31 January 1906
Arkansas, United States
17 July 1983 (aged 77)
Roosevelt Sykes (January 31, 1906, Elmar, Arkansas – July 17, 1983, New Orleans, Louisiana) was an American blues musician, also known as "The Honeydripper". He was a successful and prolific cigar-chomping blues piano player, whose rollicking thundering boogie-woogie was highly influential.
Sykes had a long career spanning the pre-war and postwar eras. His pounding piano boogies and risqué lyrics characterize his contributions to the blues. He was responsible for influential blues songs such as "44 Blues", "Driving Wheel", and "Night Time Is the Right Time".
He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in 2011.
Born in Elmar, Arkansas, Sykes grew up near Helena but at age 15, went on the road playing piano with a barrelhouse style of blues. Like many bluesmen of his time, he travelled around playing to all-male audiences in sawmill, turpentine and levee camps along the Mississippi River, gathering a repertoire of raw, sexually explicit material. His wanderings eventually brought him to St. Louis, Missouri, where he met St. Louis Jimmy Oden.
In 1929 he was spotted by a talent scout and sent to New York to record for Okeh Records. His first release was "'44' Blues" which became a blues standard and his trademark. He quickly began recording for multiple labels under various names including 'Easy Papa Johnson', 'Dobby Bragg' and 'Willie Kelly'. After he and Oden moved to Chicago he found his first period of fame when he signed with Decca Records in 1934. In 1943, he signed with Bluebird Records and recorded with 'The Honeydrippers'.
In Chicago, Sykes began to display an increasing urbanity in his lyric-writing, using an eight-bar blues pop gospel structure instead of the traditional twelve-bar blues. However, despite the growing urbanity of his outlook, he gradually became less competitive in the post-World War II music scene. After his RCA Victor contract expired, he continued to record for smaller labels, such as United, until his opportunities ran out in the mid 1950s.
Roosevelt left Chicago in 1954 for New Orleans as electric blues was taking over the Chicago blues clubs. When he returned to recording in the 1960s it was for labels such as Delmark, Bluesville, Storyville and Folkways that were documenting the quickly passing blues history. He lived out his final years in New Orleans, where he died from a heart attack on July 17, 1983.
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