ME AND PINEY BROWN By David Perlmutter

Jan 08 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

Son, I’m not surprised that you wouldn’t have heard of Piney Brown, even if he did happen to be the best boogie woogie piano player east of the Mississippi during the late 1920s. And I should know- seeing as I was there at what I thought would be his last gig, ever.
But, like I said, I ain’t surprised you never heard of him, even if you does happen to be one of them university types who think they know everything about everything. See, Piney never got his due ‘cause nobody outside of the cartoon community ever heard of him…..
No, I ain’t been hittin’ the bottle- as you seem to think! This stuff all happened to me natural back in the day, so if you’re gonna be doubtin’ my veracity, you can just go to….
Right, right. Forgot you were recordin’ me on that fancy tape-playing equipment there, I did. Well, I guess I owe you a bit of explanation regardin’ what I just said, don’t I? Here goes….
See, what people don’t know about them cartoons is that the people and animals and what have you they got cavortin’ around in them movies ain’t just movin’ pitcher images. Those suckers are REAL! Or at least they was when I was down in Los Angeles trying to get a job, back in 1927. I haven’t been back there since, so I don’t know if that’s still the case, but you can bet for sure that in the case of the ones that was made before sound came in in ’28, that was the case. That was how come Piney Brown ended up in Hollywood, and how I chanced to meet him there one afternoon.
I’d taken the bus out west trying to get a job, like I told you before, and I ended up out in Burbank, near the Warner studios. It happened that it was just around the time when the studios were shutting down for the day, and all them cartoon characters was coming out of the studios just like the rest of ‘em what was working there. Back in them days, they weren’t nothing but oddly rearranged and reassembled pieces of black and white paint, seeing as the cameras weren’t equipped for taking no color images then. I learned later on that some of ‘em had originally come out of this here place called Faerie, and some others had their roots in a strange little place in Africa called Wackyland (although, seeing as I have African roots myself, they didn’t look like no Africans to me). They was just like me-looking for work. And it turned out we had more in common that.
In any event, it was there that I met Piney Brown for the first time. He was a small, chubby fellow, in a cheap sweater and pants, vest, and derby hat. All black and white, naturally. Plus, he smoked the nastay-est cigars ever imaginable! It was fortunate for them that the audience couldn’t smell that stuff when he was on the screen, but, unfortunately, they couldn’t hear him when he sang and played piano, either. A loss, man. A tragic loss, that was. But to keep going with the story….
I had barely been able to escape out of the Burbank train station with my life, owing to the fact that I had ridden the rods out from my home in Kansas City rather than paying the legitimate money the people who ran the railroad requested of me. The railroad dicks came out and began chasing me down the street, and I would have been caught and beaten up soundly by them, were it not for the fact that Piney Brown stepped in.
He waited until I had passed, and then he stepped right in the path of them dicks and worked some of his cartoon magic on them. He started blowing up his hand like it was a balloon, and put that thing right in their path.
“Halt!” he shouted. And they did just that.
“Man,” he said to them, “what you mean, chasin’ this kid ‘round?”
“You know this guy, Mr. Brown?” one of the dicks asked him.
“No, I don’t know him. But it don’t make no difference whether I know him or not. What makes a difference is you’re gonna quit chasing him- and now!” He got out his wallet and tossed a couple of greenbacks- real American money, not any thing them animators just drew and called “money”- at them, and they backed off, saying “yes, Mr. Brown” all polite and stuff as they disappeared down the alley.
Piney deflated his hand and walked back towards me.
“You all right, son?” he asked.
“M’Gawd!” I said. (I weren’t as learned and thoughtful as I am now in those days, as you’ll soon find out.) “You a HAUNT!”
“I ain’t no haunt, honest!” he said in a very friendly way. “I’m a ‘toon, and proud of it! There’s some people who can’t tell the difference ‘tween us, but that’s their problem, not ours. It’s a big difference. Main thing is us ‘toons is more friendly than any of them old haunts is.”
“So you ain’t gonna hurt me or nothin’?” I asked.
“What you think?” he responded.
I thought about it for a minute, and then responded.
“You ain’t gonna hurt me,” I said affirmatively. “But you gotta answer me this one, Mr…..”
“Piney Brown. And you are?”
“Jimmy Ellison, suh.”
“No saying suh or ma’am or nothin’ like that around us ‘toons, son. No need for formalities among us. Only people who use formalities is the bankers and the rent men- and that’s why we always got problems with ‘em!” He laughed in a very boisterous and vociferous manner. “So, you was wantin’ to ask me somethin’?”
“Yeah. Why is it you talk and act like my people, when you is so obviously not a part of our group, what with you being a ‘toon and all?”
“Because,” Piney answered, “your people is the hippest in the world! Man, we been keepin’ tabs on the likes of you for YEARS! How else we gonna stay on the cuttin’ edge of culture?”
“Yeah,” I responded. “We is pretty hip, ain’t we?”
“So,” Piney continued, “I am assuming that you are requiring employment of some sort?”
“How did you figure that?” I responded.
“Well, given the fact that you was bein’ pursued by the railroad police when I intervened on your behalf, I naturally assumed that you were in need of some sound employment. And I happen to be in need of a valet, on account of the fact that I am very much in demand for motion picture and club dates and so forth. Do you think you could perform those duties?”
“I….think so,” I answered.
“Then the job is yours,” he answered. “Come on.”
He walked down the street, oblivious to everything and everybody around him, and I meekly followed. And that was how I came to be in the employ of Piney Brown.
The next couple of months passed like one of them tornadoes- really fast like. I spent all my time with Piney Brown, from sunup to sundown, accompanying him to his motion picture gigs, his club dates, and any and all other personal engagements, if you get my meaning. Some of them I had to sit outside while he took care of his business, but most of the time I was live and in person when he was around. And, let me tell you, he was always alive and always on FIRE!
First of all, the dude was a natural performer, like all them ‘toons are. He just had a natural presence that lit up a room. There were a lot of speakeasies that year on account of Prohibition and all, and so I ended up seeing the insides of all of them, as he played them all. This was on top of the fact that he was using up most of his daylight hours filming cartoon films at the Warner studio. Now, if you have a chance to see some of those old films- if they’ve survived to this day, that is- you’ll see him for sure, sitting at the piano, grinning, belting some sort of odd tune out of the corner of his mouth. You can’t hear nothin’, thankfully, since this was before sound came in. I say thankfully ‘cause them tunes he would belt out in front of the cameras was FILTHY, man! I was glad my Momma couldn’t hear none of them, that was for sure!
But, even though he was a charismatic figure in those animated cartoons, the only place you could see him really in his element was live. Man, the dude was out of sight at the keys there! Even on those nights when I was having difficulty keeping up with him, having to down so much damn coffee I’d be shaking and then follow it up with some bootleg liquor at the clubs just to be sociable, he’d just be killing them people dead. And he didn’t need a backing band, neither- he’d kill them just by playing that damn piano of his, man!
His arms and hands were just the craziest. Somehow or another, he’d be able to make them play the piano independently of him while he stood at a microphone and crooned. Then, sometimes, he’d play on the piano with one hand while removing his head from his body with the other! I couldn’t believe it any more than anyone else who was there on those nights, and I barely believe it myself sometimes. Of course, most of the patrons at those clubs was ‘toons themselves, and I was probably the human being type person who was there on many of those nights. That’s why Piney never got his due- he was playing to his own people most of the time, and, back in those days, anything that didn’t appeal to the white man didn’t get any action in the media. He’d get more than his fair share of attention if he was still in his prime like that today, though- that’s for sure.
That was exactly what he was doing on the night we got separated. I thought it would be for good, but it turned out not to be, though.
That night started out as something that was typical of how Piney operated. He was playing a club out in the Toontown district of Los Angeles, where he lived and did most of his work when he weren’t making moving pictures on account of the fact that nobody else wanted him otherwise. Naturally, I was there, making sure he was paid right and all them other duties he insisted a good valet ought to know, and which he had personally instructed me in. Also naturally, the club was packed wall to wall with ‘toons. They was doing the Charleston, the Black Bottom and all them other dances, while Piney was pounding a boogie woogie beat on the piano, first with his left hand, then his right hand, then both, then with his feet, and then with his hands and feet together! Man, I marvel still at how he could do that stuff without killing himself or something. Something those ‘toons got inside them we humans will never know about, I guess.
But, anyway, that was when the trouble started. We all heard, loud and clear, the one thing party people in the 1920s did not want to hear:
“POLICE! Open the door! This is a raid!”
Before we could do anything else, a swarm of cops came in through the door of the small shack that constituted the “club”. They was hollering something or other about all of us violatin’ the Volstead Act, which is what that there legislation that brought Prohibition in was called, but you knew that already, didn’t you? However, why the ‘toons were being arrested, Piney told me as I made my way to the stage to help him off, had nothing to do with illegal booze or anything like that. The cops was racist towards the ‘toons. I knew that already. Most of the people in town was racist towards the ‘toons, and me myself for that matter, and in an ugly way, at that. So I decided to pay Piney back for rescuing me from the railroad dicks by rescuing him and his friends from the cops. Or at least, I tried to, by inserting myself between the two groups the same way Piney had got between me and the dicks.
“Hey, now!” I said to the highest ranking policeman I could see. “We didn’t do nothin’, man!”
“Out of our way, nigger!” he spat at me. (Yes, man! White people did utter that word and get away with it in those days.) “These ‘toons have been making too much goddamn noise, and we’re here to bring ‘em in!”
“You ain’t gettin’ NOBODY so long as I’M here!” I shouted. “These people is my friends, hear? And I won’t let NOTHIN’ happen to them!”
“I told you to get OUT of the WAY, NIGGER!”
Whereupon I told the policeman what he could do with his orders. And then he told his buddies to torch the shack! Big mistake on my part!
See, cartoon characters is made of equal parts ink, paint, cellulose and nitrate, then as now. And nitrate is a bitch when it gets on fire, man! Soon as it catches fire, the stock burns up like a lit pile of sticks. No way in hell any self-respecting ‘toon wants to be in the vicinity of anything that burns, man! And, as soon as the policeman said he was going to do a burn-up of the shack, they panicked and started riotin’, man!
Well, to make a long story short, I got pulled out of there by the cops on account of disturbin’ the peace- so they said!- and when I told ‘em I was from Kansas City originally, they kicked me right on the next train going back. But before then, them suckers went and took rags, dipped them in oil, set ‘em on fire, and then set them down on top of that shack- with all the ‘toons still aside!
Most of ‘em, anyhow….
So I was sent back to K.C., and I was told never to come back to California if I wanted to stay alive. That was fine by me. I’d had enough of the place anyhow. I only wish I could’ve met some of them Okies and Arkies who came out there same as I did wanting work a couple years after that- things might’ve been different for them as it ended up being for me.
But then I got the shock of my life. Walking along 18th and Vine, who did I meet but PINEY BROWN! Somehow or another, he’d survived the fire, though he’d gotten driven out of Hollywood same as I had. We resumed our old acquaintance, and both of us got good paying jobs around the city, seeing as ‘cause of the Pendergast machine there was now more than enough to go around, entertainment wise. We were just friends now, and I wasn’t his valet, but we kept in touch, naturally.
What the hell do you mean, “when did he die?” He ain’t dead! That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard! Who the hell do you think has been playing piano behind us all this time?

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