Born: August 7, 1887 | Died: February 5, 1968 Primary Instrument: Piano
Luckey Roberts - stride pianist, composer (1887 - 1968)
He was Harlem's original piano powerhouse, the king of the New York Fast Shout pianists, the grandfather of stride piano. The name Luckey Roberts has become little more than a footnote in the pages of jazz history books. The names of his students are better known today than the master whom they worshipped. And what a list of disciples it is. These musicians include such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, James P Johnson, Eubie Blake, Willie The Lion Smith and last but not least George Gershwin.
Luckey Roberts was born on August 7, 1887 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After working in vaudeville as a child, Roberts moved to New York where he established a minor reputation as a composer and a major one as a performer of “Rags” and later “Stride” piano.
Luckey was the first of the Harlem pianists to record, for Columbia in 1916. But it would be more than half a century before recording engineers would have the ability to record such explosive music and the records were never released and are today lost. During the 1920s, he accompanied several vocalists and also provided background piano on some of the famous Two Black Crows recordings. Luckey recorded next in the ‘40’s for Circle records. In the ‘50’s he made a Honky Tonk album and finally after surviving a car accident in which his hands were shattered and several strokes, he was finally captured in stereo for the Good Time Jazz label.
In the years between World War One and World War Two, Roberts’ composing talents were recognized more and several of his musical shows were produced Roberts was the first Harlem pianist to be published, the composer of over a dozen musical comedies, the composer of several big band era hits, as well as composer of Symphonic works that premiered at both Carnegie Hall in 1939 and Town Hall in 1941.
Although Luckey did not become that successful as a Broadway show writer, he struck gold in the world of society. As a society bandleader, Roberts saw his income rise from six dollars a week to one thousand dollars a night. His orchestras could be heard playing on Park Avenue, on Long Island, Nantucket, Newport, and Palm Beach. He was a favorite of royalty and of the family of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Luckey opened his own place in 1940 at 773 St. Nicholas Ave. calling it Luckey's Rendezvous, which featured singing and dancing waiters, waitresses, and cloakroom attendants. In this period, Luckey began concentrating on serious music and concert performances. The Carnegie Hall concert occurred on August 30, 1939, and included his work for piano and orchestra Spanish Suite. On May 28,1941, the orchestra performed at Town Hall. In his home town of Philadelphia, at Robin Hood Hall, he premiered his syncopated rhapsody for piano and orchestra Whistlin' Pete. In 1941, Luckey scored two successes on the Hit Parade with Moon Light Cocktail and “Massachusetts.”
Luckey continued to run The Rendezvous until 1954 when it closed because, according to The Lion, he would always be too generous with free drinks for his friends and clientele. After spending over 72 years in show business, Luckey refused to retire. During his golden years he composed two musicals, Emalina and Old Golden Brown, the latter of which he spent over a decade composing, writing the lyrics, and writing and revising the plot.
Roberts made few records and most of these were early piano rolls, while his later records were made after he had suffered strokes and was injured in a road accident. Still, it is possible to understand the awe felt by such pianists as Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Willie The Lion Smith at his astonishing technique. Luckey was held in the highest esteem by his contemporaries. He played tenths as easy as others played Octaves. His tremolo was terrific, and he could drum on one note with two or three fingers in either hand. His style in making breaks was like a drummer's; he'd flail his hands in and out lifting them high, a very spectacular pianist.
Luckey Roberts died on February 5, 1968.
Source: Tom Roberts