Thursday, November 11, 2010

Paging Doctor Feel Good

In 1962 William "Willie" Lee Perryman cut a single called Doctor Feel-Good on the Okeh label. It actually crossed over from R&B to peak at number 26 on the Cashbox Hot 100 chart. The B-side Mister Moonlight was later covered by the Beatles. In the 1950s he had some lesser hits on RCA: Red Boogie, Diggin' The BoogieWrong Yo-Yo and Rockin' With Red. These were both recorded at the WGST radio studios in Atlanta. Perryman was just a little known boogie-woogie piano man who recorded both as Piano Red and as Doctor Feel-Good. He didn't have a lot of hits He was not only a musician, but also a radio man.  It was his identity as Dr. Feelgood that he used in broadcasting.  Did I mention he was an albino?
William "Willie" Lee Perryman, was known professionally in music as Piano Red.  His older brother Rufus was a blues musician called Speckled Red. They are on occasion mixed-up which might explain some incongruous dates. Perryman had a few singles were recorded under as Piano Red.  He played and recorded with both Buddy Moss and Blind Willie McTell. He recorded with McTell at WRDW-AM. He was a self-taught pianist, and while a number of his songs certainly qualify as early rock n' roll, much of his catalog is boogie-woogie or barrel house blues. But there's something about his left hand that reminds me of Fats Domino. Today there are a few available compilation CDs which also use the Piano Red name. Wrong Yo Yo was his signature song and was recorded at least 8 times, Doctor Feelgood was just another version of it. 
Some accounts have him born in 1911 in Hampton Georgia, others as early as 1905 in Germantown, TN. He traveled a lot as a youth playing piano, but in the 1930s settled there for a while with a job loading steamboats. By 1934 he was in North Carolina, but it was the regular gigs in Atlanta playing at bars that eventually made that city his home. He wasn't yet known as Piano Red.  It was at the WRDW session in 1936 that producer Calaway  supposedly gave him that nickname. It was immediately following the success of his single "Doctor Feel-Good" that he began using it as his stage name. Because of that change, it gets difficult to connect the musician to the DJ.  But the name change clearly damaged his career prospects.  what name-recognition he had, for better or worst lay in Piano Red. Musicology wrote a bio of him with a bit of hyperbole.
"In the mid 1950s he also worked as a disc jockey on radio stations WGST and WAOK in Atlanta, broadcasting The Piano Red Show, later The Dr. Feelgood Show, directly from a small shack in his back yard."
It was a little more complicated than that. In Atlanta on WGST-AM there was a white DJ called Zenas "Daddy" Sears, who played Rhythm and Blues on a program called The Blues Caravan. Zenas was big locally, he booked and promoted shows and artists. In 1954 he left WGST-AM and bought 1380 WATL-AM and changed its  calls to WAOK. His new program was called "Diggin' the Discs" and it was syndicated. Daddy Sears didn't just play black music, he hired black DJs. Among those was Piano Red. Sears later produced those RCA recordings that made the charts. Spinning them on his own program probably helped. William Perryman did a weekday program from 3 to 4 in the afternoon. Red remained at the station until 1967, spending the last 5 of those years as Doctor Feelgood.

The good doctor stayed on the Okeh label through 1966, then languished as a nightly act at Muhelbrink's Saloon in Atlanta into the 1970s. His lingering fame led to a few short European tours late in life. He died of cancer in 1984.  Among those who attended his funeral were the Governor of Georgia and the Mayor of Atlanta.