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Willie "The Lion" Smith

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William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith (23 November 1893 – 18 April 1973), a.k.a. “The Lion”, was an American jazz pianist and one of the masters of the stride style, usually grouped with James P. Johnson and Thomas “Fats” Waller as the three greatest practitioners of the genre from its Golden Age, c. 1920–1943.

William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith was born in Goshen, New York. His mother and grandmother chose the names to reflect the different parts of his heritage: Joseph after Saint Joseph (Bible), Bonaparte (French), Bertholoff (biological father’s last name), Smith (added when he was three, his stepfather’s name), and William and Henry which were added for “spiritual balance”. In his memoir he reports that his father, Frank Bertholoff, was Jewish. Willie was at least somewhat conversant in Yiddish, as he demonstrated in a television interview late in his life. Willie’s mother, Ida Oliver, had “Spanish, Negro, and Mohawk Indian blood”. Her mother, Ann Oliver, was a banjo player and had been in Primrose and West minstrel shows (Smith also had two cousins who were dancers in the shows, Etta and John Bloom). According to Ida, “Frank Bertholoff was a light-skinned playboy who loved his liquor, girls, and gambling.” His mother threw Frank out of the house when “The Lion” was two years old. When his father died in 1901, his mother married John Smith, a master mechanic from Paterson, NJ. The surname Smith was added to that of “The Lion” at age 3. He grew up living at 76 Academy Street in Newark.

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