July 25, 1985 – Willie Lee Perryman was born October 19, 1911 on a farm in Hampton, Georgia, where his parents Ada and Henry Perryman sharecropped. He was part of a large family, though sources differ on exactly how many brothers and sisters he had. Perryman was an albino African American, as was his older brother Rufus, who also had a blues piano career as “Speckled Red”.
When Perryman was six years old, his father gave up farming and moved the family to Atlanta to work in a factory. Not much is known about Perryman’s education or early life, but he recalled that his mother bought a piano for her two albino sons. Both brothers had very poor vision, an effect of their albinism, so neither took formal music lessons, but they developed their barrelhouse style (a loud percussive type of blues piano suitable for noisy bars or taverns) through playing by ear. Perryman sometimes recalled imitating Rufus’s style after watching him play, but it is doubtful that his brother was a major influence. Rufus, nineteen years older than Perryman, left Georgia in 1925 and did not return until a 1960 visit. Another influence that Perryman cited in interviews was Fats Waller, whose records his mother brought home. Other influences were likely the local blues pianists playing at “house” or “rent” parties, which were common community fund-raisers of that era.
His performing and recording careers emerged during the period of transition from completely segregated “race music”, to “rhythm and blues”, which was marketed to white audiences. Some music historians credit Perryman’s 1950 recording “Rocking With Red” for the popularization of the term rock and roll in Atlanta. His simple, hard-pounding left hand and his percussive right hand, coupled with his cheerful shout, brought him considerable success over three decades.
By the early 1930s, Perryman was playing at house parties, juke joints, and barrelhouses in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. He developed his percussive playing style and harsh singing style to compensate for the lack of sound systems and to overcome the noise of people talking in venues. He worked these circuits with other Georgia bluesmen, including Barbecue Bob, Charlie Hicks, Curley Weaver, and “Blind Willie” McTell.
Perryman married in the early 1930s, and he and his wife Flora had two daughters. He obtained seasonal employment performing in Brevard, North Carolina, a mountain resort town, and commuted back and forth between there and Atlanta. The Brevard job brought him before white audiences; by 1934 he had also begun to play at white clubs in Atlanta. In Atlanta he would play at a white club until midnight and then head over to an African American club, where he would play until 4 am. Perryman developed a repertoire of pop standards, which were more popular among the white audiences, while continuing his blues sets in the African American clubs.
Around 1936 he began to be billed as ‘Piano Red’, and made his first recordings with McTell in Augusta for Vocalion Records, although these were never released. He also began working as an upholsterer, a trade which he occasionally maintained through later years.
In 1950, after spending the previous 14 years upholstering and playing music on weekends, Perryman recorded “Rockin’ with Red” and “Red’s Boogie” at the WGST radio studios in Atlanta for RCA Victor. Both songs became national hits, reaching numbers five and three respectively on the Billboard R&B chart, and “Rockin’ with Red” has since been covered many times under many titles. This success, along with further hits “The Wrong Yo Yo” (allegedly written by Speckled Red), “Laying The Boogie” and “Just Right Bounce”, allowed him to resume an active performing schedule. He also recorded sessions in New York City and Nashville during the early 1950s.
Red played for white teenagers’ high school parties in peoples homes in Atlanta. You would arrange for him to be picked up at his home and returned and providing a “bottle” of booze for him as well as a very nominal fee.
During the mid-1950s Perryman also worked as a disc jockey on radio stations WGST and WAOK in Atlanta, broadcasting ‘The Piano Red Show’ (later ‘The Dr. Feelgood Show’) directly from a small shack in his back yard. A young James Brown made an appearance on his show in the late 1950s. Perryman’s involvement had him appearing on a flatbed truck in many parades, which led to his song “Peachtree Parade”. From the mid-1950s until the late 1960s, he recorded for several record labels, including Columbia, for whom he made several records, Checker, for whom he recorded eight sides with Willie Dixon on bass, and Groove Records, a subsidiary of RCA Victor, producing the first hit for that label.
His most famous one was Dr. Feelgood, not to be confused with Motley Crüe’s hit, which became the first to hit the pop music charts.
Signed to Okeh Records in 1961, Perryman began using the name Dr. Feelgood and the Interns, releasing several hits, including the much-covered “Doctor Feelgood”. The persona was one he had initially adopted on his radio shows. The new career was short-lived, though, and Piano Red was never able to regain his former stature. In 1963, The Merseybeats recorded a cover of the b-side of “Doctor Feelgood,” titled “Mr. Moonlight” (written by Roy Lee Johnson) as the B-side of their UK top 5 hit I Think of You. It was also recorded by the Beatles and appeared on the album Beatles for Sale in the United Kingdom and on the Beatles ’65 album in the United States. In 1966, The Lovin’ Spoonful recorded his song “Bald Headed Lena” on their second album, Daydream.
Perryman continued to be a popular performer in Underground Atlanta, and had several European tours late in his career, including appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Berlin Jazz Festival, German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s inauguration, and on BBC Radio. During this time, he was befriended by Bill Wyman, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, and Paul McCartney, and Pete Ham of Badfinger wrote a song in his honor.
When Muhlenbrink’s Saloon closed in 1979, Perryman found himself without a regular job. That lasted until 1981, when he was hired to perform five nights a week at The Excelsior Mill in Atlanta. In 1984, he asked co-owner Michael Reeves to arrange a live recording and Reeves arranged for a mobile recording in October of that year.
In 1985, the same year that he was diagnosed with cancer, Red charted the song “Yo Yo”, a duet with Danny Shirley, who would later become lead singer of Confederate Railroad.
Perryman died on July 25, 1985 at Dekalb General Hospital in Decatur, Georgia. Among those who attended his funeral were the Governor of Georgia and the Mayor of Atlanta.
• The tapes from the Excelsior Mill remained in Reeves’s possession for twenty-five years. In April 2010, he formed a partnership with author and producer David Fulmer to release a CD of the recording under the title The Lost Atlanta Tapes. The CD was released by Landslide Records on August 17, 2010.
• Piano Red’s song “Dr Feelgood” was covered by several UK beat groups including The Beatles, and Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, who used it as the b-side to their 1964 single, “Always and Ever”.
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