William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith was born in Goshen, New York. His mother and grandmother chose the names to reflect the different parts of his heritage; Joseph after Saint Joseph (Bible), Bonaparte (French), Bertholoff (biological father's last name), Smith (added when he was three, his stepfather's name), and William and Henry which were added for "spiritual balance". In his memoir he reports that his father, Frank Bertholoff, was Jewish. Willie was at least somewhat conversant in Yiddish, as he demonstrated in a television interview late in his life. Willie's mother, Ida Oliver, had "Spanish, Negro, and Mohawk Indian blood". Her mother, Ann Oliver, was a banjo player and had been in Primrose and West minstrel shows (Smith also had two cousins who were dancers in the shows, Etta and John Bloom). According to Ida, "Frank Bertholoff was a light skinned playboy who loved his liquor, girls, and gambling." His mother threw Frank out of the house when "The Lion" was two years old. When his father died in 1901, his mother married John Smith, a master mechanic from Paterson, NJ. The surname Smith was added to that of "The Lion" at age 3. He grew up living at 76 Academy Street in Newark.
John Smith worked for C.M. Bailey, Pork Packers, and he would leave the house around midnight to pick up the freshly killed pigs and bring them to the packing house. He was supposed to be home by 4 A.M., but would usually go to bars. Eventually, Willie's mother wanted him to accompany his stepfather to work to hopefully ensure that John Smith would come straight home and not go drinking. Willie said he actually enjoyed his job, but most of the time he would have to drive the horses home. He also could only work on Fridays and Saturdays, as his mother did not want him to miss school. He wrote about the experience of being at the slaughterhouse with his stepfather:
I couldn't stand to see what I saw at the slaughterhouse. I would watch wide-eyed as the squealling pigs slid down the iron rails to the cutter where they were slashed through the middle, with the two halves falling into a tank of hot water. The kill sometimes went to as many as four hundred pigs a night. It was a sickening sight to watch. But the cries from the pigs brought forth an emotional excitement. It was another weird but musical sound that I can still hear in my head. The squeeks, the squeels, the dipping them in hot water, they put them on a hook, take off the head, the legs, going down an aisle--I hear it on an oboe. That's what you hear in a symphony: destruction, war, peace, beauty, all mixed.
In 1907, the family moved to 90 Bloome Street in Newark, but moved again around 1912. His stepfather got a new job at Crucible Steel Company, across the Passaic River in Harrison, New Jersey. The job paid more, and Willie would have to get him before his bosses got him drunk on his own money.
He attended the Baxter School, rumored to be a school for bad children. The school was notorious for brawls between Irish, Italian, and African-American children. Willie was in Mrs. Black's fruit store and was caught with his hand in her register. He had wanted to borrow a dime to see S.H. Dudley's traveling road show at Blaney's Theater. The thing that shocked Willie the most was the fact that she turned him over to the police. Mrs. Black's son-in-law was the number three tough guy in Newark, and their whole family hated policemen and wouldn't allow them into their store. Willie would later write, "But they sure didn't mind turning over a 10 year old boy to the police." He went to children's court and was sentenced to a ten dollar fine and probation.
After that incident, he was transferred to Morton School, and began sixth grade at his new school (which had a lot less brawling). He would go onto attend Barringer High School (then known as Newark High School). In an effort to get the attention of the ladies, he attempted sports including swimming, skating, track, basketball, sledding, cycling, and boxing. He learned to swim in the Morris Canal.
Prizefighting was the sport he was most interested in. Willie says that "maybe that because I've known most of the great fighters from way back. They liked to visit the night clubs...". He got to kid around with Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Battling Siki, Kid Chocolate, Sam Langford, Joe Gans, Bob Fitzsimmons, Harry Greb, Joe Louis, and Gene Tunney. Fitzsimmons owned a saloon on Market Street in Newark, and that is where While learned about Stanley Ketchel, Kid McCoy, Benny Leonard, Jimmy Britt, and Charlie Warner.
Willie also belonged to a gang, and the gang had a club called The Ramblers (two famous members were Abner Zwillman and Niggy Rutman). Willie was one of two colored men in the gang, the other being Louis Moss, who Willie referred to as a "sweet talker, who could take his foes apart". Moss later became known as "Big Sue" and owned a saloon in Tenderloin, Manhattan. Moss was his own bouncer at his club (according to Willie, Moss was 6'4 and about 240 pounds). Willie says he used to help him out by playing piano in his back room.
When Willie was about six, he went downstairs to the basement of his Academy Street home and found the organ his mother used to play. It was not in good shape, and nearly half of the keys were missing. After his mother discovered his interest in the instrument, she taught him the melodies she knew. One of the first songs he learned was Home! Sweet Home!. His uncle Rob, who was a bass singer and ran his own quartet, would teach Willie how to dance. Willie entered an amateur dance contest at the Arcadia Theater and won first place and the prize, ten dollars. After that, he focused more on playing music at the clubs.
Willie had wanted a new piano very badly, but every time he thought his mother was able to afford it, there was a new mouth to feed. Willie got a job at Hauseman's Footwear store shining shoes and running errands, where he was paid five dollars a week. "Old Man" Hauseman paid that much because he liked the fact that Willie could speak Hebrew and also because Willie wanted to buy a piano with the money. As it turned out, Marshall & Wendell's was holding a contest: the object was to guess how many dots there were in a printed circle in their newspaper advertisement. Willie used arithmetic to help guess the number, and the upright piano was delivered the next day. From that day forth, he sat down at the piano and played. He would play songs he heard in the clubs, including Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin, Cannonball Rag by Joe Northrup, Black and White Rag by George Botsford, and Don't Hit that Lady Dressed in Green, about which he said "the lyrics to this song were a sex education, especially for a twelve year old boy.". His other favorites picked up from the saloons were She's Got Good Booty and Baby, Let Your Drawers Hang Low.
By the early 1910s he was playing in New York City and Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Smith served in World War I, where he saw action in France, and played drum with the African-American regimental band led by Tim Brymn. He also played basketball with the regimental team. Legend has it that his nickname "The Lion" came from his reported bravery while serving as a heavy artillery gunner. He was a decorated veteran of the 350th Field Artillery.
Around 1915, he married Blanche Merrill (née Howard), a song writer and lyricist who wrote a number of songs and lyrics for Broadway shows from about 1912 to 1925, particularly for Fanny Brice. Smith and Merrill are thought to have separated before Smith joined the army in 1917, serving as a corporal (he claimed sergeant was his rank), but were still living together in Newark, New Jersey at the time of the 1920 census. Merrill was white and Smith was the only black man living in their apartment building at the time.
He returned to working in Harlem clubs and in rent parties, where Smith and his contemporaries James P. Johnson and Fats Waller developed a new, more sophisticated piano style later called “stride.” also after the war, where he worked for decades, often as a soloist, sometimes in bands and accompanying blues singers such as Mamie Smith. Although working in relative obscurity, he was a "musician's musician", influencing countless others including Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, and Artie Shaw.
In the 1940s his music found appreciation with a wider audience, and he toured North America and Europe up to 1971. To leave the US, he needed a birth certificate. He went to the Orange County Courthouse and found it, but discovered that the birth certificate said he was born on November 25, in contradiction to his mother telling him he was born on November 23.
Willie "The Lion" Smith died in New York City. His autobiography, Music on My Mind, The Memoirs Of An American Pianist written with the assistance of George Hoefer, was published by Doubleday and Company in 1964. It included a generous foreword written by Duke Ellington. It also includes a comprehensive list of his compositions and a discography. His students included such notable names as Mel Powell, Brooks Kerr, and Mike Lipskin. With the latter, he made two albums: a two-LP set of playing and reminiscences, The Memoirs of Willie the Lion Smith, done in 1965, and an album of solos and duets from 1971: California Here I Come, which coincided with Mike's relocation from New York to Marin County.
He was present during the taking of the famous Jazz photograph A Great Day in Harlem in 1958. However, he famously was sitting down resting when the selected shot was taken, leaving him out of the final picture. This is discussed in depth in Jean Bach's award winning 1994 documentary on the history of this photo, released on DVD.
Willie Smith had 10 brothers and a sister (including half-siblings). His older brother Jerome would die at the age of 15. His other older brother, George, became an officer in Atlantic City, and he would pass away in 1946. Willie said of George, "Our paths didn't cross very often in later life. His friends and connections were always on the other side of the fence from mine." His half-brother Robert owned a bar on West Street in Newark. His half-brother Melvin lived on Mulberry Street in Manhattan. As for his other two half-brothers, Norman and Ralph, he had no idea what became of them. All of the other siblings lived to the ages of 3 to 7.
He was, for a short while, working as a Hebrew cantor in a Harlem Synagogue.
Willie "The Lion" Smith, cuyo verdadero nombre era William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff (Goshen, Nueva York, 25 de noviembre de 1897 - [[Nueva York, 18 de abril de 1973) fue un pianista, compositor y cantante de jazz tradicional, norteamericano.
Inicia su carrera profesional en 1912, tocando en clubs de Atlantic City, aunque se ve interrumpida por su llamamiento a filas durante la Gran Guerra de 1914-18. A su vuelta a Nueva York, continua tocando en clubs y realiza varias grabaciones, tocando además frecuentemente en comedias musicales. Toca y graba con un gran número de músicos, entre los que destacan Mamie Smith (1920), clarence Williams (1933-1935), Mezz Mezzrow (1934-1936), Sidney Bechet (1939-1941) o Max Kaminsky (1944). Hace diversas giras por Europa (1949, 1950, 1965, 1966).
Smith es uno de los representantes más avanzados del llamaso "stride piano style", típico de los pianistas de Harlem, que desarrollaba con un potente swing. Fue profesor de músicos como Artie Shaw.