Willie Lee Perryman, who performed during his career as Piano Red and as Dr. Feelgood, was a self-taught pianist who played in the barrelhouse blues style. (The term barrelhouse was used to describe a loud percussive type of blues piano suitable for noisy bars or taverns.) His performing and recording careers emerged during the period of transition between completely segregated race music and rhythm and blues, which was marketed to white audiences.
Perryman was born on October 19, 1911, on a farm where his parents, Ada and Henry Perryman, sharecropped near Hampton. He was part of a large family, though sources differ on exactly how many brothers and sisters he had. Perryman was an albino African American, as was his older brother Rufus, who also had a blues piano career as Speckled Red.
When Perryman was six years old, his father gave up farming and moved the family to Atlanta to work in a factory. Not much is known about Perryman's education or early life, but he recalled that his mother bought a piano for her two albino sons. Both brothers had very poor vision, an effect of their albinism, so neither took formal music lessons, but they developed their barrelhouse style through playing by ear. Perryman sometimes recalled imitating Rufus's style after watching him play, but it is doubtful that his brother was a major influence. Rufus, nineteen years older than Perryman, left Georgia in 1925 and did not return until a 1960 visit.