If there was an award for the most flamboyant, outrageous, eccentric and downright exciting blues singer and guitarist, then there’s little doubt that Guitar Slim would be a contender.
Entering a club playing guitar sitting on the shoulders of his personal valet, being carried through the audience with a 200 to 350 foot (depending on which report you believe) lead from guitar to amplifier, distorting and extraordinarily loud, wearing a brightly coloured suit and shoes painted (yes, painted) to match, Guitar Slim might just be considered to be the man who invented rock and roll. His extravagances were many.
Atlantic Records boss Jerry Wexler remembers him turning up several hours late for a recording session, with a fleet of three bright red Cadillacs, complete with a host of hangers-on and a bevy of beauties all dressed in bright red to match the Caddies – and expressed surprise that his gang weren’t allowed into the recording session. He then proceeded to work his way through the mass of humanity telling some “Sorry, man, I have to ask you to leave,” while he told the prettier girls, “You look alright to me, you can stay.”
Slim was, unsurprisingly, partial to a taste. The New Orleans guitarist Earl King, who acted as an apprentice to Guitar Slim, remarked that Slim “had a habit of drinking gin followed by black port wine. And sometimes raw whiskey. At the Dew Drop Inn Slim would have three sticks of weed and one pint of gin before he got on stage.”
Perhaps it was a determination grown during his tough, early years, that drove him on to these excesses. He was to become one of the most influential of all bluesmen, probably the greatest of all the New Orleans blues guitarists. Earl King opined, “It’s hard to find a guitarist in Texas or Louisiana who hasn’t been influenced by Guitar Slim.”
Eddie Lee Jones was born on December 10th 1926 in Greenwood, Mississippi, where Highway 49 and Highway 82 meet, by the Mississippi. His mother died when he was five years old, and with no father to guide him he was sent to live with his grandparents on the L.C. Haynes Plantation near to Hollandale.
He worked the cotton fields, ploughed the fields behind a mule and in his spare time would hang out in the local juke joints, which is where his mission to entertain first took shape. He would sit in with the music, singing and dancing so well that he became known as Limber-Legged Eddie or Rubber Legs. Somewhere along the way he learned to play boogie piano.
He became a Juke Joint attraction. They would clear the floor to make space for his wildly acrobatic leaping and bounding, dancing in the company of any girl who could stay the pace.
The indefatigable Earl King, who also called Slim ‘The performingest man I’ve ever seen’ remembers, “Slim could dance with two women better than any man could with one woman.” One of them could stay the pace, and he married her, she was the sixteen-year-old Virginia Dumas. Nothing much is known about their marriage, but his drafting into the U.S. Army, where he saw out the final year or so of the Second World War in the Pacific, can’t have helped.
He returned in 1946 to take on a day job in a cotton press while spending his evenings playing piano at The Harlem Club in Hollandale, backing visiting musicians including Robert Nighthawk whose guitar playing really caught Eddie’s imagination. Two years later he left town, and his wife, to go on the road through Louisiana and Arkansas as a featured dancer and singer with Willie T. Warren and His Band, and it was Willie who encouraged and rekindled Eddie’s interest in the guitar and went on to teach him to play and he bought his first guitar from a friend who was on the lam for a murder.
By this time Eddie was seriously under the influences of Gatemouth Brown and, particularly, T Bone Walker and went on to appear with the band of Little Bill Wallace. In 1950 he announced that he was going to change his name to Guitar Slim and make himself a reputation as a red-hot guitarist. But it didn’t happen right away.
Guitar Slim was to be found on the street corners and clubs in the French Quarter of New Orleans, playing for tips before he hooked up with the fifteen-year-old Huey Piano Smith, taking up a residency at the Dew Drop Inn where they initially shared the bill with a shake dancer and a female impersonator. It wasn’t long before Slim found himself a manager and went out on the road playing the Southern chitlin’ circuit where the audiences found his outrageous performances irresistible.
He would dye his hair the same colour as his suit and shoes, bright red one week, blue or yellow the next. Earl King remembered, “One time he climbed into the rafters, still playing, made his way to the front of the building, ran outside into the rain in his beautiful white suit and white shoes, still playing, slipped and fell under a parked car, muddy like a hog, from head to feet.”
He first went into a recording studio in 1951, Cosimo Matassa’s J & M Studio. Cosimo said, “I distinctly remember the first session we did with him. He showed up like he was going onstage.” They recorded four sides which were released on Imperial, but the line-up of guitar, piano and drums was unimpressive, rough.
It had excitement, but made no impression. These sessions also mark the very first recordings of Huey Piano Smith whose string of great releases would go on to epitomise the Rhythm & Blues of New Orleans at its most infectious and rocking.
Frustrated at the lack of immediate success with Slim’s recordings, despite his burgeoning live popularity, in 1952 his manager Percy Stovall, arranged for him to record while on tour, passing through Nashville. They cut “Feelin’ Sad” for the small JB Records, a gospel-infused blues that became a small hit and was subsequently covered by Ray Charles.
The single, “The Things That I Used To Do” in 1954, changed everything, for Eddie Guitar Slim Jones. Recorded in New Orleans for Art Rupe’s Speciality Records it became pretty much that label’s best-ever seller. The piano player was a young and unknown Ray Charles, who had to be bailed out of jail so he could take part in the session. He also did the arrangements and produced and went on to tell anyone who’d listen that Slim was his influence.
Art Rupe’s initial campaign plan for the promotion of “The Things I Used To Do” was to target the rural audience of the Southern States, but he reckoned without those urban radio stations in the North who picked up on that hot single and helped make it a million-selling hit, spending 42 weeks on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues charts, six of those weeks at number one and becoming the best-selling Rhythm & Blues single of that year.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was to include the song in its “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll” and Guitar Slim’s composition was to spawn a bunch of cover versions numbering well over sixty at the last count including those by Earl King, Chuck Berry, Junior Parker, Bobby Rush, Ike & Tina Turner, Buddy Guy – and James Brown whose version cracked The Billboard Hot 100 in 1964. Earl King said, “The recording took around 30 takes. Slim would get excited after a good solo and would stop to comment. Ray was so frustrated and annoyed that on the final take he forgets himself and shouts yeah. I shout Ray Charles, you can hear it if you listen close.”
The success of “The Things I Used To Do” propelled Slim on to the big stages, headlining, for instance, at The Apollo in New York. But, typically for Slim, things didn’t go smoothly.
Earl King tells of the time his record company rewarded Slim by buying him a brand-new Oldsmobile. “First time he took that short on the road, they was cutting up the road and he ran it right into a parked bulldozer. He was pretty hurt, got took to hospital. His manager said I had to take his place. We were playing a place we never did play before, so the audience didn’t know no better, so we made it good. Got back to The Dew Drop Inn and there Slim was, out on the street with his guitar on his back, wearing a hospital gown, carrying an overnight case. He told me if you did anything wrong, I’ll kill you. How much did they pay you? I told him, 25 bucks and he got on the phone yelling cos he knew they had a lot more money than that.”
Somewhere inside that wild flamboyant character, there lurked an unusually good and decent man. Earl King said he was “humble, gentle, real nice, he was too nice” and there is no question over whether Guitar Slim had a most distinctive and individual style and sound all of his own.
The Louisiana Weekly said “a one of a kind performer and musician, the indisputable Louisiana Prince of The Blues”. Atlantic Records Jerry Wexler said, “His voice carried all the distress of a black man in the wrong part of the South”.
Sadly, it all came to an end far too soon. Weakened by his alcohol dependence, Guitar Slim got pneumonia while on tour, in New York. His tour manager, Eddie Lee Thompson remembers, “We left The Apollo, he wasn’t doin’ good, couldn’t finish the show. We went on to Niagara Falls, then Rochester, New York but he insisted on goin’ back to New York City. I got to carry him upstairs, he was so thin, lost weight. We laid him on a table and sent out for a doctor, but too late. He was penniless, my uncle paid for his funeral. We put him away nicely.”
Eddie Guitar Slim Jones was 32 years old.
The funeral was in Moses Allen Chapel, and he was buried in the small Calvary Cemetery, in Thibodaux, Lafourche Parish along the banks of Bayou Lafourche where his old friend Hosea Hill lived and kept The Sugar Bowl nightclub. It was Hill who paid for his funeral, which was marked by the five or six women, each claiming to be Guitar Slim’s wife, and several children who they said were all his. Apparently, Hill quietened them down by telling them that the undertaker had not yet been paid, and expected Slim’s wife to foot the bill.
Amazingly, his death hardly made the news at the time, possibly because it was overshadowed by the plane crash at Clear Lake, Iowa, just four days earlier, which killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper.
It is surprising that Guitar Slim never appeared on TV, there’s no film, amateur or otherwise of those terrific performance and almost no existing photographs of his stage show.
The musicians he influenced reads like a Who’s Who of the blues and rock and roll, including such names as Ray Charles, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan.
I would like to leave the last words with Buddy Guy:
“Guitar Slim showed me how to play the guitar in front of people. Whatever he did, I wanted to do. The excitement he caused, I wanted to cause. The pleasure he gave, I wanted to give. I wanted a Strat that I could beat up, I wanted a big crowd that I could drive wild. I wanted to be Guitar Slim.”