The Yancey Special

Today is the birthday of the American musical innovator Jimmy Yancey, who was a self-taught piano playing sensation. He arrived on the planet in Chicago near the end of the 19th century, and didn’t become known outside Chicago until he made some recordings in 1939.

Yancey is credited with developing a distinctive rolling boogie woogie bass figure for the left hand, and recording some notably gentle but intricate pieces.  No matter which key he started in, he always finished his tunes in E flat.

It’s important to know what you like.

It was Jimmy Yancey’s style of playing I had in mind when I set out to learn to play the piano in 1985.

Like many others, I felt the influence of that classic “They all Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano …” advertisement pictured at the top of this post. John Caples, the guy who wrote that ad sure knew what kind of story appeals to the common folk. Being mocked, belittled, sold short, and then dishing the humiliation back to your critics! I love this quote about his philosophy, taken from his NY Times obituary:

“He debunked humorous advertising copy, saying that ”only half the people in this country have a sense of humor, and clever ads seldom sell anything.” He also advised copywriters to ”use words you would expect to find in a fifth-grade reader” because ”the average American is approximately 13 years old mentally.'”

In fact I think I was 13 years old when I first saw that “They All Laughed …” ad.  I was going to have the same experience – all I needed was a piano, a party, and some talent.  But in spite of my best intentions and the not-nearly-enough-hours I spent at the keyboard, I never came close to what Yancey had done. My excuses – work, parenthood, life. Prime time TV and laziness had something to do with it too, but I never mention them, and consequently I never sit at the piano at parties.

Of course Jimmy Yancey also had a life to live outside music, and yet that didn’t prevent him from being great. For twenty six seasons he was a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox, working on the field at Comiskey Park through all the struggles and recording sessions and being eclipsed by other players or ignored all together even though he was a fine artist.

And yet during that same quarter century, the White Sox never had a first place finish and only managed seasons over .500 nine times. What a shame for the many thousands of fans who attended those games looking for greatness – they didn’t know the most genuine superstar on the field was the guy smoothing the dirt and trimming the grass.

What’s your best “They All Laughed When I …” moment?

34 thoughts on “The Yancey Special”

  1. They all laughed when I let it be known that I, scrawny four eyes me , had a date for the high school Junior Prom. When your graduating class numbers only 30, you’ll understand how hard it is to get a date. Most everybody had been paired off months or even years before; cheerleaders and jocks; nerds and nerdettes. Bringing an outsider was just not done but..
    My father’s business partner’s daughter was a sophomore in college. Gorgeous and a very good dancer. We practiced some dance moves using Pata Pata by Miriam Makeba which was now an oldie but had rarely gotten play on our local radio stations.
    Of course, it was necessary to arrive fashionable late allowing all eyes to see her (not me). The dance went quite well. There wasn’t going to be alive band so I brought my 45. We nailed Pata Pata not once, not twice, but FOUR times as she basically led a line dance.
    BMOC was I.

    Liked by 5 people

        1. Wes, I was lucky enough to see her perform live once. As beautiful and dynamic a performer as I’ve ever seen. It was in 1964 in Tivoli in Copenhagen, a treasured memory. The LP from that occasion was among the LPs that I passed on to tim last year.

          Liked by 4 people

    1. We do a line dance to Pata Pata at my beloved camp (perhaps the same line dance). One camper went to a REAL Danish folk school for a couple of years and when his mother visited, the two of them taught the dance to young people from a number of countries.
      It’s a favorite of mine, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good morning. That story by wessew reminds me of a date I had that I think no one would believe and would laugh at if they knew about it. Among the people I knew when I was in graduate school was a young woman who was extremely attractive. She had a boy friend who was very handsome. They thought they should take a break from seeing each other.

    Normally I would not even think about asking such a very highly attractive woman for a date. However, I though this woman might be willing to go out with me and we did go out on a date. The date went okay. However, we didn’t seem to be a match and there was no second date.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever had a “Susan Boyle” moment. With me, what you see is what you get. I have no hidden or surprising talents.

    I have, however, more than once, disappointed others who had high expectations of me. That should count for something, no?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Greetings! I think my moment came in high school. I went to a small, hippie, progressive boarding school so I was only home on weekends. As the terribly shy, quiet and stuttering member of a large family; it was a huge surprise when I was in theater and plays. My junior year I portrayed Snoopy in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” During the performance that my family attended, I basically brought the house down with Snoopy’s big showstopper, “It’s Suppertime”. My family was totally shocked and amazed I was onstage belting out the solo song and doing high kicks, etc. Most fun I’ve ever had on stage.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. When I was about 25, l was deeply into Judy Collins and tried plucking the guitar a little. In the privacy of my duplex, l sang many hours a day to her wonderful songs. I went to my brother’s apartment. l slipped into a little room adjoining the living room where the was a stereo system with attached headphones. l put them on, played “Send in the Clowns” and began crooning to Judy’s voice. A couple of minutes later, l turned around to see the whole family laughing their heads off at my off-key singing. I never sang again.


    1. Unfortunately, singing along with headphones can mask vocal shortcomings and it sounds strange to others who can’t hear the song itself. I can still picture my college roommate belting out her vocals to Moody Blues albums while lying with her head in the closet. The turntable was in the closet and the headphones would only reach so far. I will admit it wasn’t a pretty sound but she enjoyed the heck out of it.

      It’s too bad you were scared off singing after your impromptu solo.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. I used to sing quite a bit for the joy of it, knowing I could not really sing. My daughter with her near-perfect pitch objected. I stopped.


  6. Everyone was shocked when, as a high school senior, I directed the pep band at a basketball game because the director was ill or something and couldn’t be there, but I did it and the band sounded good and started and stopped at the same time and kept the correct tempi.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. i am a robert fuhlgum fan. he wrote nice little lifes lesson books like everything i needed to know i learned n kindergarden and the like.
      he was at the height of his golry and said he always wanted to conduct beethovens 9th symphony. someone (i believe it was the spco) gave him the opportunity to do it and and he began preparing and found it was a long complicated piece. but when someone asked him how he did it with all the complex details and the changes in emphasis moving from the violins to the cellos and so on he replied.
      oh didnt you ever notice. if you just look at the orchestra they all look up to you when its their turn. you dont have to remember… they do it for you.
      always thought that was interesting

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I guess I’m fortunate that I can’t think of a situation where everyone was laughing AT me for something ridiculous I was doing. (Will probably remember it on my way to sleep tonight.) I can remember them laughing when I wanted to be funny…


  8. This is easy. The first and only time I ever “wowed” anyone.

    Fifth grade. Spring. P.E. class outdoors to play softball. I was short for my age (still am) and left-handed (still am) and thin and scrawny-looking (still…oh wait, never mind). I came up to bat. This was a small school but since we had just moved into the area about a year earlier, these kids had never played ball with me before. One of the big-shot boys waved in the outfield and they put the defensive shift on, because everyone knows that left-handed girls can’t hit the ball towards the left side of the field, much less hit it out of the infield. No one knew that I played pickup games of softball as much as I could and I took my playing very seriously. I could hit to left field and I could hit the ball out of the infield. It wasn’t my best hit – but I socked it pretty well, right between the shortstop and third base and I ran hard, all the way around the bases. Home run! Not bad for a skinny, short GIRL. They laughed when I came up to bat, but they weren’t laughing when I crossed home plate.

    Liked by 7 people

  9. Neat satisfying stories today.
    Nope. Nary a moment for me. I think I have fulfilled everybody’s expectations in a laugh-at-me moment.
    One of those odd random coincidences. My son found out the receptionist at his new job is from MN. She told him that there was no way he would have heard of her hometown–Sebeka, which is where I am from originally, and the most hometown of towns for my parents. Population 693.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. This story was the very first thing I shared on the Trial Balloon – sorry if I’m repeating. 5 years old and saddled with the myth that I was shy (my mother says I was shy, but I’m not sure about that). I volunteered to sing the Susie Little Susie song at some school performance. My mother was absolutely sure I would back out at the last minute and told my teacher to expect it. I sang it all the way through – and I can still picture the day in my minds’ eye.

    Obviously I sang a much shorter version!

    Liked by 3 people

  11. i had surgery this morning and was in the prep room going over the trail . i listened to the piano part and recognized it as the first piano piece i ever learned form the piano player of willie and the bees i studied under briefly years ago. then they whisked me off to have a minor operation on my hand . the day got away as the whole week has.
    i supplied ne us with roof rakes all week and much of last week. i miss you guys.
    my moments are not popping up because i am expected to be good at stuff. cigerette lighter story at rennasance fair is previously told here on the blog, catching basball bare handed, writing songs impromptu are all old stories on the trail.
    i love that this guy was a groundskeeper and incognito as a musician thanks dale. hope to get back into the swing of things soon.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Uh uh, looks like Dale is leaving us to our own devises, possibly to see who is going to rise to the occasion and take the lead on the weekend’s blog.

    As of this moment, no comment is OT as we don’t have an official query of the day. How easy is that? What do you need to get off your chest?


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