Born on January 31, 1906, in Elmar, Arkansas,
Around age ten Roosevelt played the church organ. Around 1918 he taught himself to play the piano, then from 1921 left home to play barrelhouses in West Helena.
Considered by many to be one of the founding fathers of the modern blues piano style, Roosevelt Sykes possessed what I would describe as one of those classic ‘shout-talk’ voices, reminiscent or at least harking back to the original work song chants along with a unique piano style driven by fast strong fingers, that was often imitated by other blues pianists. During the 1930s, he performed with sidemen ranging from jazz drummer ‘Big’ Sid Catlett to slide guitarist James ‘Kokmo’ Arnold. He also performed solo piano pieces. A genial man with a vibrant personality, Sykes was the consummate entertainer. He often delighted audiences both in Europe and the United States with blues and ragtime-influenced songs filled with risque humour.
Roosevelt Sykes was born in Elmar, Arkansas, a community he later described in ‘Honkers and Shouters’ (a respected book about Blues and R&B), as “Just a little sawmill town.” In 1909, Sykes moved with his family to St. Louis, Missouri. He often returned to his grandfather’s farm near West Helena and played the organ in a local church. By 1918 he had taught himself the art of blues piano and, three years later, left home to work as an itinerant pianist in gambling establishments and barrelhouses throughout Louisiana and Mississippi.
While in St. Louis, Sykes performed as a soloist and occasionally played with other musicians like guitarist Big Joe Williams. He later attributed his early piano influences to local St. Louis musicians such as ‘Red Eye’ Jesse Bell, Joe Crump, and Baby Sneed. However, his most significant mentor was ‘Pork Chop’ Lee Green.
In 1929 Sykes met Jesse Johnson, the owner of the Deluxe Record Shop in St. Louis. Sykes, who at the time performed at an East St. Louis club for one dollar a night, quickly accepted Johnson’s invitation to a recording session in New York. Accompanied by Johnson, Sykes arrived at the Okeh Studios in New York in June of 1929. He recorded several numbers, including a version of ‘Forty- Four Blues’ (a theme along similar lines to the Jimmy Hendrix classic, ‘Hey Joe’) which featured lyrics based on the theme of a .44 pistol (for what it’s worth, that’s a big gun). During the same year, while attending a recording session for Paramount, Sykes received the nickname “The Honey Dripper” from a song written by singer Edith Johnson.
In the early 1930s, Sykes moved to Chicago. During the Depression years, he recorded for several labels under various pseudonyms.
Through the recruiting efforts of Mayo ‘Ink’ Williams, Sykes signed with Decca Records in 1934. His 1936 Decca track ‘Driving Wheel Blues’ emerged as a blues classic. Sykes settled in Chicago in 1941 and, within a short time, became a house musician for the Victor/Bluebird label. Although the label marketed him as the successor to Fats Waller, who recorded on the same label (and sadly died in 1943), Roosevelt found success as the creator of his own style and remained active as a session man, recording with such musicians as Robert Brown (Washboard Sam). While in Chicago, Sykes formed his own group, The Honeydrippers, in 1943. The Honeydrippers consisted of twelve musicians, including many of Chicago’s finest horn players.
Following the end of World War II in 1945, Sykes continued to perform and recorded with several labels. He moved to New Orleans in 1954 and, despite the decreasing popularity of the blues during the mid-1950s, continued to play in small clubs around the Crescent City. He returned briefly to St. Louis in 1958 and then moved to Chicago in 1960, where he was ‘rediscovered’ by enthusiasts.
Roosevelt Sykes was a man who possessed incredible musical talent, as well as the ability to communicate with people from all walks of life. Sykes cited the real inspiration behind his musical talent in ‘Beale Black & Blue’ (a well regarded book dealing with Black American History), “Blues is a talent you’re born with from God. He gave me the gift. I didn’t even take a lesson in my life.”
He continued to perform at festivals and in concert until his death from a heart attack.
Roosevelt passed away on July 17, 1984, in New Orleans