Born: March 31, 1905 | Died: February 23, 1953 Primary Instrument: Piano
By the mid 1930’s, there had been a significant change in the nature of blues piano. The piano blues and boogie-woogie of the “first generation” pianists had for the most part been a series of solo performances, augmented occasionally by perhaps a guitar. Boogie was a folk music; centered in a Northern city and always closely related to urban surroundings, but it still retained a certain flavor of its Southern and Mid-Western origins. The boogie-woogie and slow piano styles, deeply rooted in the tradition of the twelve-bar blues, laid the firm foundations on which the new form of an old music was based. And of these pianists none was the peer of Major “Big Maceo” Merriweather.
Major Merriweather was born on the outskirts of Atlanta on March 31, 1905 on his family's farm, one of 11 children. As he grew older he would eventually stand well over six-feet and weigh more than 250 pounds, which garnered his nickname Big. In 1920, the family moved to the College Park section of town and the young Major developed an affinity for the piano. He began working the cafes and honky tonks located on Harvard Street, as well as playing at house rent parties and fish fries throughout the city. In 1924, at the age of 19, his family relocated to Detroit.
Hattie Spruel first met Maceo when she hired him to play for parties in her home. They were soon married and Hattie went to work to make a name for her new husband. The couple moved to Chicago in 1941, where she made the acquaintance of prominent guitarists Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red. She introduced them to Maceo and the two were impressed with his skills. They brought him to the attention of RCA's master producer, Lester Melrose, and within just a few weeks Maceo was recording for the famed Bluebird label. The first session would prove to be extremely fruitful for Big Maceo, as his friends called him. He recorded a total of 14 sides, with the first single becoming the most important of his career: Worried Life Blues.
Major Merriweather played a powerful piano in and had no need for instrumental support, but in fact he seldom played without at least a guitar for accompaniment. In Tampa Red he found a guitarist whose style was sympathetic to his own work, and a close friend in the man himself. Together they made an ideal team, and Maceo played piano with the more experienced guitarist at numerous clubs and cabarets, and at many informal party dates.
Unlike a great many boogie pianists Merriweather was a master of the music in the slow and medium tempos as well as the fast. Most of the recordings under his name were in the slower tempos, and all are notable for the rock-like solidity of the basses. The treble passages were generally simple and unadventurous behind the voice and had more decorative value in the breaks between the lines. It was in the free solo choruses which he usually introduced into his recordings that Maceo displayed his inventiveness, but whether elaborate or stark in their plainness, his improvisations had inherent blues feelings. As an accompanist to other singers Maceo excelled, and with his attention undivided he created blues of majestic beauty on recordings by several artists.
Along with Tampa Red, they would record 16 sides together before the outbreak of World War II. At that time, materials used for making records became scarce and a ban was enacted prohibiting most recording. During these years, Maceo moved back to Detroit, but made frequent return trips to Chicago where he would perform with both Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy on the city's South Side.
At the conclusion of the war, Melrose immediately brought his stable of Blues artists back to the studio. Maceo resumed his work with Tampa Red, but would also record four songs with Big Bill Broonzy in 1945. Unfortunately, Big Maceo's career was cut short after he suffered a stroke in 1946 that left him almost completely paralyzed on his right side. Over the next few years, he would attempt to record several more times despite his handicap. Occasionally other pianists would play while he sang, and other pursuits found him sharing the keyboards with a second performer working the right side of the piano for him. Among the artists who filled this role would be Eddie Boyd in 1947 for sides done for Victor and Johnny Jones in 1949 for Specialty. Another pianist to occupy this spot would be Otis Spann, who idolized Big Maceo. He would also sometimes fill in for the elder musician for gigs whenever Maceo was unable to perform. All three of these musicians went on to become headliners on the Chicago Blues scene, incorporating their lessons learned at the side of Big Maceo. Spann would become the most prominent of all the Chicago Blues pianists identified with his tenure in the Muddy Waters Band.
Big Maceo retired from playing in 1949 following yet another stroke. Poor health and a lifetime of heavy drinking eventually led to a fatal heart attack. He died on February 23, 1953 in Chicago.
Big Maceo’s sparse recordings for Bluebird were released in a double album set as “Chicago Breakdown,” in 1975, and they stand today as testimonial to the way blues piano should be played. They have since been reissued on a variety of labels. Based on these sessions alone, Big Maceo lives on.
Source: James Nadal