Earl Hines was born in the Pittsburgh suburb of Duquesne, Pennsylvania. His father was a brass band cornetist and his stepmother a church organist.Hines at first intended to follow his father's example and play cornet but "blowing" hurt him behind the ears — while the piano didn't.He took classical piano lessons but also developed an ear for popular show tunes and was able to remember and play songs he heard in theaters. Hines claimed that he was playing piano around Pittsburgh "before the word 'jazz' was even invented".
Listen to a discussion of Earl Hines' 65 Piano Solo, featuring examples of Hine's playing from the original recording, free from National Public Radio's npr.org.
At the age of 17, he moved away from home to take a job playing with Lois Deppe, a male singer, in the Leader House, a Pittsburgh nightclub. His first recordings were with this band — four singles recorded with Gennett Recordings in 1922.About 1923 he moved to Chicago, Illinois, then the world's "jazz" capital, home (at the time) to Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver. He played piano with Carroll Dickerson's band (including a nationwide tour on the Pantages circuit) and made his first acquaintance with Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong and Hines played together in Carroll Dickerson's band at the Sunset Cafe, which in 1927 became Louis Armstrong's band under the direction of Hines. Armstrong was astounded by Hines's avant-garde "trumpet-style" piano-playing, often using dazzlingly fast octaves so that on none-too-perfect upright pianos (and with no amplification) "they could hear me out front" - and indeed they could. That year Armstrong revamped his Okeh Records recording band, "Louis Armstrong's Hot Five", and replaced his wife Lil Hardin Armstrong with Hines. Armstrong and Hines recorded what are regarded as some of the most important jazz records of the 1920s, most famously the 1928 Weatherbird duet. From The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD:
...with Earl Hines arriving on piano, Armstrong was already approaching the stature of a concerto soloist, a role he would play more or less throughout the next decade, which makes these final small-group sessions something like a reluctant farewell to jazz's first golden age. Since Hines is also magnificent on these discs (and their insouciant exuberance is a marvel on the duet showstopper "Weather Bird") the results seem like eavesdropping on great men speaking almost quietly among themselves. There is nothing in jazz finer or more moving than the playing on "West End Blues", "Tight Like This", "Beau Koo Jack" & "Muggles".
Hines's solo recordings from that year, 57 Varieties (a pun referring to Pittsburgh's H. J. Heinz Company's slogan) and his own composition My Monday Date (an inside joke between Hines, Armstrong, and Armstrong's wife) provided titles reused much later in Hines's career. After the Sunset Club closed, Armstrong and drummer Zutty Singleton ended up at the Savoy Theatre while Hines was in New York, and when he returned to Chicago, Hines ended up in Jimmie Noone's band at the Apex Club.
In 1928 (on his 25th birthday) Hines began leading his own big band. For over 10 years his was "The Band" in Al Capone's Grand Terrace Cafe — Hines was Capone's "Mr Piano Man". Hines recorded for Victor in 1929, then after a gap for Brunswick from 1932-1934, Decca from 1934-1935, then after another gap, Vocalion from 1937-1938 and Bluebird from 1939-1942 (nearly all among the best Black Jazz of the era). From the Grand Terrace, The Earl Hines Orchestra (or "Organization" as he more happily referred to it) broadcast on "open mikes", sometimes five nights a week and over many years, coast to coast across America — Chicago being well placed to deal with the U.S. live-broadcasting time-zone problem. Hines's band became the most broadcast band in America. Sometimes Nat "King" Cole was Hines's relief pianist (though Cliff Smalls was his favorite) and it was here with Hines that Charlie Parker got his first professional job...until he was fired for his time-keeping — by which Hines meant Parker's inability to show up on time despite Parker resorting to sleeping under the Grand Terrace stage in his attempts to do so. Hines led his big band until 1947, taking time out to front the Duke Ellington orchestra in 1944 while Duke was ill...but the big-band era was over. (Thirty years later, Hines's 20 solo "transformative versions" of his "Earl Hines Plays Duke Ellington" recorded in the 1970s were described by Ben Ratliff in the "New York Times" as "as good an example of the jazz process as anything out there".)
At the start of 1949 Hines rejoined Armstrong in the latter's "All Stars" "small band", where Hines stayed through 1951. He then led his own small combo around the States and Europe. At the start of the jazz-lean 1960s he settled in Oakland, California, opened a tobacconist's, and came close to giving up the profession. Then, in 1964 Hines was "suddenly rediscovered" following a series of concerts in New York. He was the 1965 "Critics' Choice" for Down Beat Magazine's "Hall of Fame". From then till he died he recorded endlessly both solo and with jazz notables like Cat Anderson, Buck Clayton, Roy Eldridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Paul Gonsalves, Sonny Greer, Lionel Hampton, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Budd Johnson, Jimmy Rushing, Stuff Smith, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Venuti and Ben Webster. Possibly more surprising were Elvin Jones, Peggy Lee, Charles Mingus, Dinah Washington — and Ry Cooder. But his most acclaimed recordings of this period were his dazzling and endlessly inventive solo performances, which could show him at his very best, "a whole orchestra by himself". Solo tributes to Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin were all put on record in the 1970s. Hines also toured Europe again regularly at this time, and added Asia, Australia and the Soviet Union to his list of State Department–funded destinations. At the top of his form, Hines also displayed his endearing quirks (not to say grunts) in these performances. Sometimes he sang as he played, especially his own "They Never Believed I Could Do It - Neither Did I". In 1975 he made an hour-long "solo" film for British TV out-of-hours in a Washington nightclub: the "New York Herald Tribune" described it as "The greatest jazz-film ever made". He played solo in The White House and played solo for the Pope — and played (and sang) his last job a few days before he died in Oakland, quite likely somewhat older than he had always maintained.