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James Yancey (1935)
From Chicago, James Edward Yancey was largely a self-taught pianist, with some instruction from his brother Alonzo. He had a childhood career as a singer and dancer, touring American vaudeville circuits and European music halls. He gave a command performance for King George V of England in 1913. Returning to Chicago, Yancey played at small taverns and informal gatherings. He also played baseball in the Negro leagues until 1919, the year he married Estella Harris (Mama Yancey), who sang with him at house parties throughout the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.
They had three recording sessions together and performed on network radio in 1939 and at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1948. As an African American blues pianist, he established the boogie-woogie style with slow, steady, simple left-hand bass patterns. These became more rapid in the work of his students Albert Ammons and Meade "Lux" Lewis, who popularized the "Yancey Special."
Uniquely, from 1925 until his death, Yancey worked as a groundskeeper at the Chicago White Sox baseball stadium; he died on. Sept. 17, 1951. Yancey's influence on other musicians was profound, but his music was known to only a small coterie during his lifetime. Mama Yancey continued to perform and record, working with pianists Little Brother Montgomery and Erwin Helfer. She sang at Carnegie Hall again in 1981.
The Encyclopedia Britannica, Fifteenth Edition.
Copyright 1996 Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.
Frank Driggs Collection/Copyright Archive Photos