Something Doing

Ragtime Happenings in the Southland

MARCH, 2004

NUMBER 95

Rose Leaf Ragtime Club February Meeting (2/29/2004)

Reported by Gary Rametta


February 2004 will go down as one of the most well attended Rose Leaf club meetings ever. Advance notice of Sonny Leyland's special appearance was no doubt the reason so many enthusiastic guests showed up. Veteran club member Charlie Carpenter said he counted 93 attendees. Needless to say, the IHOP banquet room was filled beyond capacity, and several guests sat outside the room to listen.

Bill Mitchell on piano and Phil Cannon on banjo/guitar opened the meeting with two ragtime favorites, Charles Johnson's 1909 "Porcupine Rag," and Percy Wenrich's "The Smiler" from 1907. Bill then soloed on Ford Dabney's "Georgia Grind," another favorite, and one he also performs with his band.

Ron Ross performed two solos, first an excellent original, "Sunday Serendipity," then James Scott's 1906 "Frog Legs Rag." Though Scott had previously written a few rags and piano solos, "Frog Legs" was his first to catch on with the public.

The guests then welcomed a surprised "Old George" McClellan to the keys. Though not expecting to be asked to play, George nonetheless laid his velvety touch and rich chord voicings to the standard "Indiana." Next, by request, he played his "A Rag for Rosanant?" in the form of a piano duet with Bill Mitchell. George noted that the "Rosanant?" the rag is named for was not Don Quixote's royal steed, but a Danish friend's defunct Russian-model automobile.

Making his first appearance at the club was Carl "Sonny" Leyland, a Southern California resident by way of New Orleans and Great Britain, which he left in 1988 to come to the U.S. Sonny specializes in barrelhouse, boogie-woogie and blues piano (and vocals), but he also plays rags (and probably anything else) with masterful skill and lots of soul.

Sonny began the first of his two sets with a dazzling blues stomp called "Back in the Alley" by "Cow-Cow" Davenport. Next was a superb rendition of Harry Belding's "Good Gravy" rag. Following was an amazing boogie-woogie improvisation whose stylings Sonny attributed to the 1920's pianist Clarence "Pinetop" Smith.

Sonny kept the tempo ablaze and his fingers ablur on an original composition called "Pancake Charlie," a combination of barrelhouse, blues and boogie. He then delivered his first piano/vocal of the afternoon, "Crazy With The Blues," by a St. Louis bluesman named Petey Wheatstraw. To complete his first solo set, Sonny played "Honky Tonk Train Blues," a classic boogie-woogie by one of the fathers of the genre, Meade Lux Lewis. He then invited Bill Mitchell and Kitty Wilson, a Sacramento washboard player, to join him on "Ballin' the Jack" and "Possum and Taters." He then soared over the keys on a boogie-woogie improvisation.

Les Soper capped off the first half of the meeting with James Scott's ageless "Grace and Beauty" and Galen Wilkes' "Oyster Shimmy," a Jelly Roll Morton-styled tribute to a certain dance performed in the Storyville district pleasure houses in New Orleans in the early part of the 20th century. After Bill Coleman provided a series of cakewalks, standards and pop tunes during intermission, the second half of our musicale with Frank Sano and Bill Mitchell on duo pianos playing the 1912 hit "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" and Rogers and Hart's "The Girlfriend" from the 1920s.

Andrew Barrett took over the keys with two solos, first Tom Turpin's landmark "Harlem Rag" from 1897 the George L. Cobb's adventurous "Chromatic Capers" from 1925.

Ruby Fradkin came up to entertain the troops some more with a bluesy and swinging version of Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag." She then delved into two improvisations, first a ballad based on the Hebrew National Anthem, then a blues/boogie of her own composition.

Sonny was invited back up for another set. This time he began with W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," complete with a soulful, smooth yet gritty vocal. Next was Charles Cooke's great "Blame it on the Blues." Sonny's rendition was, quite simply, the best I've ever heard. He followed up with a nod to another blues giant, Jimmy Yancey's "Yancey's Bugle Call," then gave the keys another blues workout on an improvised ballad.

Sonny then introduced his next piece, a stride number, saying that the level of pianistic difficulty it presented always made his forays into stride something like a roll of the dice. If that were so, he rolled anything but snake eyes on Fats Waller's "Russian Fantasy," which featured a flurry of arpeggios and chordal runs over a characteristic striding left hand. He finished with two originals, "Almond Joys" and "Witches' Kitchen," both of which showcased his highly developed technique and storytelling ability. The latter number appears on his CD, which many guests eagerly purchased.

Nancy Kleier came up to solo on William Powell's 1909 "Bachelor's Button: Ragtime Intermezzo" and "Who Let the Cows Out?" from 1910. Following Nancy was pianist and Keyboard Magazine writer Robbie Genet, who played two improvisations replete with the blues and boogie-woogie stylings he favors. The meeting came to a close with Bill Mitchell on piano and Eric Grosch, a soprano saxophone player making his first appearance at the club, combining on an extended 12-bar blues.

Many thanks to Ron Ross for securing Sonny for what turned out to be a memorable gig, and for doing an excellent job of advance publicity for the event.


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