“He was one of the greatest piano players I had ever heard…a man whose playing could literally hold you spell bound.”
This is how Ferriday native Rev. Jimmy Swaggart remembered “Old Sam,” an African American resident of Ferriday back in the mid 1940’s. Sam did odd jobs around town, and he was also an outstanding musician.
In spite of his fantastic talent, Sam remained an enigma for many decades. New research, however, has been fruitful, revealing “Old Sam” to have been Sam Filmore, born 1896, in Angola, La. to Rosa and William Filmore.
Growing up in the Old River area with his brothers and sisters, Sam worked as an errand boy for a grocery store before moving to Willets, the sawmill town a few miles south of Vidalia, where he started out pressing clothes.
By 1920 Sam was a manager at Willets, his responsibilities included hiring musicians to entertain African American labourers in the "barrelhouse” (the juke joint/honkytonk). It was around this time that the great blues pianist Little Brother Montgomery was employed by Sam Filmore to play at Willets.
Prior to this, Little Brother had been playing in Ferriday at “Ed Henderson’s Royal Garden,” where with two other pianists, he helped to shape up one of the most evocative themes in the blues: “The Forty Fours,”
No doubt Sam crossed paths with many other African American pianists who were drawn to Ferriday due to the abundance of lumber companies in the area and the excellent railroad connections.
As the lumber business at Willets wound down in the late 1920s, Sam moved first to Vidalia and then to Ferriday where he became well known locally for his piano playing. He joined a blues and jazz combo, playing dances and events such as this special rail excursion to New Orleans organized by Will “House” Haney, owner of Haney’s Big House and president of the Ferriday (African American) Boosters Club:
It was just after midnight on the morning of Sept. 20, 1936, that the Texas and Pacific train, 12 coaches long, pulled into the Ferriday depot. You might have expected everyone in the community of Ferriday to be asleep. But no. The town was wide awake and jumping.
Once on board, the band settled down in the club car and promptly began to play. The band was already hard at it as the passengers clambered on. Jack Kelly was singing, and Sam Filmore was at the piano. Posey Robinson had the saxophone going, and Son Darkey (during the daytime he worked for Pasternack's), he was at work on the drums. And there was Nelce Williams, the manager.
All the way the train was resounding with the jazz beat- "Froggy Bottom." "Old Red," and then the popular favourites of those years, "Pennies from Heaven." And "Stardust." all played with the special style of that Ferriday band which bore the name of “The Blues and Jazz Winners”
Ten years on and Sam was a regular at the Ferriday nightclub Haney’s Big House, performing material such as “Shanty Town,” “Harbor Lights,” and ‘St Louis Blues’, always injecting the songs with an infectious, swinging rhythm. And Sam, being generous of spirit, was happy to give playing tips and even play privately for two mesmerised young fans: Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart. According to Jimmy, Sam Filmore’s left-hand was his speciality, it seemed to dance all over the keys; both he and Jerry Lee began to develop their left hands to play somewhat as Sam did.
Sam Filmore sadly passed away at the age of only 52 on 28 December 1948.
Sam’s younger sister, Mary “Flowerpot” Twymon was incredibly proud of her brother’s musical talent. In later years she would regale stories about Sam to her grandson Robin who surely inherited those musical genes. Dr Robin Twymon plays trombone to a very high standard and is an Alumni of the “World Famed Grambling State University Tiger Marching Band.”
Being able to identify “Old Sam” from the few pieces of information provided by Jimmy Swaggart was a significant challenge which led down many blind alleys. However, digging far back into Ferriday’s musical past turned up further fragments of information which eventually unlocked the mystery.
Although Sam Filmore did not live long enough to see quite how successful those young admirers of his piano style went on to become, it certainly seems well deserved and fair that his talent and contribution to the musical heritage of Ferriday is appropriately recognized.
The best way to ensure Sam Filmore is remembered and recognized for his music would be for him to be inducted into the Delta Music Museum Hall Of Fame in Ferriday, which is where his story should be told, as entwined as it is with several other members of the Hall Of Fame and museum.
‘Old Sam’ was described in Jimmy Swaggart’s book “To Cross A River,” as well as being mentioned by Jimmy in a documentary about Jerry Lee Lewis: “Behind The Music.”
Sam Filmore was remembered by Little Brother Montgomery in the book “Deep South Piano – The Story of Little Brother Montgomery,” by Karl Gert zur Heide.
The excursion to New Orleans was featured in the Concordia SentinelJanuary 12, 1977.
(Editor’s Note: Chris Davies, from Bristol UK, has been a fan of Jerry Lee Lewis since the mid-1980s and has seen him many times in the UK and USA. Complementing this interest is a passion for enjoying and researching piano blues and other American roots music, with a particular focus on Louisiana. On-line searchable historical newspapers and census records have opened up new opportunities to piece together life stories and make connections, enabling long standing mysteries, such as identifying “Old Sam,” to be solved.)