Joshua Altheimer (1911–1940)

Joshua Altheimer was one of the Delta’s most prolific blues pianists. Altheimer mastered the emerging boogie-woogie style of the 1930s as he accompanied some of the legendary blues musicians of his era.

Joshua Altheimer was born on May 17, 1911, in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) to Silas Altheimer and Verdis Pruitt Barnes Altheimer. He played his first years in Arkansas, performing during the late 1920s. It is not clear whether Altheimer knew blues legend “Big Bill” Broonzy during this period, who was from his home county and who was raised just a few miles from where he was born.

By the 1930s, Altheimer had moved to Chicago, Illinois, and was playing with the likes of John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Washboard Sam, Jazz Gillum, and Lonnie Johnson. From 1937 to 1940, he played on more than fifty tunes for Broonzy, who described him as “the best blues piano player I ever heard.” The 1956 Guide to Jazz also called Altheimer “the greatest blues pianist on records.” Altheimer was an accompanist in the 1939 recording session in which Lonnie Johnson recorded with an electric guitar for the first time.

Altheimer died in Chicago on November 18, 1940, from complications due to pneumonia. Though he never recorded solo material, he was part of a cadre of talented blues pianists such as Roosevelt Sykes, Tampa Red, Leroy Carr, and others who helped define pre–World War II blues.

For additional information:
“Joshua Altheimer.” (accessed October 28, 2021).

Komara, Edward, ed. Encyclopedia of Blues. Vol. 1. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Panassié, Hugues, and Madeline Gautier. Guide to Jazz. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956.

Jimmy Cunningham Jr.
Nashville, Tennessee


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