James Edward Yancey, b. February 20, 1894 in Chicago, IL, d. September 17, 1951 in Chicago, IL, boogie-woogie pianist, composer, and lyricist, active 1930s - 1950s. One reviewer described him as "one of the pioneers of this raucous, rapid-fire, eight-to-the-bar piano style". While still a small child Yancey appeared in vaudeville as a tap dancer and singer. After touring the USA and Europe he abandoned this career and, just turned 20, settled in Chicago where he taught himself to play piano. He began to appear at rent parties and informal club sessions, gradually building a reputation. Nevertheless, in 1925, he decided that music was an uncertain way to earn a living and took a job as groundsman with the city’s White Sox baseball team. He continued to play piano and was one of the prime movers in establishing the brief popularity of boogie-woogie. He made many records and played clubs and concerts, often accompanying his wife, singer Mama Yancey, but retained his job as groundsman until shortly before his death in 1951. Although Yancey’s playing style was elementary, he played with verve and dash, and if he fell behind such contemporaries as Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson in technique, he made up most of the deficiencies through sheer enthusiasm.
by Chris Kelsey
One of the seminal boogie-woogie pianists, Yancey was active in and around Chicago playing house parties and clubs from 1915, yet he remained unrecorded until May 1939, when he recorded "The Fives" and "Jimmy's Stuff" for a small label. Soon after, he became the first boogie-woogie pianist to record an album of solos, for Victor. By then, Yancey's work around Chicago had already influenced such younger and better-known pianists as Meade "Lux" Lewis, Pinetop Smith, and Albert Ammons.
Yancey played vaudeville as a tap dancer and singer from the age of six. He settled in Chicago in 1915, where he began composing songs and playing music at informal gatherings. In 1925, he became groundskeeper at Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. Yancey was a musician's musician, remaining mostly unknown and unheard outside of Chicago until 1936, when Lewis recorded one of his tunes, "Yancey Special." Three years later, producer Dan Qualey became the first to record Yancey for his new Solo Art label. After the Victor recordings, Yancey went on to record for OKeh and Bluebird. In later years, Yancey performed with his wife, blues singer Estelle "Mama" Yancey; they appeared together at Carnegie Hall in 1948.
Yancey was not as technically flashy as some of his disciples, but he was an expressive, earthy player with a flexible left hand that introduced an air of unpredictability into his bass lines. His playing had a notable peculiarity: Although he wrote and performed compositions in a variety of keys, he ended every tune in E flat. He was also an undistinguished blues singer, accompanying himself on piano. Although Yancey attained a measure of fame for his music late in life, he never quit his day job, remaining with the White Sox until just before his death.