Wayne Schmidt's Boogie Woogie Page: Its history, explanation, list of the top-charted songs, and piano samples.

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Boogie Woogie is the easiest music style in the world to recognize. Heard once, its simple, lively, driving rhythm will be remembered a lifetime. This page provides .mid samples of it, an explanation of what it is, where it came from, its long range impact, a listing all the boogie woogie hits that made it into the top 30 charts, and why it disappeared.

Boogie Woogie Defined:

Nothing defines boogie woogie better than hearing it. Take the link below for a midi sample of pure boogie woogie on piano. (Samples take 10-seconds to load on dial-up.)

Pure Boogie Woogie


Believe it or not, this page was written before Youtube became the entertainment juggernaut it is,
which is why I had to resort to midi files. Here's a Youtube video that provides a
much better idea of what Boogie Woogie sounds like.
This is Boogie Woogie Stomp:


Dictionaries define "Boogie Woogie" as: A style of blues piano playing with an up-tempo rhythm, a repeating melodic pattern in the bass, and a series of improvised variations in the treble.

While correct in a mathematical sense I have several problems with this definition.

First, while boogie woogie certainly does belong under the enormous umbrella definition of blues music, the term "blues" carries with it the connotation of slow and sad. Boogie woogie is the opposite of this. It is one of the most exuberant of all music forms.

Second, defining the base rhythm as "up-tempo" doesn't convey the perky, bouncing beat of the base. It also fails to emphasize that boogies are almost always played very fast, even more so than their eighth note pattern in 4/4 time suggests. The slowest boogie will easily outrun the average rock and roll song.

But for me the greatest shortcoming of the textbook definition is that it fails to mention that the most significant feature of boogie woogie music is that the base rhythm, which in most songs is restrained and only noticeable with effort, has been brought to the front and and given the same strength as the treble line. For the piano this means that for the first time the left hand is getting as much attention as the right. The bass line isn't just a time keeper or "fill" for the right hand.

Also, referring to the base line as having a "repeated melodic pattern" fails to clarify that the base follows a unique rising/falling sequence of notes called a "walking base." This "walk" can have as many as three components: steps consisting of two-note alterations, short walks consisting of one-bar rises followed by one-bar falls, and longer walks where the pitch of the shorter two-bar walks moves up and down the scale. (Triple walks, as in Pure Boogie Woogie, are more common to piano. Songs with the base line carried by a bass fiddle, as in Choo Choo Ch'Boogie, only have double walks.) This triple walk, when coupled with the base's loud presence, makes the base rhyme a dominate factor in the song. It's what puts the woogie in the boogie.

Vary the powerful base sound just a little and it just won't sound like boogie.

Some references group boogie woogie with ragtime. I disagree. Listen again to Pure Boogie Woogie for the break from the boogie rhythm to a ragtime rhythm 30 seconds into the song. Although they have similar pacings, they are clearly two distinct forms.

Finally, boogie woogie is quintessentially piano music. While arrangements for other instruments have been made, nothing matches the essence of boogie better than a piano. Even in orchestral productions, it's the piano that makes the song.

How do you know for sure if you're listening to boogie woogie? Simple. If you feel an uncontrollable itch to smile... it's boogie. Try it yourself. Listen to Louis Jordan's 1941 hit Choo Choo Ch'Boogie and see if you don't feel the urge to grin.

History and Origins:

The term "boogie" was used as slang for rent parties in the opening of the 20th century. A group of apartment tenants would pool their meager resources and rent a musician or small band to play at their building. A hat would be passed around in the hope that people coming to listen to the music would donate enough money to not only pay for the band but have enough left over to pay the tenant's rent. Such parties were sometimes referred to as "boogies." The term got applied to the fast, honky tonk style music commonly featured and from this to the boogie woogie style. (This was the most common theory about where the name came from. Several references stated that there is no clear source for it.)

The earliest record of boogie woogie was Texas pianist George W. Thomas' release of New Orleans Hop Scop Blues as sheet music in 1916, though observers of the time have stated that he played versions of it as early as 1910. The Fives was released in 1923 and was the first jazz band boogie woogie. Up to this this boogie woogie was played as just part of a song. This changed in 1924 when the piano solo recording Chicago Stomps was released as the first song to be completely boogie woogie. Swanee River Boogie was also released in the late 1920s. Boogie achieved its first top-30 charted hit in Pine Top Smith's Pine Top's Boogie, released in 1929. It made it to the number 20 position. (Tragically, Pine Top Smith died in a jazz club shooting just a few months after his hit made it on the charts. He was only 24.)

Boogie woogie slowly gained in popularity but was never an mainline music form until it was featured in two Carnegie Hall concerts in 1937 and 1938. After that it exploded into the popular music venue. Major swing bands, like Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Louis Jordan to name a few, all had boogie hits. Though no boogie woogie made it to the number one spot on the top-30 charts, it was an important and omnipresence influence during the 1940s.

The hot years for boogie were 1940 and 1941. During the later 1040s and early 50s it slowly lost its following. Finally, in the middle 1950 it was completely supplanted by rock and roll, a music form very similar to it.

Long Range Music Impact:

As can be seen in the song title list below, the boogie woogie period only lasted a few years. Yet its impact echoes through the music scene even today. The reason is that its simple pounding rhythms opened the door to the derivative sounds of rock and roll, which took over the popular music scene shortly after boogie faded in popularity. Listen to the following sample of boogie woogie with the base slightly reduced in volume: (Please ignore the electronic opening.)

Almost Rock and Roll Boogie

Ignoring the obvious melody borrowed from established rock and roll songs, the song as a whole is one of the purest forms of rock and roll, yet it's also boogie woogie. The soul of boogie woogie is still with us to lesser or greater degrees in every rock and roll song. Listen to Jerry Lee Lewis pounding out Great Balls of Fire and you'll hear the boogie in its rhythm.

Chronology of Boogie Woogie Hits:

The following list is of the boogie woogie songs that made it onto the top-30 charts:

1929 Pine Top's Boogie Woogie by Pine Top Smith - #20

1938 Boogie Woogie by Tommy Dorsey - #3
(Many consider this the quintessential boogie woogie song. It was released a total of four times and each time was a charted hit.)

1940 Boog It by Glenn Miller - #7
1940 Boog It by Gene Krupa - #13
1940 Rhumboogie by The Andrews Sisters - #11
1940 Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar The Andrews Sisters - #2
(This #2 hit was the highest charting boogie woogie song of all time.)
1941 Boogie Woogie Piggy Glenn Miller - #7
1941 Drum Boogie by Gene Krupa #26
(Featured in the movie Ball of Fire with Barbara Stanwyck. She sang the vocal.)
1941 Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy by The Andrews Sisters - #6
(They performed this song in the Abbott and Costello comedy Buck Privates. Although not the highest-charting boogie song, it has become the icon for the style. Bette Midler successfully revived it in 1973 and it soared to the #8 position on the top-40 chart, proof that boogie can still grab people.)
1942 Cow Cow Boogie by Freddie Slack - #9
1944 Hamp's Boogie Woogie by Lionel Hampton - #25
1944 Boogie Woogie by Tommy Dorsey - #5 (re-release)
1944 Boogie Woogie by Tommy Dorsey - #21 (re-re-release)
1944 Cow Cow Boogie by Ella Fitzgerald - #10
1944 Cryin' the Boogie Blues Will Bradley - #23
1945 Boogie Woogie by Tommy Dorsey - #4 (one final release)
1945 Caldonia Boogie by Louis Jordan - #6
1946 Choo Choo Ch'Boogie by Louis Jordan - #7
1946 Mad Boogie by Count Basie - #10
1947 One O'Clock Boogie Count Basie - #8
1947 Boogie Woogie Blue Plate by Louis Jordan - #21
1948 Guitar Boogie by Arthur Smith - #25
1948 Rhumba Boogie by Chuy Reyes - #27
1948 Sabre Dance Boogie by Freddie Martin - #6
1948 Saxa-boogie by Sam Donahue - #24

1951 Kissing Bug Boogie by Jo Stafford - #20
1951 Shot Gun Boogie by Tennessee Ernie Ford - #4
1952 Oakie Boogie by Ella Mae Morse - #23
1953 Eight Beat Boogie by Johnny Maddox - #21
1953 Swanee River Boogie by The Commanders - #25 (re-release of the 1920s song)

1973 Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy - by Bette Midler - #8

Why Boogie Woogie Faded Away:

Boogie woogie has such a sharply defined rhythm that it can be accurately, though perhaps unkindly, claimed that if you've heard one you've heard them all. The fact has to be acknowledged that the central base line is very similar in all boogies. A consequence of this is that originality is limited. For this reason I believe people's appetites became quickly sated. Additionally, by the mid-1950s rock and roll was taking over the charts and while its style had many elements in common with boogie woogie it wasn't nearly as constrained.

(For a comparison between boogie woogie, honky tonk, and ragtime, please see my Style Wars page.)

Free Boogie Woogie Sheet Music for Piano:

Several Google searches turned up the following page as having a nice selection of boogie woogie sheet music that can be printed for free:




Here's a beginner's guide of how to play boogie woogie on the piano:

References used:

The data for this page came from Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories, by Joel Whitburn, 1986, published by Record Research, Inc., Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, Wikipedia.com, Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, and several dozen Internet sites.

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