IT'S NOT DIFFICULT TO CONJURE UP AN IMAGE OF ROOSEVELT SYKES at ease on the piano stool, his broad smile beaming through the haze of tobacco smoke as he hollers above the din of shouters and revelers, glasses and bottles clinking, the stamping feet of dancers, whether rough boots in payday levee camps or shined brogans and fashionable heels in more refined Saturday night Bronzeville nightspots. Roosevelt Sykes was a consummate entertainer who truly enjoyed singing and playing piano for lively, appreciative audiences.
The dapper gentleman at the piano keys, cigar firmly set in the corner of his benevolently smiling round face, was known by all as The Honeydripper. Despite the sexual suggestiveness of the nickname, Sykes maintained that he was given the Honeydripper moniker as a kid because he'd attract all the other kids to him whenever he'd play the school organ. Sykes related to blues historian Paul Oliver that the locals would say, "'he must be honey 'cause they all around him like bees.'" But it's a cinch that Sykes wouldn't have discouraged the more risque interpretation of the nickname-especially around the ladies.
Classic blues singer Edith North Johnson also claimed to have given Sykes his nickname after he accompanied her 1929 recording Honey Dripper Blues. (Joe Liggins' 1940 jump blues hit Honeydripper is a different tune-which Sykes also covered in a 1945 recording). Regarded by his friends as a smart and generous man with a good nature, he always dressed to the nines and cut an imposing figure in old photos. However he was short in stature and his hands were nearly too small for a barrelhouse boogie woogie player. But confidence and skill trumps stature. The smallness of his hands may have even contributed to his quickness on the keys and the deftness of his sweet melodies. And it sure didn't affect his strength or stamina, as evidenced by his rolling left hand, rollicking boogie woogie beat, stride rhythms and tireless playing.
Over a career that spanned some sixty years, Sykes adjusted to changing musical tastes while staying true to his roots. He began playing in rough joints in Helena, Arkansas, and at rent parties in St. Louis and Chicago, performing solo his own musical hybrid of ragtime and country blues piano. Roosevelt Sykes was one of the earliest blues pianists to record, waxing now-classic compositions for the Okeh label in 1929 when he was merely 23 years of age. Highly valued as an accompanist who would not showboat on others' recordings, he enjoyed a dual role as a prolific studio musician as well as a highly successful solo artist.
He recorded for many of the top labels of the day, and demand for his services became so great that he chose to also record under pseudonyms such as Willie Kelly, Easy Papa Johnson and Dobby Bragg to circumvent contractual obligations. For a time in the 1930s and '40s he led The Honeydrippers, a 12-piece swing blues band that rocked nightspots and recording studios. Solo again by the late 1950s in Chicago, Sykes was well positioned by the early 1960s to get in on the ground floor of the blues revival as large numbers of whites embraced the blues and new markets opened up on college campuses, at folk and jazz festivals and on blues and folk tours to Europe where he was extremely popular. His fame grew with new audiences, and several of his original compositions, such as Driving Wheel, 44 Blues and Night Time is the Right Time, were recorded by others and ultimately attained the status of classics of the blues while he still lived. He relocated to New Orleans in the late 1960s where he succumbed to a heart attack in 1983.
The photograph shown above captures Sykes (on right) with Boogie Woogie Red.