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Willie "TheLion" Smith, 1974
On this date in 1897, “Willie the Lion” Smith was born. He was a Black Jewish jazz pianist and composer.
Born Bertholoff William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Smith in Goshen, New York; he grew up in Newark, N.J, with his mother and stepfather. He began studying piano at the age of six, inspired by his grandmother who played organ and banjo, and by the Christian and Jewish music he heard in Harlem and Newark. He had his bar mitzvah in 1910 and in the 1940s became cantor of the Black synagogue in Harlem.
Smith was playing clubs by the age of 15. He married Blanche Merrill in 1916 and served a two-year enlistment in World War I until 1918. He was not as well known as his peers, James P. Johnson and “Fats” Waller.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Smith did not record much, but in the 1950s, his material took an upsurge. At this time he made a number of records with different labels showcasing his playing, singing, and in some cases talking. Smith was noted as a force in music by many of the great jazz artists of the 20th century; Duke Ellington paid tribute to him with his composition "Portrait of the Lion." Smith, whose father was Jewish, claimed inspiration from the music he heard in synagogues as a child.
Willie the Lion Smith died in New York City on April 18, 1973.
Jazz: A History of the New York Scene
Samuel Charters and Leonard Kunstadt
(Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., 1962)