Big Maceo Merriweather was one of the most prominent blues recording artists of the 1940s, famed not only for his powerful piano work but for his expressive singing on hits such as Worried Life Blues. Although he had only a short career, his music had a strong influence on the Chicago pianists who followed, especially Otis Spann and Little Johnnie Jones.

Born Major Merriweather on March 21, 1905, near Newnan, Georgia, Maceo and his family lived on a farm until they moved to nearby Atlanta in 1920. There the left-handed Maceo took up the piano, developing a pounding style with, naturally, a prominent left hand that would later distinguish his recordings. In 1924 he moved to Detroit, where he began playing the house party circuit which was the bread and butter of piano players in prewar blues. He also worked the night clubs of Detroit and, during the 1940s and ’50s, Chicago after he moved to the Windy City.

In Chicago Maceo often teamed with guitarist Tampa Red, both on record and in clubs such as the H&T. Maceo recorded for Bluebird and RCA Victor under the supervision of Lester Melrose from 1941 to 1947, establishing himself as a major name among blues record buyers. The first song he recorded, the poignant Worried Life Blues, is considered such an essential blues work that it was elected to the Blues Hall of Fame in the first year of the Classics of Blues Recording balloting, years before Maceo himself was inducted as a performer. Other highlights of his recorded repertoire include Things Have Changed, a hit on Billboard‘s “Race Records” jukebox chart in 1945, County Jail Blues and its flip side Can’t You Read from 1941, and his 1945 instrumental masterpiece Chicago Breakdown..

A stroke in 1946 cost him the use of his right hand, although he continued to sing and play one-handed, sometimes employing a protégé such as Johnnie Jones or Eddie Boyd to play the keys, or at least the treble notes. He never regained the strength or stature he had once enjoyed, though, and, like a number of top blues recording artists of the era, was never able, even at his peak, to translate his fame into a successful touring career. Blues promoters, agents, and clubs were only beginning to coalesce into what we know as the chittlin circuit, and the big theater circuit was the domain of jazz and swing bands and uptown blues shouters and crooners. Big Maceo made his final records for Specialty in 1949 and Fortune in 1950, in addition to an unissued session for Mercury in 1952 . He died of a heart attack on February 26, 1953, in Chicago.

— Jim O’Neal