Iowans familiar with the nightlife scene during World War II and after knew the name Ernest “Speck” Redd well.
Redd was the top Jazz pianist in Des Moines and had fans from near and far. He acquired his nickname because of his many freckles. He was known for his remarkable reach on the ivories with his large hands and long fingers. A talented and versatile player, Speck also played uptown R&B and down-home Blues. His son, Ernest “Butch” Redd III, recalls marveling at his dad’s ability to play the Blues, often during the yearly trek to Columbia, Missouri to perform at the Black & White Ball, an annual reunion that featured a parade, picnic and a dance. Not as well known was his ability to also play some Classical music occasionally during his leisure time at home.
Redd, one of seven children of a Baptist minister and his wife, was born in Hannibal, Missouri in 1913. Speck lived in Ottumwa, Iowa for years before being persuaded to move to Des Moines in the early ’40s, by the man who ran Rocky’s White Shutter Inn and also club owner Vic Talarico. Fans flocked to hear his showy, improvisational style at the Tally-Ran nightclub, upstairs at Third Street & Grand Avenue, and later at Vic’s Tally-Ho restaurant.
He soon secured his own radio show on KRNT that aired Monday through Friday at 6:30 p.m. for almost ten years. This would also turn into the opportunity to perform on his own television show, as well, right after the evening news broadcast on KRNT.
His home on Walker Street on the east side of Des Moines became a popular gathering spot for traveling musicians such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and Little Milton who would jam with Redd and others. As a young man, Butch recalls hearing many debates and discussions about music into the wee hours of the morning. Certainly the bluesy styles of Count and Duke were an inspiration, but Speck’s favorite piano players were Errol Garner and the amazing Art Tatum, according to Butch.
Speck kept busy as a fulltime musician, as he also taught students the piano. One of his illustrious pupils was Louis Wertz, better known as Roger Williams. During the time that Williams studied with Redd, Speck was teaching music in adult education classes at Roosevelt High School and operating three piano-study studios, besides the many performances of his at supper clubs, private parties, weddings, and the Younkers Tea Room.
During his life, Speck had also spent some time in Los Angeles, California to be near his sisters that were acting in films made in Hollywood. Recently, the Arts & Entertainment Channel aired four of those films during Black History Month.
Redd’s busy career is even more remarkable considering that he battled kidney illness for 27 years, and during his last years had regular dialysis treatments. His last engagement was at the Best Western Inn in Ankeny.
After Redd died, friends and fans gathered for a special party to exchange all-too-rare recordings and tapes of his music.
Those that met him and heard him play will long remember his wide and ready smile, along with his considerable talent.
– Don Erickson