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Roosevelt Sykes was a leading blues pianist in the 1930s and is considered by many in the music world to be the father of the modern blues piano style. Sykes’s early musical experiences in Arkansas provided the blues background that served as the foundation for his later recording successes. He was a professional bluesman for more than sixty years, recorded on a dozen different labels, and played in St. Louis, Missouri; Chicago, Illinois; Memphis, Tennessee; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Europe.
Roosevelt Sykes was born the son of a musician on January 31, 1906, in the sawmill town of Elmar (Phillips County). By 1909, the Sykes family had moved to St. Louis. However, Sykes often visited his grandfather’s farm near West Helena (Phillips County), where he began playing the church organ around the age of ten. By 1918, Sykes was also playing blues piano.
Around the age of fifteen, Sykes began playing piano in barrelhouses and juke joints in Helena (Phillips County). Later in his life, Sykes commented: “When I did get started, I wouldn’t do nothing else, just play piano….If I didn’t play, I didn’t eat.” Sykes developed his technique while listening to Helena’s piano players of the 1920s. In 1925, Sykes met Leothus Lee “Pork Chops” Green while Green was playing piano in West Helena. Green mentored Sykes in a style known as “The Forty-four Blues,” which was characterized by separate bass and treble rhythms.
Although Sykes moved to St. Louis and began recording tunes such as his version of “Forty-four Blues” in 1929, he was no stranger to the Arkansas blues scene. By the mid-1930s, Helena was the blues capital of the Delta, and Sykes, along with Green, played in gambling dens along Walnut Street and the side streets closer to the river. Sykes also played in Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago during the 1930s and, at this time, became known as the “Honeydripper,” a nickname given to him by a female blues singer because of his outgoing personality. Sykes recorded hits such as his 1936 “Driving Wheel Blues” and his 1937 “Night Time is the Right Time” during this period.
In 1941, Sykes moved to Chicago and recorded for several labels, including sessions with fellow Arkansan Robert “Washboard Sam” Brown. While in Chicago in 1943, Sykes formed his own band, the Honeydrippers. The band had as many as a dozen members, including many horn players, and this significantly altered Sykes’s playing style. As the popularity of the blues declined in the 1950s, Sykes moved to New Orleans in 1954 and played in small clubs. After moving back to Chicago in 1960 amidst a folk music revival, Sykes toured Europe and played the American Folk Blues Festival in the 1960s. Sykes moved back to New Orleans in the late 1960s and played in clubs such as the Court of the Two Sisters.
Sykes continued to play blues piano until he died of a heart attack in New Orleans on July 17, 1983. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame in 1999.
For additional information:Cohn, Lawrence, ed. Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.
Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. New York: Viking Press, 1981.
Jamie MetrailerCentral Arkansas Library System
Last Updated 9/19/2013
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