When Grainger was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the Granger family name did not include an "i." Although the exact date at which Grainger changed his name is unknown, he registered for the World War I draft by signing his name "Grainger". At that time, he was living in Chicago, and by 1916, his professional career had begun. In the spring of 1920 he left Chicago for New York City, and by 1924, he was living in Harlem. Working with another pianist and composer Bob Ricketts, in 1926, Grainger wrote and published the book How to Play and Sing the Blues Like the Phonograph and Stage Artists. Though he would never really be known as an exceptional soloist in his own right, Grainger nevertheless thrived as an accompanist, working with singers such as Viola McCoy, Clara Smith, and Victoria Spivey. From 1924 to 1928, he worked with blues singer Bessie Smith to record more than a dozen sides for Columbia Records. Amongst the height of his career was the 1928 stage production, Mississippi Days, which also featured Smith. He was also Mamie Smith's accompanist in the 1929 film short Jailhouse Blues and regularly appeared with her in stage shows. Other female blues singers he wrote songs for included Gladys Bryant, Dolly Ross, Ada Brown and his own wife, Ethel Finnie. As a bandleader, Grainger also made eight recordings. Four of these records, made with his ensemble the Get Happy Band, are of special interest to collectors of early jazz, as these albums featured performances by the soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, as well as by Duke Ellington sidemen Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton (trombone) and Elmer Snowden (banjo). "(In) Harlem's Araby" also appeared on these recordings. The composition was co-written with Jo Trent and Thomas "Fats" Waller, and is still considered one of Grainger's best works. His last known recording appears to have been in 1932, although he performed and composed into the 1940s. His latter years remain mysteriously murky, although a copyright renewal application for the How to Play and Sing the Blues book was filed in his name in 1954.
Two of Grainger's songs have endured as blues standards: "Tain't Nobody's Business if I Do" (co-authored with Everett Robbins, who had also played piano in Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds), and "Dying Crapshooter's Blues" (1927). The former has been performed and recorded by several artists, including Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Fats Waller, Jimmy Witherspoon and the Ink Spots. The latter was performed by Martha Copeland, Viola McCoy, and Rosa Henderson, before passing into folk-blues repertoire.
by Scott Yanow
Very little is known about pianist Porter Grainger despite the fact that he appeared on many records in the 1920's, mostly backing blues and vaudeville singers. Not considered that great a pianist, Grainger's main fame during his lifetime was as a composer for musical shows. He was playing music professionally at least as early as 1916 and in the 1920's wrote for several shows. Grainger was Bessie Smith's accompanist in the 1928 production Mississippi Days and recorded with her in addition to Gladys Bryant, Ethel Finnie, Dolly Ross, Clint Jones, Ada Brown, Buddy Christian's Four Cry-Babies and the Harmony Hounds among others. Grainger's own two sessions as a leader found him backing either the "Three Jazz Songsters" or the "Jubilee Singers" so there is precious little of him on record. After the close of the 1920's, Porter Grainger slipped permanently into obscurity; even his birth and death dates are not known. A 1996 RST CD has many of Grainger's main recordings.