Born Eurreal Montgomery, April 18, 1906, Kentwood, LA; (died September 6, 1985, Champaign, IL); second wife, Janet Floberg.
Little Brother Montgomery was one of the most versatile pianists to emerge from the blues. Although he never achieved the fame of musicians like Roosevelt Sykes, Sunnyland Slim, or Otis Spann all of whose playing was shaped early on by contact with Montgomery he was as comfortable playing New Orleans jazz or boogie-woogie as straight blues. His career in music stretched from the earliest years of recorded blues in the 1920s until the mid-1980s. But his playing, in particular his unaccompanied piano work, possesses timelessness, virtuosity, a serenity rare in any music. Little Brother Montgomery performances, right up until his death in 1985, were much more than mere blues shows. They transported the listener back to the New Orleans of the 1920s and made that old music sound as fresh as when it was first invented.
Eurreal Montgomery was the fifth of ten children five girls and five boys born to Harper and Dicy Montgomery. The family home in Kentwood Louisiana was located in the middle of timber country, and Harper ran a honky-tonk where logging workers gathered on weekends to drink, dance, gamble and listen to music. Most all of the Montgomerys were musical. Harper played clarinet, and Dicy played accordion and organ. Eurreal's brothers and sisters all learned to play piano to one degree or another. His brother Tollie made a record with him in the 1960s and brother Joe followed Eurreal to Chicago and performed regularly there in clubs and on record in the 1950s and 1960s. Little Brother Eurreal was called by that name almost from birth taught himself to play simple "three finger blues, as he called them, on a piano his father bought the family. "From then on," he told his biographer Karl Gert zur Heide, "I just created simple things on my own until later I got large enough and went to hear older people play like Rip Top, Loomis Gibson, Papa Lord God."
Montgomery had plenty of opportunity to hear older musicians. Most of them passed regularly through Kentwood and played at his father's honky-tonk. He decided at a young age that he wanted to be a piano player like them and he was an eager pupil. He would stand with them as they played rags, early blues and popular songs of the time, watch what they did with their fingers, and then imitate it himself. He was especially fond of the blues pieces they played; he copied them and modified them into pieces that would later become regular parts of his repertoire. A common feature of most of these proto-blues was a rollicking walking bass carried on by the left hand. Not much later the style would be called boogie-woogie; in the 1910s, however, it went by another name. "They used to call boogie piano Dudlow Joes," bassist Willie Dixon told Gert zur Heide, "I didn't hear it called boogie till long after. If a guy played boogie piano they'd say he was a Dudlow player."
Montgomery must have been a fast learner. He claimed that he quit seventh grade, left home at the age of eleven and began playing piano for a living wherever he could. His first job was in a juke joint in Holton, Louisiana where he was paid eight dollars a week plus room and board. He worked there for six months, playing and singing from seven until ten thirty on weekday evenings, and the whole night through on weekends. Feeling more confident, he left Holton and worked for six months at a "cabaret" in Plasquemine, Louisiana, where he earned ten dollars a night plus room and board. After that, he then moved on to Ferriday, Louisiana where he was paid $15 a night plus room and board. Within a year the pre-teen had doubled his earning power. More importantly, in Ferriday he made the acquaintance of two older piano players, Long Tall Friday and Dehlco Robert.
Friday, Robert, and Montgomery began working together perfecting a new blues that involved interplay of the left and right hand, that could produce either simple or complex music. What began as music that could be performed by a player without a great deal of technical skill, changed into "the hardest barrelhouse blues of any blues in history," as Montgomery described them to Gert zur Heide, "because you have to keep two different times going in each hand." The three friends called the new form "the Forty Fours." Later it would be transformed into one of Montgomery's biggest hits, "Vicksburg Blues."
Montgomery played in and around Ferriday until the flood of 1922 put parts of the city under eight feet of water. For the next year or so, probably in an automobile he purchased, he played his way through Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas. In 1923 he returned home to Kentwood for a time, then moved to New Orleans, where jazz was being born. The city was full of hundreds of piano players, all competing to be the best, at least in their wards. In the mid-1920s, Montgomery toured Louisiana with a variety of bands, his own and others, including the renowned Buddy Petit's. He played with Sunnyland Slim and guitarist Skip James. In 1928, Montgomery was hired by Clarence Desdune's Dixieland Revelers, a dance band. It was a challenging gig for him as Desdune's band played entirely from sheet music. Montgomery had a reputation as a formidable pianist but he was a blues pianist and was not adept at sight-reading. But he was a quick study here, as well, and with help from another band member was soon able to fake all the tunes in Parker's repertoire.
At the end of 1928, Montgomery quit the Revelers and moved up to Chicago. He made a name for himself playing rent parties house parties put on in black neighborhoods to raise money to pay the rent. "I played house rent parties practically every night in the week for different people," Montgomery told Gert zur Heide. Chicago was becoming as hot a jazz town as New Orleans, but all party-goers let Montgomery play at the rent parties was blues and boogie-woogie. While in Chicago he caught the attention of the Paramount record company. In late 1930, he accompanied Minnie Hicks on two songs and recorded about a half dozen sides of his own, including the greatly evolved version of the old Forty Fours, "Vicksburg Blues." The song was one of the most popular blues of its day, widely imitated by bluesmen; in 1935, Montgomery released his own imitation, "Vicksburg Blues No. 2." He recorded two records for Melotone in Chicago at the beginning of 1931, but as the Great Depression grew worse, he pulled up stakes and returned to New Orleans.
In New Orleans he formed his own band, the Southland Troubadors, which toured the South and parts of the Midwest including Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Iowa. Before long the group grew to ten pieces. They usually publicized their gigs with short radio concerts and earned such high pay touring that they turned down offers to record. Although the group existed until the late 1940s, Montgomery left in 1939. In the summer of 1935 he began recording for Bluebird Records, when he cut two records of his own and played on six others. The following summer he set a kind of record at the Bluebird studios, recording 23 sides in a single day, and those were part of 37 in all that he played on!
Around the time World War II started Montgomery paid a visit to his parents and then moved north to Chicago where he took off his traveling shoes most of the time and remained for the rest of his career. After the war, he began playing "old-time jazz" with musicians such as Baby Dodds and Lonnie Johnson. In 1948, he took part in a Carnegie Hall reunion concert by the Kid Ory Band. He played the Chicago club circuit regularly and was said to have some 1,000 songs committed to memory. As electric post-war blues took hold in Chicago, Montgomery was an active session musician. He appeared on some of the influential mid-fifties record made by Otis Rush, and played piano on one of Buddy Guy's first big hits, his 1960 remake of Montgomery's "First Time I Met The Blues."
He continued making records his entire life, both blues and early jazz. In 1969, he and his second wife Janet Floberg, founded their own record label, FM. The first single the company released was a remake of "Vicksburg Blues," sung by Jeanne Carroll. A biography, Gert zur Heide's Deep South Piano: The Story of Little Brother Montgomery, based on interviews with Montgomery, was published in 1970. Later in life, he expanded briefly into theater with a role in a staged biography of Bessie Smith. He continued performing and recording practically right up to his death on September 6, 1985 of congestive heart failure.
by Gerald E. Brennan
Little Brother Montgomery's Career
Made first 78s in Grafton, WI for Paramount Records 1930; recorded for Bluebird label, 1933-36; settled in Chicago, IL, 1942; played Carnegie Hall concert with Kid Ory jazz band, 1949; recorded with Otis Rush,1957-58; Buddy Guy recorded Montgomery's "First Time I Met The Blues," 1960; founded FM record label with Floberg, 1969.
- Selected discography
- Tasty Blues , Original Blues Classics, 1960.
- Chicago: The Living Legends (South Side Blues), Original Blues Classics, 1962, reissued 1993 CD.
- Goodbye Mister Blues , Delmark, 1973-76.
- At Home , Earwig, 1990.
- Complete Recorded Works (1930-1936) , Document, 1991.
- Erlewene, Michael, Vladimir Bogdana, Chris Woodstra, and Cub Koda, All Music Guide to the Blues, San Francisco, Freeman Books, 1996.
- Gert zur Heide, Karl, Deep South Piano: The Story of Little Brother Montgomery, Blues Paperbacks, 1970.
- Palmer, Robert, Deep Blues, Viking Press, 1981.
- Down Beat, December 1985.