Chicago Blues Piano Giant of Profound Influence
By Curt Brown
He was a well-known figure on the blues scene in the 1940s, owning a strong, assertive piano style, one that was the perfect foil to his assured expressive singing capabilities. Despite a relatively brief blues career, and authoring and recording one of the all-time blues classics in “Worried Life Blues”, Major “Big Maceo” Merriweather allotted a legacy that inspired the next generation of Chicago blues piano artists.
Born in 1905 in the city of Newnan, Georgia in Coweta County in the northwestern part of the state, Merriweather and his family resided on a farm until he was 15 years of age, at which time they made the move to Atlanta, Georgia. It was in Atlanta where Merriweather displayed an interest in piano, and began to learn the rudiments of the instrument. Merriweather was left-handed, and as his legacy would forever indicate, it was his forceful left hand that provided the trundling cascades of bass lines that would be a defining component of his blues piano style. He stayed in Atlanta with his family for roughly nine years, but in 1924, Merriweather made a major move north to Detroit, Michigan.
His piano skills having been sufficiently developed, along with his vocal proficiencies, Merriweather began to play at the house parties that were common for talented blues piano players in the pre-war era. These parties were often thrown so the inhabitants could make their monthly rental obligation. Some club work in Detroit also figured into Merriweather’s performing existence there.
1941 was a yet another important year in Merriweather’s life and blues career. He moved west to Chicago, where he became acquainted with blues singer, guitarist, and kazoo player Tampa Red. Through Red, Merriweather gained an introduction to the influential Lester Melrose of the RCA Victor/Bluebird Records brand, and he was signed to a recording contract. Red and Merriweather teamed-up on both club work and on the recordings of the other, with Merriweather cutting tracks for the RCA Victor/Bluebird conglomeration from 1941-1947. Surely, Merriweather offered a heft to Red’s blues efforts, while Red’s flowing slide guitar flourishes added much to Merriweather’s recorded output. It is said that Merriweather and Red became close friends, as well.
Merriweather’s piano style seems to most closely align with that of blues greats Josh Altheimer, Leroy Carr, and Roosevelt Sykes, while also undoubtedly having boogie woogie muses from no less than Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis.
The first blues song that Merriweather recorded became his signature piece, “Worried Life Blues”, a song that established itself as a bona fide blues hit. Additional blues cuts that became synonymous with Merriweather, rightfully considered all-time blues triumphs, are “Chicago Breakdown", "Texas Stomp", “Detroit Jump”, and “Poor Kelly Blues.”
Due to his recording success, Merriweather became recognized as an established blues recording celebrity, and he regularly played the clubs in the Windy City.
In 1946, Merriweather suffered a debilitating stroke. A result of the stroke was that Merriweather lost the use of his right hand. However, this did not stop him from playing and recording. Merriweather recruited several blues piano players, including Eddie Boyd and Little Johnnie Jones, to accompany him on the treble keys of the piano during performance and recording, while he continued to utilize his left hand for the bass lines. He was able to sing after his stroke.
However, the reality of Merriweather’s post-stroke period was that he was not able to regain his one-time full keyboard dexterity and strength, nor his standing within the blues field.
Even if Merriweather had not suffered his stroke, it is interesting to think about where his career may have gone. Surely, he would have continued to record and be in-demand for local club work. But, during his most dynamic time period, touring opportunities were limited, as the large venue showcase theaters were primarily booking the famous jazz and big bands of the era. These jazz and big bands normally had full charted orchestrations combined with a leading singer, and this was just not Merriweather’s style. Plus, the so-called chitlin circuit, with its many clubs, had yet to be established. The question becomes, “Where would Merriweather have fit in?” Most likely, he would have stayed a blues artist with a loyal local following.
Merriweather did record two albums, in 1949 and 1950, for Specialty Records and Fortune, respectively. An unissued album also was recorded for the Mercury label.
Without question, Merriweather’s style influenced numerous blues pianists, including Little Johnnie Jones, Eddie Boyd, Henry Gray, and most certainly Otis Spann. Listening to Spann’s strong left-hand heaves, it is apparent he took note of Merriweather’s bass runs.
Merriweather passed away as a result of a heart attack in early 1953.
Merriweather was enshrined in The Blues Hall Of Fame in 2002.
Below is information on what I consider the definitive Big Maceo compilation, including the running order of the tracks. You will definitely want to have this CD in your blues collection.
Big Maceo - The King Of The Chicago Blues – Arhoolie CD 7009
This assemblage covers the years 1941-1945, and confirms Maceo as the undeniable leader of the Chicago blues piano field in his most strong and striking form. He is accompanied by the great Tampa Red on guitar, and periodically elsewhere by other noted sidemen, with these cuts ranked with the cream of the crop of recorded piano blues. This collection is a considerable study in true craftsmanship, and unmistakably displays Maceo’s potent, thrashing style, one that is grounded heavily on bass notes that roll like thunder.
· Worried Life Blues
· Ramblin’ Mind Blues
· County Jail Blues
· Can’t You Read
· So Long Baby
· Texas Blues
· Tuff Luck Blues
· I Got The Blues
· Bye Bye Baby
· Poor Kelly Blues
· Some Sweet Day
· Anytime For You
· My Last Go Round
· Since You Been Gone
· Kidman Blues
· I’m So Worried
· Things Have Changed
· My Own Troubles
· Maceo’s 32-20
· Texas Stomp
· Winter Time Blues
· Detroit Jump
· Won’t Be A Fool No More
· Big Road Blues
· Chicago Breakdown
Photo: Curt Brown & Otis Rush
About the Author: Curt Brown is the author of the weekly “Curt’s Blues” blog (Curt's Blues - Blues. Only. Spoken. Here. (curtsblues.com). He was the long-time late-night blues radio host on WSND FM 88.9 Notre Dame/South Bend. His Master’s Degree thesis from Indiana University dealt with the notion of travel in blues lyrics. He previously published a weekly blues article for the student newspaper of Indiana University South Bend, and has been interviewed by newspapers and magazines regarding the blues.