1918-1999, born in Middlesboro, KY
As the house pianist for Atlantic Records from 1949 through 1955, Harry Vann “Piano Man” Walls was the architect of R&B blues piano. He grew up in Charleston where his mother was a piano teacher. He left home as a teenager and toured the South with carnivals, circuses, and variety caravans.
In his mid-20s, he returned to Charleston and played as a solo pianist in local clubs and on WCHS (AM) radio. In the early ’40s he played in Cal Greer’s band, then formed his own band based in Columbus, OH. In 1949, Walls signed on as the house pianist with Atlantic Records in New York where he played on virtually all of the label’s R&B tracks during the 1950s, notably with Joe Turner (he was featured on the hit single “Shake, Rattle and Roll”) and Ruth Brown. He also played behind The Clovers, The Drifters and Laurie Tate, and released sides under his own name. In 1954, he joined The Nite Riders. He married in the early 1960s and moved to Canada, forming his own band. In the 1970s, he was touring small towns in Quebec, and playing taverns and motel lounges.
Walls began to re-emerge in the 1990s, beginning with a concert on May 18, 1990, in Brooklyn Heights, New York, where he appeared with his former piano student, Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John). Walls and Rebennack would perform together again a few months later, at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. He would go on to play at numerous other jazz and blues festivals over the rest of the decade. Walls’s final CD, In the Evening, was released in 1997.
In 1997, Walls was recognized with a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, along with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Four Tops, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and Gary U.S. Bonds. Walls died of cancer in Montreal, on February 24, 1999. He played piano in the cancer ward almost until the day of his death. A documentary titled Vann “Piano Man” Walls: The Spirit of R&B was released in October 2013, premiering at the Festival du nouveau cinéma.