Willie Perryman was born on a farm near Hampton, Georgia. He was an albino African American, as was his older brother Rufus, who also had a blues piano career as “Speckled Red”. Rufus, 19 years older than Willie, had left home before his little brother and took up the piano. They never recorded together. However, the family had a piano originally bought to give Rufus a musical education, and as a child Willie watched Rufus play on it. In 1918 the family moved to Atlanta.
Perryman cited Fats Waller as his main influence. By the early 1930s, he was playing at house parties, juke joints, and barrelhouses in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, often working with other Georgia bluesmen, including Barbecue Bob, Curley Weaver, and Blind Willie McTell. He also began performing before white audiences in the resort town of Brevard, North Carolina, and by 1934 had begun to play at white clubs in Atlanta, developing a repertoire of pop standards. Around 1936 he began to be billed as “Piano Red”, and made his first recordings with McTell in Augusta for Vocalion Records, although these were never released. He also began working as an upholsterer, a trade which he occasionally maintained through later years.
In 1950 after spending the last 14 years upholstering and playing music on weekends, Red recorded “Rockin’ with Red” and “Red’s Boogie” at the WGST radio studios in Atlanta for RCA Victor. Both songs became national hits, reaching # 5 and # 3 respectively on the Billboard R&B chart, and “Rockin’ with Red” has since been covered many times under many titles. This success, and further hits “The Wrong Yo Yo” (allegedly written by Speckled Red), “Laying The Boogie” and “Just Right Bounce”, allowed him to resume an active performing schedule. He also recorded sessions in New York and Nashville during the early 1950s.
In the mid 1950s he also worked as a disc jockey on radio stations WGST and WAOK in Atlanta, broadcasting The Piano Red Show, later The Dr. Feelgood Show, directly from a small shack in his back yard. A young James Brown made an appearance on his show in the late 1950s. His involvement had him appearing on a flatbed truck in many parades, which led to his song “Peachtree Parade”. From the mid 1950s until the late 1960s, he recorded for several companies, including Columbia, for which he made several records, Checker, for whom he recorded 8 sides with Willie Dixon on bass, and Groove Records,a subsidiary of RCA Victor, producing the first hit for that label.
On Okeh Records, in 1961, he began using the name Dr. Feelgood and the Interns, releasing several hits, including the much-covered “Doctor Feel-Good”. The persona was one he had initially adopted on his radio shows. The new career was short-lived, though, and Piano Red was never able to regain his former stature. In 1966, the popular folk-rock group The Lovin’ Spoonful, recorded his song “Bald Headed Lena” on their second album, Daydream.
He continued to be a popular performer in Underground Atlanta, and had several European tours late in his career, including appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Berlin Jazz Festival, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s inauguration, and on BBC Radio.
He was diagnosed with cancer in 1984 and died the following year. Among those who attended his funeral were the Governor of Georgia and the Mayor of Atlanta.
Edited by huckd on 27 Apr 2008, 14:37
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