Luckey Roberts

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Born: August 7, 1887; Philadelphia, PA   Died: February 5, 1968; New York, NY  
Charles Luckeyth "Luckey" Roberts was a transcendently gifted pianist of the "San Juan Hill" ragtime school and a composer of both popular and classical material. Born in Philadelphia and a lifelong Quaker and teetotaler, Roberts began to play the rent parties in Harlem around 1908 and was often the man to beat in cutting contests; the astounding virtuosity of his 1908 rag Nothin' demonstrates that there couldn't have been many players in San Read more Juan Hill expecting to win against Roberts. He began to publish his rags in 1909, starting with The African 400 (An Educated Rag), recorded that year by Arthur Pryor; Roberts' most famous rag, Pork and Beans, appeared in 1913. Luckey Roberts made his first recordings for Columbia in 1916, including his well-known blues-styled rag Railroad Man, but the records were never released. In the 1920s, he can be heard leading the orchestra on records by comic Charles Hunter and backing up the radio comedy team of Moran and Mack, "The Two Black Crows"; Roberts also performed on their network radio show as accompanist. On such records, Roberts sometimes employed a theme he developed for vaudeville shows around 1923 called "Complainin'"; altogether, Roberts contributed numbers to some 23 musicals in the 1910s and '20s. Roberts also recorded piano rolls during this period, mostly for Ampico.

In the early '30s, Roberts relocated to Washington, D.C., opened a restaurant, and led a society band there. It was a successful and relatively upscale operation, and during this time he took up classical composition; by 1941 he had produced a piano concerto that was heard in New York's Town Hall. That same year, "Moonlight Cocktail," a popular song developed out of his 1916 "Ripples of the Nile" with lyrics by Kim Gannon, became a hit for Glenn Miller. In 1946, Roberts recorded a series of solos for Solo Art that became his first issued solo recordings. He continued to record sporadically through 1959, and Roberts' best recordings were made for Lester Koenig's Good Time Jazz label in 1958 on Luckey and the Lion, an album split with another veteran of San Juan Hill, Willie "The Lion" Smith.

Unlike his contemporaries Eubie Blake and James P. Johnson, Roberts never made a full transition to playing jazz and did not consider himself a jazz pianist; he considered himself one of the last ragtime pianists, a composer of popular songs and serious music. His final session was for Everest Records in 1959, consisting of an unremarkable set of commercial, honky-tonk-styled piano solos with clarinetist Garvin Bushell. Roberts was a player of unbelievable dexterity even into his late years; Luckey and the Lion was recorded when Roberts was 70 and had survived three auto accidents, one of which had shattered his enormous hands -- you would never know it from the way he was capable of playing. Read less

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