“… suddenly a wave of humanity come washing over the street– kids, men, women, and couriers. “Here comes Slim! Slim’s on the way!” A fleet of three red Cadillacs pulls up, and here’s the man himself, emerging in a bower of red-robed beauties, dressed to match the Caddies, plus a retinue of courtiers, janissaries, mountebanks, and tumblers. “Need to change into my singing pants, gents,” says Slim. The small hall fills to bursting with his excited public, so when he finally appears, we urge Slim to get rid of the rooters, needless distractions. Slim nods gravely, plugs in his trademark hundred foot long guitar cord (an accessory that allows him to roam the streets outside the clubs he plays, corralling customers) and invites his sidemen to kick off the blues in B-flat. The cats vamp as Slim circles the room, addressing each of his admirers one by one, saying/singing how he hates to see them leave. But leave they do– except for the ladies in red, the most pulchritudinous of whom identifies herself as a shake dancer scooped up by him in Vegas only last month. “You know that thousand dollar advance you gave him?” she asks. “Sure” I answer “Well, I got it all”, she winks, her face a portrait in dimples. “At three hundred a week”. But by then Slim’s already getting down, singing the blues and picking up a storm on guitar.”
— Jerry Wexler, Rhythm and the Blues (Knopf, 1993)
Guitar Slim’s The Things I Used To Do (Specialty, 1954) is one of my all time favorite records. The way the guitar riff rises and falls, it sounds like ole Slim’s heart is heaving and sighing. The sound of his guitar, with its wirey, distorted edge, sounds like some type of bird being strangled, or perhaps a yelping dog sinking in quicksand. But you know how those pulchritudinous women can make you feel, especially when they’re trying to impress the janassaries and mountebanks. It can just plum get a man down. The Things I Used To Do was the best selling blues record of the year 1954 and spent six weeks at #1 on Billboard’s R&B charts. Ray Charles played piano on it and some say did the arrangement, you can hear him exclaim”yeah” in the stop before the song’s finale.
Guitar Slim was born Eddie Lee Jones in Greenwood, Mississippi, on December 10, 1926. He never knew his father, his mother died when he was six. He was sent to live with his grandmother on a plantation in Hollandale, Mississippi where he picked cotton and plowed behind mules. Staring up a mules ass all day would make anyone desire a posse of janassaries and pulchritudinous shake dancers to say nothing of the tumblers. His first musical experience was singing in church on Sunday mornings, but soon Saturday night came to his attention. Little Eddie began hanging around the local juke joint where he fell under the spell of guitarist Robert Nighthawk (Robert Lee McCoy, see Nov. posting on him). Young Eddie Lee’s first instrument was piano and he was playing boogie woogie and blues, sometimes behind his hero Nighthawk, as a teenager. He hooked up with a guitarist named Johnny Long together they played a few jukes, picking up a coin or two, maybe a fish sandwich if they got lucky. Eddie married in 1944 and was drafted shortly afterwards. Eddie Lee Jones served in the Pacific theater, defeated the Japanese and was duly discharged in 1946. He was back in Hollandale working at a cotton press that same year. He hung around for eighteen months and then left Mississippi and his wife for good. Where he was for the ensuing year and half only the pulchritudinous women know but he was sighted working as a dancer in Willie Warren’s group in Lake Village, Arkansas. It was Warren who taught Slim to play guitar and after achieving proficiency on six strings, Jones headed for New Orleans to begin his career in earnest.
Renamed Guitar Slim, he put together a band with Huey “Piano” Smith and was soon playing at the legendary Dew Drop Inn, making his formal debut there on August 26, 1950 sandwiched in between a female impersonator (Bobby Marchan, lead singer of Huey Smith & the Clowns was employed there in such a capacity) and, what else? Of course, a shake dancer.
Musically, Slim had discovered a new musical role model in Texas powerhouse guitar player Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, whose hits on the Peacock label like Boogie Rambler, My Time’s Expensive, and Boogie Uproar featured a fairly explosive guitar style. Like T-Bone Walker he played clean, single string leads, but was more explosive, more demonstrative. Where T-Bone playing was cool and breezy, Gatemouth’s style was red hot and burning. Remind me to blogerate about Gatemouth’s Peacock sides sometime. Guitar Slim would never develop Gatemouth Brown’s chops, but he would more than make up for it in enthusiasm and wildness.
Johnny Vincent, then working as a talent scout and producer for Art Rupe’s L.A. based Specialty Records signed Slim in 1953. His first session, held in New Orleans at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio (the place that recorded more great rock’n’roll records than even the fabled Sun Studio in Memphis) on October 23, of that year saw Slim fronting a band of first call New Orleans session players- Earl Palmer on drums, Lee Allen and Alvin Tyler on saxophones, Frank Field on bass and the aforementioned Ray Charles on piano. From this session the Things I Used To Do emerged. It took dozens of takes to nail the master, since overdubbing was impossible on J&M’s primitive recording gear and everytime Slim would play a great solo he’d stop the take and say– “Did you hear that?” or “Listen to that!”. Ray Charles’ audible “yeah” at the end of the tune came from relief at having finally gotten through a take, not emotional enthusiasm. An excited Johnny Vincent quickly shipped the masters to L.A. for Rupe to issue.
Art Rupe, who would become one of the most important record men in history (recording, amongst others Little Richard, Sam Cooke & the Soul Stirrers, Lloyd Price, Larry Williams, Willie Joe & his Unitar, et al), in a rare show of bad taste thought The Things I Used To Do was the worst piece of shit he had ever heard. Legend has him using those exact words– worst piece of shit he ever heard. Still, he released the record so as not to hurt Vincent’s feelings (that part of the story I don’t quite buy, Rupe wasn’t the type to waste money on a person’s feelings, but that is how Johnny Vincent told the story and Rupe never disputed it, at least not in any interview I’ve read). The Things I Used To Do was a smash and Specialty would record Guitar Slim several more times, issuing a total of eight singles between 1954-56, although none would come close to matching the sales of The Things I Used To Do. Still, Guitar Slim waxed some incredible sounds while at Specialty– The Story Of My Life might be the single most depraved blues guitar solo ever recorded, or at very least one of ’em*. It was a record Frank Zappa often name dropped in interviews, telling clueless rock writers “if you’ve never heard The Story Of My Life by Guitar Slim you haven’t lived”. Specialty wouldn’t issue an LP on Guitar Slim until 1970, and later in the CD era virtually every outtake in it’s vaults would find their way to plastic, including this little false start and studio chatter included version of I Got Sumpin’ For You Baby which gives us a glimpse of Slim at work in the studio. Some highlights from these years — Well I Done Got Over, Trouble Don’t Last, the rocker Guitar Slim, Quicksand, Think It Over, Twenty Five Lies, and Reap What You Sow. On these tunes you can hear the church that Slim left behind in his voice, in his guitar playing we hear the future coming too fast and furious to make sense of. In fact in those days Guitar Slim couldn’t find an amp loud enough so he’d plug into the P.A. head direct and turn it to the maximum setting.
Unable to match his initial hit, Guitar Slim and Specialty Records parted ways in 1956. Atlantic picked him up and recorded him for its Atco subsidiary, but either the fire was burning dim or Wexler and Ertegun didn’t know how to get the best out of him because the sides he cut for Atco are decidedly mediocre compared to the Specialty recordings, although as a fan of the poultry in blues form I’ve always liked this rather stupid chicken rocker— The Cackle, an outtake which didn’t escape until the 1980’s. Slim and Atlantic soon went their separate ways, he would never record again.
Guitar Slim was still a popular live attraction, and gigs are how musicians make their money. Guitar Slim always gave the crowd their money’s worth, and usually more. He would enter from the rear of the club, being carried in on the shoulders of his bearers, playing his guitar (with the one hundred foot long cord) as they hefted him through the adoring crowd and deposited him on the bandstand. He would solo his way off the bandstand and into the street, sometimes stopping traffic.
Here’s a great story: Somewhere in Texas, Gatemouth Brown, T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton and Slim, all on the same show which was billed as “The Battle of the Guitar Players”. Slim enters the dressing room and announces– “Gentlemen, we have the finest guitar players in the country all gathered here tonight, but by the end of the night, ain’t nobody’s s gonna even know any of you was here”. His showmanship was such that he knew he could steal the show even from such guitar acrobats as T-Bone Walker and his hero Gatemouth Brown.
Slim lived and drank as hard as he sang and played, and by 1959 he started missing shows (Earl King was often called in to substitute, even touring as a fake Guitar Slim), or would show up too sick to play, and on February 7, 1959, before a scheduled appearance at New York’s Apollo Theater (he was one of the few blues man who was popular with the sophisticated Harlem audience), Slim’s liver and lungs gave out. A year earlier a doctor had told him if he didn’t quit drinking he’d soon be dead, a warning that fell on deaf (and probably ringing) ears.
Eddie Lee “Guitar Slim” Jones died in New York City at the Cecil Hotel in Harlem. 118th Street, the same street my grandmother grew up on (although she lived on the east side in what was then the Italian section, now mostly Hispanic, the Cecil was on the west side). Slim was 32 years old. Unlike the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper four days earlier, Guitar Slim’s death brought no display of public grieving, no bio pic was ever made, and thank God, nobody ever wrote an allegorical song about it. He never gave an interview, was never filmed or recorded live.
In this day of portable recording devices on every cell phone may I bemoan the fact that no live recording– audio or visual, of Guitar Slim has ever been found. Damn shame, too. I guess we’re lucky he ever got recorded at all.
* I can think of only four that come close– Young John Watson’s Space Guitar on Federal, Clarence Holliman’s solo on Bobby Blue Bland’s It’s My Life, Baby on Duke, and Ike Turner’s whammy bar workout on Billy Gayles’ No Coming Back also on Federal. If we count records that weren’t issued until long after they were recorded, and why not, we can include Pat Hare’s I’m Gonna Murder My Baby, recorded for Sun but un-issued until the 70’s. Oddly enough all these were recorded between 1953-6, over a decade before distortion pedals were invented.