Born: September 2, 1914 | Died: September 23, 1995 Primary Instrument: Piano
A Memphis native son, Lawrence Booker T Laury was born on September 2, 1914. A lifelong friend of Blues giant Peter Chatman, better known as Memphis Slim, the two grew up only blocks from one another. Laury would even at times claim the two were actually cousins. He was first introduced to keyboards at the age of six, stating that he began by assisting his mother playing the family's pump- organ. As Laury and Chatman grew older, the two developed their barrelhouse style with strong influences coming from the music of pianists, Sunnyland Slim, Speckled Red and Roosevelt Sykes, who passed through Memphis regularly. And, along with the younger Mose Vinson, these teenaged pianists began to hold their ground playing the clubs and card rooms of the city in the early 1930s with their hard-pounding boogies.
Having an enormous hand-width, capable of stretching across ten keys with his right alone, Laury was a natural for piano playing. It is an even more amazing feat that he retained this dexterity behind the keyboards after an accident with a machine saw resulted in the loss of one finger on his left hand in the early 1950s.
In 1935, while making one of his routine stops in the Bluff City, Roosevelt Sykes encountered Laury and Chatman. Impressed by their talent, he suggested that they travel to Chicago, where they may draw the attention of talent scouts and possibly attain a recording contract. Memphis Slim took this advice and moved North where he became one of the most-widely acclaimed pianists of his time. But, Laury remained behind and continued to play the gambling houses that he was familiar with instead. In later years as Beale Street began to deteriorate, Laury found work traveling throughout Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri playing in smaller venues.
The friendship between Laury and Chatman did not fade despite their separation. As Memphis Slim's popularity grew and he began to perform throughout Europe and Africa, he brought his childhood mate along with him. This would be a continued event, even after Chatman had moved permanently to Paris, until his death in 1988.
Booker T. Laury had never recorded an album of his own material until he was nearly 80 years old. Although he had made appearances on various collections of Blues artists and on an early recording of Memphis Slim's, Nothing But The Blues (Bullseye Blues) released in 1993, it would be his first and only release. Though the album clearly shows that Laury was not Chatman's equal in talents, it does offer the opportunity to hear the vigorous energy and raucous vocals still intact at his advanced age. All songs were originals by Laury and further added to the regret that such a fine artist had not been laid on tape earlier.
Laury did find his moment of fame, though briefly, in a highly unlikely situation. In a cameo scene from the 1989 Dennis Quaid movie based on the life of Jerry Lee Lewis, Great Balls Of Fire, a young Lewis, and his cousin Jimmy Swaggart, peek into a backwoods juke joint to witness a frenetic Laury work the keyboard. As he drove through the song, Big Leg Woman, Laury mesmerized the young Lewis on-screen, and the theater audiences as well, with his unfaltering skills. And, it was through this attention that helped bring Laury his chance to record just a few years later.
Under-recorded and sadly very much overlooked, Booker T. Laury passed away from the effects of cancer on September 23, 1995, in his hometown of Memphis. During his lifetime, Laury witnessed the transformation of Beale Street, changes that seemingly reflected his own career. From the splendor of youth, to abandonment when its time appeared to have passed and finally, resurrection in later years, both seemed to parallel one another closely. Unfortunately, Laury would never reap the glory from his only recording. The great Memphis piano players are no longer with us, but theyhave left a legacy that will forever be carried on by an endless number of performers influenced by their creativity.
Source: Greg Johnson