Piano Red, Dr. Feelgood and the Beatles
“Mister Moonlight” might be The Beatles’ worst recording. It doesn’t show up on any lists of fan favorites. Critics don’t like it either.
In less than two and a half years, beginning in June ’62, The Beatles had their most prolific period in the studio. At least 70 songs were recorded during that time. The vast majority of the songs were received enthusiastically, but not “Mister Moonlight.” It was included on the albums, Beatles For Sale (UK) and Beatles ’65 (US), both released in December ’64. Few recordings by major acts have been so roundly dismissed. In books on The Beatles, “Mr. Moonlight” has been singled out as an odd choice for the respective albums as well as proof the band was not immune to lapses in taste.
Ian McDonald in Revolution In The Head, refers to it as a “gross quasi-calypso” and he cites John Lennon’s “berserk delivery.” and McCartney’s “ghastliness” on the Hammond Organ.
Mark Hertsgaard in A Day In The Life, The Music and Artistry of The Beatles wonders why the song made the cut at all when their “vastly superior” cover of Willie John’s “Leave My Kitten Alone” could have been included.
Mark Lewisohn in The Beatles Recording Sessions, indicated The Beatles were not sure what exactly to do with “Mr. Moonlight.”
Jonathan Gould in Can’t Buy Me Love called the song “ill-fated” and Lennon’s vocals “over the top.”
In Tell Me Why, a commentary on The Beatles’ recordings, author Tim Riley is not as harsh as McDonald or Gould, acknowledging “Mister Moonlight” as “one of their most peculiarly engaging covers.” But then Riley calls it a “musical guffaw.”
Still,”Mr. Moonlight,” was favored by many British bands in the early ’60s. The Hollies also recorded it. What brought this on? It was only the flip side of a single, “Dr. Feelgood,” by the rhythm and blues band, Dr. Feelgood and The Interns. Dr. Feelgood? Who was that? What did he do?
Dr. Feelgood practiced music, doing some of his best work on the 88’s in the window of Muhlenbrink’s, an old Underground Atlanta nightclub. Over a ten year period, beginning in 1969, the Doctor was In — most every night, most every week. During that time, he was known again as Piano Red, as he had been for most of a career that dated back to the ’30s. Perched on his stool atop a three-foot riser in Muhlenbrink’s window, Red played barrelhouse blues piano for more than a million people during those ten years at the club. Even as attendance at the original Underground Atlanta declined in the late ’70s, Piano Red kept drawing the people to Muhlenbrink’s. “Red was special,” the club’s co- owner, Jack Tarver, Jr. said recently.
Red’s special life began as William Lee Perryman on October 19, 1911 on a farm near Hampton, Georgia, where his parents worked as sharecroppers. In an interview* he gave to Atlanta author Murray Silver, Perryman talked about his early life. When he was six, his parents decided to give up farming and move to Atlanta. Perryman said, “I had a brother named Rufus who was old enough to work. Him and Daddy found a job at a place called the Miracle Machine Shop. Rufus was an albino like myself, and couldn’t do nothin’ but certain types of work because he was nearsighted like me, but they had some work for him.”
Perryman’s mother, Ada, had hopes for her children. When the Perrymans had been in Atlanta for about a year, she said, “I wish I could get a piano for all you kids. Some of y’all might learn to play like your brother Rufus.”
Rufus Perryman, also known as Speckled Red, learned to play on a church pump pedal organ. Eventually he quit his day job and began playing at house parties and fish fries. Decades later, Red said he was not sure if “they was payin’ him or not. He had a place to stay and that’s all that mattered to him. He’d be gone two, three days. Sometimes we didn’t see him for a week.”
Mrs. Perryman did not give up on hopes of getting her kids a piano. Red remembered that it cost her a dollar down and a dollar a week. He spoke of his mother’s determination, “Mama cooked and washed and ironed for people and she got that piano.” He would always remember his mother’s great gift. “It was a Gainesborough upright, probably not a new one, but it was a good ‘un. That was the greatest thing that ever happened. We had a piano in the house.”
By the time he was 12, Red was pounding the keys like a pro. Influenced first by Rufus and later by the recordings of the legendary Fats Waller, he made a name for himself, eventually working with the great blues artists Barbecue Bob, Curley Weaver and Blind Willie McTell. From the early ’30s into the early ’60s, he worked his way through the segregated South, playing in black clubs as well as the white establishments. He also played at college parties. Red’s exuberant and raspy voice was the perfect match for what he called his “ping-ponging and banging” on the piano. Wherever he played, he made the blues a cheerful endeavor.
But delighting the crowds wasn’t enough to pay the bills. Red also worked as an upholsterer and most notably as a disc jockey on Atlanta radio stations WGST and WAOK throughout the ’50s and ’60s. In the early ’60s Red assumed the name “Dr. Feelgood” on the radio and in live appearances. In performances, his band, The Interns, would be dressed as doctors and nurses.
It was in 1962 that Dr. Feelgood and The Interns scored a minor hit single with the song, “Dr. Feelgood.” The flip side, of course, was “Mr. Moonlight,” written and sung by Intern Roy Lee Johnson. A native of Heard County, Georgia, Johnson has since won acclaim as a blues singer and guitarist. Now 70 years old, Johnson still appears in concert. Videos (on You Tube) of performances he gave at Blind Willie’s in Atlanta earlier this year show he’s still a great bluesman.
With Johnson’s fine vocal leading the way, “Mr. Moonlight” by Dr. Feelgood and The Interns is easily the superior rendition. Their recording offers a subtlety missing from The Beatles’ version. Listening to the original and knowing John Lennon’s love for American rhythm and blues, it’s understandable that he and the other Beatles were eager to record the song. One wishes they had only been more faithful to the original.
In the nearly two decades after The Beatles recorded “Mr. Moonlight,” William Lee Perryman, known again as Piano Red, continued to play in Atlanta and elsewhere, including The Montreux Jazz Festival. One Atlanta gig was a surprise, perhaps even to Red. On May 10, 1979, The New Barbarians, a band including Keith Richards and Ron Wood of The Rolling Stones and others were scheduled to play The Omni. For one reason or another, the band was late, quite late, in getting there. So in the meantime, Piano Red, announced as a longtime friend of The Rolling Stones, took the stage and played to the delight of thousands. Even in a setting void of the usual intimacy, Piano Red worked his magic. He played the favorites, including “Red’s Boogie,” and “Right String But The Wrong Yo-Yo.” It was a great moment, unexpected as it was, in Atlanta’s musical history.
There were thousands at The Omni that night who saw what they had been missing all those years at Muhlenbrink’s in Underground Atlanta. But opportunities to see Piano Red perform remained. For a time in the early ’80s, he appeared at the old Excelsior Mill on North Avenue, not far from Georgia Tech. He appeared on Channel 17’s Tush. William Lee Perryman kept spreading his joyful variation of the blues for as long as he could. Sadly, he was diagnosed with cancer in 1984 and passed away on July 25, 1985.
Among those attending Piano Red’s funeral were the Governor of Georgia and the Mayor of Atlanta. Surely there were great stories told about Red that day. His old boss, Muhlenbrink’s co- owner, Jack Tarver, Jr. has a lot of stories about Red and treasures them. He remembers Red as “being happy to be able to make a living doing what he loved.” He mentions the live album Red recorded at Muhlenbrink’s. Upon taking the tapes to the studio, an engineer assembling the recordings for release asked about the bass he heard on the songs. “That wasn’t a bass, it was Red’s foot stomping along as he played,” Tarver recalls.
Tarver remembers they pressed 1000 copies of the album for sale. There were 25 copies per box. Tarver would give Red a box to sell, agreeing they would split the proceeds. Soon Red came back asking for another box. Tarver asked about the earnings from the first box and Red said something about his sister needing the money. Tarver went ahead and gave Red the next box. Why not? It was small compensation for the joy that Red brought into the life of Tarver and a million others who saw him those 10 years in Muhlenbrink’s window.
*interview transcribed by Isaac Abbott
On September 9, 2009, remastered versions of The Beatles albums were at long last released on CD. To celebrate the enhanced clarity of some of the world’s best recordings, Like The Dew’s Southern Song Of The Day series is featuring Beatles songs composed by Southern songwriters as well as Beatles songs recorded by Southern artists. That gives us a lot to write about. We hope you enjoy the series.