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Joshua Altheimer

Hailing from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Joshua Altheimer was among the most talented pre-World War II blues pianists. He played alongside “Big Bill” Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Washboard Sam, and Jazz Gillum, and was considered “the greatest blues pianist on records.”

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Joshua Altheimer was born on May 7, 1911, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to Silas Altheimer and Verdis Pruitt Barnes Altheimer. In the late 1920s, Altheimer began his career as a blues pianist playing the boogie-woogie throughout Arkansas. 

In 1937, he moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he became the regular backing pianist for blues great and fellow Arkansas native “Big Bill” Broonzy. It is unclear whether Altheimer and Broonzy knew each other before working together in Chicago. Nevertheless, Altheimer’s easy-rolling playing style and exceptional talent as a blues accompanist made him an ideal match for playing alongside Broonzy. He became a core member of Broonzy’s band, playing on more than fifty of Broonzy’s songs. When asked about Altheimer’s playing abilities, Broonzy even described him as “the best blues player I’ve ever heard.”

Though Altheimer rarely took solos and never recorded under his name, he was a highly sought-after accompanist. He backed many up-and-coming Chicago blues stars, including Sonny Boy Williamson, Washboard Sam, and Jazz Gillum. In 1939, he was even part of the session where Lonnie Johnson, a jazz guitar pioneer, first used the electric guitar. 

On November 18, 1940, Altheimer died from complications caused by pneumonia. He was thirty years old. Altheimer played with Broonzy right up until his death. In 1956,  in an article in The Guide to Jazz, blues historian Hugues Panassié called him “the greatest blues pianist on records.” Altheimer was among the extremely talented blues pianists such as Roosevelt Sykes, Tampa Red, and Leroy Carr, who helped to define the blues before World War II. 

Altheimer was survived by his wife Marie and his sons Nathan and Jerome. His infant son Joshua Jr. preceded him in death.


Oliver, P. (1998). The Story of the Blues. Lebanon: Northeastern University Press. Page 128.

Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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