Jimmy Yancey

Early Influences

He made boogie-woogie his own with unpredictable bass lines and sharp, staccato accents.

Jimmy Yancey was a self-taught pianist, a fact that makes his inventive playing all the more remarkable. Known for his stunning dexterity, he was an architect of boogie-woogie piano, a style that went on to influence rock and roll.


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Jimmy Yancey is the progenitor of boogie-woogie piano, a style that eventually became a recognizable element of up-tempo blues and early rock and roll.

The boogie-woogie craze came and went in the latter half of the Thirties, but Yancey had actually been playing in that style as far back as the 1910's and 1920's. A self-taught pianist, singer and dancer, he performed in a style characterized by rolling, rhythmic lines from his left hand played off against percussive accents from the right hand.

Jimmy Yancey was born in Chicago on February 20, 1894 or 1898, depending on the source. He learned how to play piano from his older brother, Alonzo. Their father played guitar and was a dancer, and his sons were part of his act. Jimmy was also a baseball player, and during World War I, he played for the Chicago All-Americans, an African-American league team. He also served as a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox for much of his life. 

By 1915 Yancey was a noted pianist, and in the early Twenties, he was very much in-demand at rent parties and after-hours joints around Chicago. Though Yancey’s piano style was very much boogie-woogie, his playing was delicate and subtle. He popularized a left-hand figure that became known as the “Yancey bass” and was later used in Pee Wee Crayton's "Blues after Hours,” Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used to Know" and many other songs.

Yancey finally began recording in 1939. He recorded seventeen songs in his first session, but only two of them were released as 78s. The other tracks were finally released after his death. Nonetheless, those recordings got things rolling for Yancey, and later that year he recorded the first of two sessions for Bluebird. The following year he recorded for both Bluebird and Vocalion. While critics, who cited the purity and originality of Yancey's approach to boogie-woogie, praised the recordings, they did not sell well, and this chapter of Yancey's recorded work ended after just fifteen titles.

Yancey returned to the studio in 1943, recording sixteen songs for Chicago’s Sessions label. Those tracks featured Yancey’s wife, Estella “Mama” Yancey, on vocals. It wasn’t until December 1950 that Yancey returned to the studio. He cut six tracks for the Paramount label. In July 1951, he went back into the studio and laid down seventeen tracks for Atlantic.

On September 17, 1951, two months after the Atlantic sessions, Jimmy Yancey died of a diabetic stroke. Over the course of his career, he influenced many musicians, including Clarence “Pinetop” Smith and Charles “Cow Cow” Davenport, and his boogie-woogie style ultimately influenced the development of rock and roll.

Jimmy Yancey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

Inductee: Jimmy Yancey (piano, vocals; born February 20, year unknown, died September 17, 1951)

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