Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith: Stride Piano’s Uptown Ruler

Willie “The Lion” Smith in his New York City apartment in 1947, smoking a signature stogie. Credit: William Gottlieb/Library of Congress via Flickr

Written by Nick Morrison from Jazz24

The life of stride pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith was the stuff of legend, but unfortunately, some of that legend seems to have come from Smith’s own imagination. For example, Smith always claimed to have been born in 1897, but his WWI draft registration states that he was born 118 years ago, in November 1893.

Like the date of his birth, the origin of his nickname (“The Lion”) is also subject to debate; Smith always said that he earned it for his bravery as an artilleryman in WWI. After the war, he returned to Harlem and was soon known as one of the three great Harlem stride-piano players (along withJames P. Johnson and Fats Waller). Among the Big Three, many remember Smith as the chairman of that particular board: Duke Ellington idolized “The Lion.” Aspiring jazz pianists as diverse as Billy Taylor and Thelonious Monk studied under him. Smith was also a composer, abon vivant, a student of Judaism and one of those maddening braggarts who could make outrageous claims about his abilities and then proceed to back them up. He was seldom seen without a cigar in his mouth and a derby on his head; he made sure he was noticed, which he usually accomplished by outperforming every other piano player in the room.

When Art Kane published his famous Great Day in Harlem photograph in Esquire magazine in 1958, some wondered where “The Lion” was. Well, Smith showed up for the shoot, but got tired of standing around, so he sat on the stoop of a nearby brownstone while that great photo was taken. Here are five reasons why Willie “The Lion” Smith should have been in that picture.

Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith: Stride Piano’s Uptown Ruler


Willie “The Lion” Smith

Artist: Willie “The Lion” Smith

Album: Pork and Beans

Although “The Lion” wasn’t shy when talking about his piano-playing prowess, he also didn’t skimp on complimenting other pianists he admired. Throughout his life, Smith played pieces by one of his stride-piano inspirations, Luckey Roberts, and (quite rightly) always gave Roberts high praise. This version of Roberts’ composition, “Pork and Beans,” was recorded late in Smith’s career, but as you’ll hear, he was still playing at an extremely high level.

Hear “Pork and Beans” on Rhapsody.


Willie “The Lion” Smith

Song: Swing, Brother, Swing

Artist: Willie “The Lion” Smith

Album: Wille “The Lion Smith” And His Cubs [Timeless]

Smith is best remembered for his solo piano recordings, but he also occasionally played in group configurations. In the mid-1930s, he recorded a number of 78s as Willie “The Lion” Smith and His Cubs. On this recording, The Cubs’ lineup consists of Ed Allen (cornet), Cecil Scott (clarinet) and Willie Williams (washboard). The vocalist on the record is not credited. Some say it’s “The Lion,” while others claim it’s Clarence Williams (one of the writers of the song). Whoever it is, he’s having a fine time.


Song: Fingerbuster

Artist: Willie “The Lion” Smith

Album: 1950

“Fingerbuster” was a show-off tune for “The Lion” — the sort of thing other pianists would have to equal or beat in the musical cutting contests that were common among Harlem stride pianists. In this one, you can hear little flourishes of dissonance that almost certainly caught the ear of the young Thelonious Monk. (Note: Smith’s “Fingerbuster” shouldn’t be confused with the Jelly Roll Morton piano piece called “Fingerbreaker.” It would have infuriated “The Lion” to be associated with Morton in any way. There was apparently no love lost between the two piano wizards.)


Song: Contrary Motion

Artist: Willie “The Lion” Smith


In a 1957 interview with producer, critic and writer Leonard Feather, Smith talked about the genesis of some of his songs. Here’s what he had to say about “Contrary Motion”: “I wrote ‘Contrary Motion’ while I was at a party one night. I was listening to the people talk and drink … how they were acting. Everybody had a different motion, a different attitude, and I was thinking of Chopin in the left hand. ‘Contrary Motion’ divides itself with motion, thought and emotionalism.”


Song: Echo of Spring

Artist: Willie “The Lion” Smith

Album: 1925-1937

 Also known as “Echoes of Spring,” this composition has turned out to be the best bid at immortality for “The Lion.” Although he was known for his compositional skills as well as his playing, “Echo of Spring” is the only song of his that has been “covered” to any extent by other artists. But if this is the song that Willie “The Lion” Smith has to hang his hat on for the ages, you couldn’t pick a finer one. This is a gorgeous piece of music — wistful, playful, adorned with light classical flourishes, a few blue tinges and perfectly (though somewhat inconsistently) titled. Most would agree that it’s his masterpiece.


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