William Ezell (December 23, 1892 – August
2, 1963) was an American blues, jazz, ragtime and boogie-woogie pianist and
occasional singer. He was also billed as Will Ezell, and was a regular
participant in recordings made by Paramount Records in the late 1920s and
early 1930s. Ezell was noted by the music journalist, Bruce Eder, at
Allmusic as 'a technically brilliant pianist, showing the strong influence
of jazz as well as blues in his work'.
Ezell's 'Pitchin' Boogie', and Cow Cow Davenport's 'Cow Cow Blues', were
amongst the earliest boogie-woogie recordings. However, Pinetop Smith's
'Pinetop's Boogie-Woogie' was the first to use the phrase in the song's
Two of Ezell's more notable solo recordings, 'Heifer Dust' and 'Barrel House
Woman' (both 1929) were noted for containing 'elements of both blues and
barrelhouse [boogie-woogie] in their form'.
Ezell was born in Brenham, Texas, United States,[note 1] one of six children
to Lorenza Ezell, a farm laborer, and his wife Rachel. According to the 1900
United States Census, the family were still living in Brenham. The same
source showed that Ezell's mother had died at some point between 1901 and
1910. Ezell found loose employment as a barrelhouse pianist and, by 1917,
had relocated to New Orleans, Louisiana, according to his draft record, and
was working as a self-employed musician. There is no evidence that Ezell was
conscripted at any time. He continued his itinerant work, finding employment
at riverside sawmill camps in Louisiana and East Texas.
By the early 1920s, Ezell was working with the blues singer Elzadie
Robinson. Around 1925, Ezell moved to Chicago, Illinois, and made
friendships with both Blind Blake and Charlie Spand. Ezell, along with
others such as Spand, was one of the boogie-woogie pianists who, in the
1920s, performed on Brady Street and Hastings Street in Detroit, Michigan.
By 1926, Ezell started work for Paramount in Chicago, as they provided
regular work for black musicians, which was not always available elsewhere.
There is some doubt as to his first recording, but he wrote 'Sawmill Blues',
which was recorded by Elzadie Robinson (under the pseudonym of Bernice
Drake) in October that year. His flexibility in playing differing styles
proved popular, and one of his earliest duties was accompanying Lucille
Bogan on 'Sweet Petunia', a song full of Bogan's trademark double entendres.
There is evidence that Ezell and Bogan's relationship went beyond the
recording studio, to the extent that Bogan's husband considered divorce
During 1927, Ezell's status at Paramount grew, and he operated under Aletha
Dickerson's stewardship, who had replaced J. Mayo Williams as head of
Paramount's Chicago operations. As well as being an accompanist, arranger,
and part-producer for other musicians, Ezell recorded his own material for
the label between 1928 and 1929. These tracks included his two best known
recordings, 'Mixed Up Rag' and 'Heifer Dust'. Ezell's playing style was
similar to Jimmy Blythe. However, he was a popular musician who was warmly
recalled by Little Brother Montgomery, who had a similar route to
notability. Over his time with Paramount, Ezell's own recordings and his
association with Charlie Spand, Baby James and Blind Roosevelt Graves, were
amongst the highest quality ever issued by that label, who had an earlier
reputation for sub-standard recordings.
In addition to his musical input, Ezell's duties with Paramount were far
reaching. In December 1929, he escorted the body of Blind Lemon Jefferson,
who had been one of the label's best selling artists, by railroad back to
Jefferson's homeland of Texas for burial. His musical input at Paramount
ceased in early 1930, although he did accompany Slim Tarpley on two sides in
1931. Paramount Records were in fast decline as the effects of the Great
Depression began to be felt, and later that year Ezell was back to playing
in Louisiana accompanying Clarence Hall. Ezell's whereabouts in the later
1930s are largely unknown, although researcher John Steiner noted that
Cripple Clarence Lofton, who owned a club in Chicago, hosted on stage Ezell,
Spand, Leroy Garnett and others through to the end of World War II. Records
indicate that Ezell continued to be based in Chicago during this time. He
worked at their Crane Technical School, operated as part of the New Deal
laws, although whether he was employed as an instructor or maintenance staff
is not certain.
However, Ezell's later death in 1963 in Chicago at the age of 70, did not
solicit any newspaper obituaries.
In 1992, Document Records issued a compilation album containing 23 tracks,
covering his recording time with Paramount between February 1927 and January