One of the only known pictures of Guitar Slim live
by Ted BarronOn February 7, 1959, Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones died of complications from pneumonia in New York City. While he was on an East Coast tour of one-nighters, his breathing had become increasingly difficult. Ignoring doctors’ orders, he continued drinking his daily ration of a pint of gin and a fifth of black port wine. Earlier that week, Slim went to his bandleader, Lloyd Lambert, claiming to be too sick to play. "My time is up," he said. Slim knew he was done for. He started a gig in Rochester, but couldn't finish the first song. In Newark the following night, he collapsed after finishing the show. The band drove in to New York City and got him a doctor in Harlem. They drove around the corner, checked into the Cecil Hotel, and Slim checked out on the doctor’s table before they could return to retrieve him and get him to the hospital. He was 32 years old. Back home in Louisiana, Mardi Gras was in full swing. His death was barely noticed due to another tragedy earlier that week, when Buddy Holly's plane went down in a cold Iowa night. We all know that story. Here's Slim's, or at least what can be pieced together of it.
Five years earlier, Slim had a number-one hit on the Billboard R&B charts for six weeks straight with "The Things That I Used to Do," on Specialty Records. He claims the song came to him in a dream. In the dream, an angel fought a devil, each of them holding a set of lyrics to a song. Guess who won.
Like another great bluesman keen on perpetuating his own myth while "walking side by side" with the Devil, and whose story is also shrouded in mystery, contradiction, and hearsay, Slim's life started in the richly fertile region of the Mississippi Delta. Eddie Lee Jones was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1926. His mother died when he was 5, and he was sent to live with his grandfather at the L.C. Hayes Plantation, near Hollandale. He worked the fields, picking cotton and plowing behind a mule. His first instrument was the piano. He was allegedly fluent in boogie-woogie, and according to his first wife, he could hear any song once on a jukebox and sing it back immediately. He got his start as an entertainer, not as a musician but as a dancer. Eddie Jones, also known at the time as "Limber-Legged Eddie," would regularly show up at juke joints and clear the floor with an acrobatic repertoire of splits, jumps, twirls, and gyrations with any woman who could keep up with him.
He married one of these women, 16-year-old Virginia Dumas, and was soon drafted into the army, where he served briefly in the Pacific at the end of World War II. Upon his return in 1946, he took a job working a cotton press. At the Harlem Club, in Hollandale, he befriended (and sometimes played piano behind) local and traveling musicians, including Robert Nighthawk, whose guitar prowess entranced the young Mr. Jones. In 1948, he left Dumas and Hollandale, surfacing in Arkansas, where he spent the next two years dancing in Delta juke joints with Willie Warren's band. It was Warren who showed Jones how to play the guitar. Jones was a quick learner, and in 1950, he told Warren that he was leaving to go to New Orleans to make records and was going to call himself Guitar Slim.
Slim hit New Orleans to little fanfare. He hung out in a booth at a bar in the French Quarter playing guitar for wine, tips, and whatever else he could scrounge up. One story has him dressed in a black suit and a white hat playing on a bridge in the 9th Ward, practicing and trying to get noticed. Singer Geri Hall first heard Slim playing electric guitar at top volume on his front step at six o’clock in the morning, much to his neighbors’ dismay. He soon met 15-year-old piano player Huey Smith, and they started playing together. They made their formal debut on August 26, 1950, at the Dew Drop Inn. Also on the bill that night were a female impersonator and a shake dancer. Slim’s repertoire at the time was heavy on covers of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and probably T-Bone Walker. Brown was probably his greatest influence as Slim was learning his craft as both a guitarist and a performer. But, as legend tells us, Slim took things up a notch. What he lacked in chops, he made up for with his flamboyant style.
Every account of Guitar Slim places him as the greatest showman and most outrageous performer in the history of New Orleans music. That's saying something. He would dye his hair the same color as his suit and shoes--sometimes using paint to get the shoe color to match. One week it was red, the next blue, or yellow, and so on. Different reports calculate the length of his guitar cord between 200 and 350 feet. He would enter a club through the front door, playing while moving through the crowd, and join his band onstage, frequently on the shoulders of his personal valet. He exited the stage in the same fashion, proceeding to his car and driving away while still playing.
The most incredible facts in all of this are that despite his success and national attention, Slim never made a TV appearance, and that there is no known footage of his stage show anywhere. Not only is there no footage, but there are only a handful of photographs of Slim in circulation, and only one battered snapshot (above) of him onstage.
Needless to say, people started to pay attention. Slim soon found management and was playing all the clubs in town, traveling the Southern chitlin’ circuit, and making a lot of noise. A lot of noise. He played loudly, with all the knobs on ten, and according to some, favored playing his guitar through a PA rather than an amplifier. Slim's theme song was Gatemouth's "Boogie Rambler," and when Slim finally entered a recording studio in early 1951, he recorded four sides for Imperial at his first session at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studio, including a variation on Gatemouth's number called "New Arrival."
I'm a new arrival and they call me Guitar Slim
If I don't suit my baby, I guess nobody else will
Matassa recalls: "I distinctly remember the first session we did with him. He showed up like he was going onstage."
Slim had arrived, but the records went nowhere. They're crude, but exciting nonetheless. It's a piano/guitar/drums trio, and they are the first recordings of both Slim and Huey "Piano" Smith. Smith went on to record a string of legendary R&B hits as a bandleader for Ace throughout the ‘50's and ‘60's.
Frustrated by the poor reception and sales of New Orleans's newest sensation, manager Percy Stovall took Slim into a studio while on the road in Nashville, to record another session for the small J-B label. "Feelin' Sad" is a slow mournful gospel blues which was later recorded by Ray Charles. It features Slim as a singer rather than as a blazing guitar player. The B side, "Certainly All," is an upbeat call-and-response gospel number with a rocking guitar solo. The songs were regional hits, and two of the first R&B sides to feature an overtly gospel sound.
Slim's star was rising, and offers were coming in. He had taken up residence at the Dew Drop Inn--literally, that is--living upstairs surrounded by a rotating cast beautiful and willing women. Downstairs, he was honing his chops and his stage show. Frank Pania, the owner of the Dew Drop, had taken over his management. Jerry Wexler tried to sign Slim to Atlantic, but was beat out by Johnny Vincent, who at the time was doing A&R for Specialty Records. In late 1953, Slim returned to J & M Studios, but without Huey Smith. This session was led by another young piano player, Ray Charles, who had to be bailed out of jail to make the session. Four sides were recorded, including "The Things That I Used to Do" and "Story Of My Life." There are differing accounts of this session, and by every indication it was a long, arduous task to get Slim's sound properly waxed for the first time. Cosimo Matassa, when asked about Ray Charles's role, said, "He ran the session. He literally produced the session."
The recording date that produced "The Things That I Used to Do" went on all night. Somewhere between forty and eighty takes, depending on whom you ask. Cosimo recalls, "Normally the, quote, producer will do rehearsals, and if during the rehearsal somebody plays a clam, he'll stop. Ray didn't do that. He'd go through the whole song... and remember everything everybody did wrong, and tell them off in one series." At the tail end of the final released take, you can hear Charles yell, "Yeah!," relieved, no doubt, to be done. After the sessions, Johnny Vincent played the song for Specialty Records owner Art Rupe. Rupe was less than enthusiastic, saying "it was the worst piece of shit [he] ever heard." What did he know? The record went on to be his biggest seller to date, and it put Slim on the map. It's a masterpiece of pre–rock-‘n’-roll New Orleans R&B. The guitar sound is warm and up-front, distorted by volume, and backed by a swinging band. Volume was important to Slim's sound, which was, by all accounts, difficult to translate in the studio.
All the recordings from this initial Specialty session are remarkable, but the sound of the guitar on one track in particular shows for the first time Slim's intensity as a soloist. "Story of My Life" is a slow blues with lyrics that are almost cliche to the idiom, but in Slim's case pretty close to the truth:
If my mother hadn't have died
Lord, and my father left his child at home
maybe my life wouldn't be so miserable baby
Lord, and I wouldn't be so all alone
In between these lines Slim plays searing fills at lightning speed, which foreshadow a guitar sound not too different from what Jimi Hendrix produced more than a decade later. Many rock guitarists, including Frank Zappa, Billy Gibbons, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix, cite Slim as a key influence, but what he does on the solo for "Story of My Life" is extraordinary, and calls to mind Lou Reed's psychotic guitar break on The Velvet Underground's "I Heard Her Call My Name" ("Closer to dentistry than to guitar playing," in the words of my friend Mike DeCapite). It's a sound that is, of course, achieved with volume, but it's almost as if the guitar is playing the player, who has become a conduit for a sound raw, primal, and full of emotion. It's truly exhilarating. According to Cosimo, "Controls only meant one thing to him. Ten. It was kind of funny. It made a unique sound, and except for the harshness that these overtones create, it's unique, and it wasn't bad, and different for sure." Maybe the intensity was too much for an unsuspecting public, because as a follow up single to his number-one hit, it sold poorly.
The record company bought Slim a brand-new Cadillac, which he promptly plowed into parked bulldozer. He was hurt, but not badly. The doctor told him to take it easy for a month. No big deal, except that Slim was booked solid and set to go on tour to promote his number-one record. Earl King, who was an up-and-coming guitar player in New Orleans at the time, was a friend and devotee of Slim’s, and for now, had become his understudy. Frank Pania, not wanting to cancel the dates, took King on the road to perform as Guitar Slim. King was scared to death that he'd be found out, but as his early Savoy and Specialty sides attest, he was a dead ringer for Slim, and in the days of radio and jukebox hits, no one really knew what Slim looked like. The tour went off without a hitch. King told writer Jeff Hannusch (in his book I Hear You Knockin'), "When I got back to town, the first person I saw was Guitar Slim... He was walkin' down LaSalle Street with a hospital gown on, and a guitar under one arm, and an amp under the other, yellin', 'Earl King, I heard you been out there imitatin' me. If you wreck my name, I'm gonna sue, and I'm gonna kill you!' "
Slim soon hit the road with his new band, led by bassist Lloyd Lambert. Over the next year and a half, he recorded multiple sides for Specialty, all while out on the road at studios in Chicago and Los Angeles. They are all good, and some sold well, but none matched the success of "The Things That I Used to Do." Still, crowds flocked to see his wild stage show, both at home and on the road. It was not uncommon for people to drive a hundred miles to see him play. As a kid, guitarist Buddy Guy saw Slim and his destiny was set. To this day, he bases his stage show on Slim's (ED NOTE: Guy's especially good at walking around venues to play).
In 1956, Specialty released Slim from his contract, and in March of that year, Atlantic Records finally got the opportunity to record him for their Atco subsidiary. Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler went to New Orleans to record him for the first time there since his first Specialty session. In Wexler's book Rhythm and Blues, he describes the scene of Slim's arrival to the rehearsals for his first Atlantic date. After several hours of waiting for Slim, "[S]uddenly a wave of humanity comes washing over the street--kids, men, women, and couriers. 'Here come's 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.' "
After Slim bid adieu to his entourage (initially he’d invited everyone to hang out), rehearsals got underway. The following day they recorded several sides for Atco, including two of Slim’s best songs, "Down Through the Years" and "It Hurts to Love Someone." The sessions back at J & M with Cosimo were not without incident. It was stop-and-go, due to Slim's down-home eccentricity and tape-machine tubes being repeatedly blown by the gain on Slim's guitar. At one point, Slim took a solo, with which he had particularly impressed himself, and stopped mid-take, saying, "Gentlemen! Did you hear that?" Cosimo recalls, "Yeah, well, they cured him of that real quick. What they did was sent him outside, and did the rehearsing with him not in the room." The Atco sides did moderately well, but Atlantic couldn't get a hit with Slim either. He recorded for them twice the following year, in New Orleans and New York, and one last session in New York, in 1958, produced his final and prophetically titled two-sider "When There's No Way Out" and "If I Had My Life to Live Over." A year later, Slim was dead.
Eddie Lee Jones was buried with his Goldtop Les Paul in the Cajun country southwest of New Orleans, in Thibodaux, Louisiana. He's buried next to his friend and final manager, Hosea Hill, who’d persuaded him to move to Thibodaux in 1956. Few people in Thibodaux know who he is, but one resident, Aaron Caillouet, made an unsuccessful bid for mayor in the 1990's, running on a platform of creating a Guitar Slim Day in Thibodaux. It's a shame he didn't win.
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