Jimmy Blythe (May 20, 1901 – June 14, 1931) was an influential American jazz and boogie-woogie pianist. Considering how many fine recording sessions he was on in Chicago in the 1920s (particularly with Johnny Dodds), it is surprising how little is known about the mysterious Jimmy Blythe.
James Blythe was born to Richard Blythe and his wife Rena in South Keene, Kentucky, just southwest of Lexington in 1901. His exact date of birth is disputed. His parents were sharecroppers. James was the youngest of five surviving siblings out of a total of eleven born to the couple. Before 1910 the Blythe family moved to Lexington where his mother was working as a servant. Later Jimmy jobbed as a janitor or day labourer. There is nothing known whether he received a piano training in Lexington. It seems plausible that he simply learnt to play the piano by observing other ragtime pianists and trying to imitate their style.
It seems most likely that Jimmy came to Chicago in the late 1910s, where he lived together with one of his sisters. Blythe hooked up with ragtime and blues pianist Clarence M. Jones, who became his piano teacher and already had some ragtime song successes to his name. Little else is known about his time in Chicago from 1919 to 1922. Probably Jimmy Blythe was also exposed to a number of fine pianists and band musicians and had played in a few public venues.
His breakthrough came in 1922 when Blythe was hired by the Columbia Music Roll Company (and then for Capital when the company was reorganized in 1924). Together with his friend Clarence M. Johnson he produced hundreds of commercial piano rolls.
In April 1924 Blythe started to cut sides for Paramount Records. His first track Chicago Stomp had the rolling walking bass pattern throughout. Unlike other early boogie-woogie recordings Blythe's Chicago Stomp is generally considered to be the first full length boogie-woogie recording.
During the next years Blythe led his "Blythe's Sinful Five" and recorded with a variety of his own ensembles including Blythe's Washboard Band, Jimmy Blythe and his Ragamuffins, Blythe's Owls, The Dixie Four and The Midnight Rounders. Blythe also played on sessions with Jimmy Bertrand's "Washboard Wizards", and two fine piano duets each with W. E. "Buddy" Burton and Charlie Clark. With his groups or other artists he also cut sides for Vocalion Records, Okeh Records and Gennett.
In addition he accompanied a number of singers such as Sodarisa Miller and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey. Another pianist he met around 1924 was Janice. She became his girlfriend near the end of the year. Both of them indicated that they were married, however, so the circumstances are unclear. The couple never had children.
Singer Alex Robinson was Jimmy's most frequent partner. Jimmy and Alex were playing from time to time on Chicago radio station in 1926 and 1927. Blythe's biggest hit was Mecca Flat Blues, recorded in May 1926.
There are indications that he also performed live on Chicago South Side. He was considered to be relatively quiet for an active musician. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why about his appearances are known only so little. Blythe used at least a couple of different pseudonyms for his work including Duke Owens and George Jefferson.
In 1930, Blythe substantially decreased his recording activity, appearing on two sides of Robinson's group, Knights of Rest. He was living with his sister and her husband when Blythe contracted meningitis. Blythe died on June 14, 1931 at age 30
He is considered to have been an influential jazz pianist and one of the first boogie-woogie stylists. Today his role in the beginnings of boogie-woogie is no longer challenged. Blythe's Chicago Stomp can be regarded as an important contribution to the maturation of boogie-woogie before Clarence "Pinetop" Smith or Meade "Lux" Lewis made their first recordings and long before boogie-woogie became publicly associated with Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade "Lux" Lewis, Jimmy Yancey and Clarence "Pinetop" Smith. Jimmy Blythe is also acknowledged as an influence by Clarence "Pinetop" Smith and Albert Ammons (Mecca Flat Blues).
(Info edited mainly from The History of Boogie Woogie Piano 1900-1950)