When a performer becomes known by a moniker like Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, you might think he’d find it a little long and cumbersome to drag around. But that probably wasn’t the case with the legendary jazz pianist, an early star who specialized in the ‘stride piano’ style*, because when he was born in turn-of-the-century Goshen, New York, he was given the name William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith.
The offspring of mixed-race parents, Smith’s name reflected the influence of a number of things including heritage, religion, and family, and it was the latter that propelled him into music. He learned his keyboard skills at the side of his mother, a talented organist and pianist herself, and even though he had his share of childhood problems, by his teens he was playing piano professionally in area clubs.
Within a few years he was newly married – to a white woman, rare at that time – and was beginning to build a solid musical career. Unfortunately it was interrupted by his service in World War I, and it’s been said that it was his bravery during that conflict that earned him his nickname, although details are a little sketchy. In any case, in the post-war years he began to attract some attention on the New York jazz scene, even inspiring a young Duke Ellington, who would later say, ‘Willie The Lion was the greatest influence of all the great jazz piano players who have come along.’
Although Smith kept busy, it wasn’t until the mid-1930s that he finally began to make some good records and draw some national attention. Never shy, by then he had built up a persona that included a derby hat, an ever-present cigar, and a lot of attitude, and he would use it all in a career that stretched for several decades. Along the way he worked with some of the best, and by the time he died at age 79 in 1973 he’d created a legacy as one of the mainstays of the early jazz era.
*Sometimes called ‘Harlem stride’, it was also favored by Fats Waller.