In 1976 someone told me they had just purchased a 16mm reel of Soundies musical shorts from the 1940s. When we looked at the reel the next day, I was struck by the dynamic performance of the boogie-woogie pianist Maurice Rocco, someone I had never heard of or read about. A week or so later, I was reading Variety and saw the obituary for Rocco. On the day I learned of his existence by watching the film, Rocco was murdered in Thailand where he lived and performed.
I wanted to learn more about Rocco. On one of her Piano Jazz shows, Marian McPartland had Paul Shaffer as a guest, and she asked him if he knew of Maurice Rocco. Surprisingly, Shaffer said, "No," so whatever she was about to say about Rocco went unsaid.
Finally, at the Museum of Television & Radio (now renamed as the Paley Center for Media), I typed Rocco's name into one of their computers and struck gold, a TV guest appearance in which Rocco not only played boogie-woogie standing up, he moved the piano around, spinning it about the stage while he played it. In 1948, he appeared with Milton Berle on the Texaco Star Theater, and he was a semi-regular on the Dumont Network's Cavalcade of Stars (1949-1952).
Which raises the question: Did Jerry Lee Lewis see Rocco on TV and get a few ideas?
Rocco on jazz and swing: "Jazz, and that's what we're talking about when you mention swing, is just a matter of personal opinion. It depends on the guy in the audience and how he responds. Now Duke Ellington - his music is so distinctive that everyone accepts it as jazz, which it always is. Jazz is music with feeling, and if the listener has that same feeling, he calls it jazz."
Rocco performed in several films. In 1937, he was seen in 52nd Street and Vogues of 1938 (above clip). In 1945, he appeared in Duffy's Tavern and Incendiary Blonde. Born Maurice Rockhold in Oxford, Ohio, he studied at Oxford's Miami University. After performing on Cincinnati radio stations, he worked with Noble Sissle and Duke Ellington, changed his name and launched his own group, Maurice Rocco and his Rockin' Rhythm Boys, playing in New York and Chicago night clubs, theaters and radio.
I'm so glad you found this musician and shared some of his stuff here, Bhob. My father used to play boogie woogie piano when I was a kid (he claimed to have played on a riverboat back in the very early 20's), I've always loved that style of piano.
Thanks for this post. I just received today my copy of "Rhumboogie" from the Decca "Sepia" series . . . a strikingly modern performance in every respect from the 25-year-old Rocco (in 1940) . . . impossible not to wonder about the man behind the music. So very grateful for your info!