influenced numbers filled with risque humor. By the 1940s Sykes's incorporated elements of jump blues and continued to play in a formidable manner which kept him employed as a full-time musician until his death in the early 1980s.
Roosevelt Sykes was born on January 31, 1906, the son of a musician in Elmar, Arkansas, a community he later described, in Honkers and Shouters, as "Just a little sawmill town." In 1909 Sykes moved with his family to St. Louis, Missouri. He often returned to his grandfather's farm near West Helena and played the organ in a local church. By 1918 he taught himself the art of blues piano and, three years later, left home to work as an itinerant pianist in Louisiana and Mississippi gambling establishments and barrelhouses. He led a life of a rambler, playing music for his economic survival. As Sykes told Margaret McKee and Fred Chisenhall, in Beale Black & Blue, "When I did get started, I wouldn't do nothing else, just play piano ... If I didn't play, I didn't eat."
While in St. Louis, Sykes performed jobs as soloist and occasionally joined up with other musicians like guitarist Big Joe Williams. He later attributed his early piano influences to local (unrecorded) St. Louis musicians such as "Red Eye" Jesse Bell, Joe Crump, Baby Sneed, and his most important mentor "Pork Chop" Lee Green. During his period with Green - which included a stint in Providence, Louisiana - Sykes learned Green's rendition of the "Forty-Four Blues" style. As Peter J. Sylvester observed in A Left Hand Like God, "`The Forty-Four Blues' was a popular theme in the South and many pianists attempted to master its intricate separated rhythms in the bass and treble."
In 1929 Sykes encountered Jesse Johnson, the owner of the Deluxe Record Shop, in St. Louis. Sykes, who at the time performed at an East St. Louis club for a dollar a night, quickly accepted Johnson's invitation to record him in New York. Accompanied by Johnson, Sykes arrived in New York by train in June 1929, and entered the Okeh studios at 11 Union Square. Of the numbers he performed was a version of "Forty-Four Blues," featuring vocals based on the theme of a .44 pistol. During the same year, while attending a session for Paramount, Sykes received the musical sobriquet "The Honey Dripper," from a song written by the recording date's leader, singer Edith Johnson. Though some have attributed Sykes's nickname to his sexual prowess, Johnson contended that she gave him the nickname in reference to his kind disposition and outgoing personality.
In the early 1930s, Sykes moved to Chicago. During the depression years, he recorded for several labels under various pseudonyms. For the Victor label he recorded as Willie Kelly on the classic 1930 side "32-20 Blues." Two years later, he cut his popular number "Highway 61 Blues" for Gennett Records's subsidiary label, Champion. During these years Sykes served as a back-up pianist for more than thirty singers including Mary Johnson and James "St. Louis Jimmy" Oden.
Through the recruiting efforts of Mayo "Ink" Williams, Sykes signed with Decca in 1934. His 1936 Decca side "Driving Wheel Blues" emerged as a blues classic (its modern reincarnation recorded by Herman "Little Junior" Parker in 1960). Sykes settled in Chicago in 1941 and, within a short time, became a house musician for the Victor/Bluebird label. Though the label marketed him to be the successor for Fats Waller (who recorded on the same label and died in 1943), Sykes found success as the creator of his own style and remained active as a session man, recording with such musicians as Robert Brown a. k. a. Washboard Sam. In 1943, while in Chicago, Sykes formed his own group, the Honeydrippers, which often numbered twelve musicians, and within its ranks many of the city's finest horn players. Traveling with his group, Sykes played venues like the Palace Theater in Memphis. In performing with a larger ensemble, Sykes worked to conform his loose solo-oriented piano style to formal chord sequences. He recalled, in Beale Black & Blue, how he "took up harmony, by having me a band. I had to tell the fellows what I wanted them to do.... But I didn't play what I told them, see, 'cause I never could play anything over again just alike."
In the post World War II years, Sykes recorded on several labels: Victor in 1945-1949, Specialty in 1946-1947, and Regal in 1949. In the liner notes to Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1973, John Sinclair noted: "The music of Roosevelt Sykes, so timelessly buoyant, so fresh and personal at times, transcended every vagary of the marketplace and lived a vibrant life of its own, no matter what current fads of stylistic alterations held sway, all through the turbulent years between 1929 and 1949." Sykes moved to New Orleans in 1954 and, despite the wane in the popularity of blues by the mid 1950s, continued to play in small clubs around the Crescent City. After returning to St. Louis in 1958, he moved to Chicago in 1960, where he was "rediscovered" by enthusiasts of the folk music revival.
The folk and blues revivals of 1960s brought a vibrant resurgence to Sykes's career. In later years, he graced the stage wearing a wide-brimmed hat, three-piece suit, and smoking a cigar that was characteristically poised in the corner of his mouth. By the early 1960s, he recorded for Bob Koester's Delmark label, cutting the album Mistake in Life. In 1961 Sykes toured Europe and appeared in the Belgian film Roosevelt Sykes the Honeydripper. In 1965 and 1966, he toured with the American Folk Blues Festival. While in Europe in 1966, he cut the album Roosevelt Sykes, Gold Mine for Delmark. During the decade he also recorded for specialty labels such as Bluesville, Storyville, and Folkways.
A resident of New Orleans in the late 1960s, Sykes often played at the Court of the Two Sisters. In 1969 he appeared as the opening act for the first annual Ann Arbor Blues Festival, playing before an audience of cheering young admirers. As Bob Koester recalled, in the liner notes to Roosevelt Sykes, Gold Mine, "He wound up in an historic confrontation-duo with the King of the Blues himself. I will never forget this set--B. B. left the stand with tears in his eyes." Sykes opened the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in the fall of 1970, and, as Jim O'Neal noted in the Down Beat review of the event, "barrelhoused his way through an enjoyable set."
In 1972 Sykes appeared in the French film Blues under the Skin and in September 1973 made a triumphant return to the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival, a set captured on the LP Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival, Volume 3. That same year, Delmark released Sykes's album Feel Like Blowing My Horn, featuring such Chicago-based bluesmen as guitarist Robert Lockwood, Jr. and drummer Fred Below. In 1976 he took part in the BBC television series The Devil's Music-A History of the Blues. He appeared on John Hammond Jr.'s 1978 Vanguard LP Footwork, in a guest performance of the "Forty-Four Blues." Sykes worked festivals and concert dates until his death of a heart attack on July 17, 1984, in New Orleans.
A man who lived life by his musical talent and ability to communicate with people of all walks of life, Sykes, in Beale Black & Blue, cited the real inspiration behind his musical talent. "Blues is a talent you're born with from God. He gave me the gift," explained Sykes. "I didn't even take a lesson in my life."
Roosevelt Sykes's Career
Around age ten played church organ; 1918 taught himself piano; from 1921 left home to play barrelhouses in West Helena; during the mid 1920s worked nightspots in Lake Providence, Louisiana; moved to St. Louis late 1920s; recorded on Okeh label 1929 and Victor in 1930; performed in Memphis in early 1930s; recorded for Bluebird label in Chicago 1933; recorded with the Decca label 1934-1941; formed the Honeydrippers in 1943 and played venues in the South; recorded on Victor label 1945-1949 and Specialty 1946-1947; on Regal label 1949; recorded for the United label 1951-1954 and Imperial in 1954; played club dates in Mississippi and St. Louis during late 1950s; recorded for Bluesville label 1960; worked Chicago clubs early 1960s; recorded for Delmark label 1963; toured with the American Folk Blues Festival 1965-1966; performed at Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969-1970 and Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1973; performed colleges and clubs throughout 1970s and early 1980s.
- Selective Works
- Solo work Roosevelt Sykes (1929-1941), Story of the Blues, 1988.
- Roosevelt Sykes, 1929-1934, Matchbox.
- Roosevelt Sykes Vol. 2 1936-1951, Blues Documents.
- Boogie Honky Tonk, Oldie Blues.
- Dirty Mother for You, Bluetime.
- Hard Driving Blues, Delmark, 1995.
- Feel Like Blowing My Horn, Delmark, 1973.
- Gold Mine, Delmark, 1992.
- Raining In My Heart, Delmark.
- At Webster College, Document.
- The Country Blues Piano Ace, Yazoo.
- Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1973, Vol. 3, Schoolkids Records, 1996.
- With others The Blues Of Lonnie Johnson, Swaggie (import).
- Washboard Sam, Rockin' My Blues Away, RCA (Bluebird) Heritage Series, 1992.
- John Hammond, Footwork, Vanguard, 1978.
- Collections Postscripts, 1927-1933. The Piano Blues, Vol. 5, Magpie.
- Hard Time Blues: St.Louis, 1933-1940, Mamlish.
- Nashville Jumps-R&B from Bullet, 1946-1953, Krazy Kat.
- Memphis and The Delta-1950s, Blues Classics.
- Legends of the Blues Vol. 2, Columbia, 1991.
- The Blues: A Smithsonian Collection of the Classic Blues Singers, Sony Music, 1993 .
- McKee, Margaret and Fred Chisenhall, Beale Black & Blue: Life and Music on Black America's Street, Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
- Shaw, Arnold, Honkers and Shouters: Golden Years of Rhythm & Blues, MacMillan Pub. Co. Inc., 1978.
- Silvester, Peter J., A Left Hand Like God: A History of Boogie Woogie Piano, Da Capo, 1988.
- Down Beat, October 1, 1970.
- Living Blues, Autumn 1983.
- Liner notes Koester, Bob, Roosevelt Sykes, Gold Mine, Delmark 1992.
- Sinclair, John Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1973, Vol. 3, Schoolkids Records, 1996.
- Films Roosevelt Sykes "The Honey Dripper," (Belgium) 1961.
- Roosevelt Sykes, 1971.
- Blues under My Skin, (France) 1972.
- Out of the Black into the Blues, (France) 1972.
- The Devil's Music-A History of the Blues, (England), 1976.