[Dixielandjazz] Guitarist/entertainer Slim Gaillard-- Horace Harris writes
stevevoce at virginmedia.com
Tue Dec 4 10:00:01 PST 2012
Here's my interview with Slim.
Bulee Slim Gaillard's greatest talent is his turbulent surrealist
imagination, which is on a par with Spike Milligan's in the greatest
days of the Goon Shows. He is also gifted with a relaxed and most
attractive voice which is musical even in speech, as shown by his
intoxicating recordings of Travellin' Blues and Slim's Jam. He is a good
guitarist and a gifted pianist who can play better with the backs of his
fingers, as he regularly does, than most can do with the fronts. He is a
good vibraphonist, too and is perhaps best known as a composer and
lyricist - in the latter capacity he can truly be said to have changed
Despite the fact of a sometimes selfimposed obscurity, he has had almost
obsessional followers in this country over the years, including myself.
We had heard of a fiery, recluse-like figure who regarded his days in
music as finished many years ago, and consequently it was a surprise
when he suddenly popped up in Europe.
I was lucky enough to be at Nice when he made his debut. It was half way
through a set by Joe Newman, James Moody and Kai Winding, when a tall,
patriarchal figure with a long grey beard appeared at the back of the
stage and began unpacking a guitar. There was a tentative ripple of
applause from an audience that wasn't quite sure who he was. Slim looked
up in pleased surprise, for he had obviously not expected recognition.
He took over the session - there isn't any way in which he can stay in
the background - and the resultant eruption of hysteria in the audience
was the forerunner of the reception almost every time he played.
At the end of that first set I met him as he came off the stage and was
able to see the surprised delight in his face, not just at the
reception, but at the implication that it meant a new start to his
career in Europe.
You might expect a clown off-stage, too, but you would be disappointed.
Slim is a fairly serious man, very friendly but uncommunicative.
Comments have to be drawn from him with patience, and he answers most
questions with 'That was good fun,' or a variant on it. He's unused to
providing the information a writer might want from him and things which
might be of importance to us appear trivial to him and he has a poor
memory of them.
His act is extrovert and as such he has to dominate anyone else who
shares a stage with him. In some cases this produced glum faces amongst
some of the great musicians who backed him - this was entirely
understandable, but unavoidable. It was not the case with Kai Winding
though, he of the polished and immaculate image, who could have been
expected to be least suited to the Voutmaster's insanity. Soon embroiled
in the labyrinth of Chicken Rhythm he was drawn along by Slim's
magnetism and responded superbly. He didn't have much choice so these
were his first public vocals.
Slim's repertoire is geared so that any professional musician can pick
up the threads as he goes along. 'Now we are going to play some special
arrangements which we'll put together as we come to them,' w as Slim's
He agreed to be interviewed the next morning, but wanted to sunbathe, so we
arranged to talk on the beach at Nice and it was there, seated on the
pebbles amongst the topless beauties, that he told me:
'I was born in Detroit. I'm not sure of the date, but I think it was
January 4, 1916. Everybody in my family used to make music of some kind,
and there was always a guitar lying around the house, but my first
instrument was the vibraphone, I really enjoyed that. I earned the money
to buy my vibes by driving a delivery van and by making shoes - I was a
professional shoemaker. Eventually I was good enough to earn money
playing in Detroit and then, I don't know how old I was, and I can't
remember years, I went to New York. I'd been there a year or so when I
made my first recording. This was as a singer with Frankie Newton's
band. I sang on two of the four titles, There's No Two Ways About It and
'Cause My Baby Says It's So. Frankie was a beautiful player, and there's
some wailing by Pete Brown and Ed Hall on those sides, too. Soon after
that I met Slam Stewart at a club called Jock's Place, and we began
working together, stayed together until 1942 when I went into the army.
We had our first and biggest hit with Flat Fleet Floogie in 1938 (the
public though it was Flat Foot Floogie so we changed it to that and
eventually we became so identified with the hit that we changed the name
of the band from Slim And Slam to Slim Gaillard And His Flat Foot
Floogie Boys). Not so long ago at the World's Fair in New York they
buried a time capsule and they included a copy of Flat Foot Floogie. I'm
pleased about that. It's nice to think that when the Martians find it in
a thousand years they'll start vouting. Slam and I made a lot of records
after Floogie started the rush. We had a good band, Slam was a virtuoso
bassist, a fact sometimes obscured by his humour. That band had a great
tenor player, Kenneth Hollan, who was a mail carrier by day and played
with us at night. I can't think why he wasn't better known. He had a big
sound and he used to swing like Chu Berry.
'I've always been lucky with tenor players. I've used guys like Lucky
Thompson, Teddy Edwards, Ben Webster, Jack McVea, Buddy Tate, Lockjaw -
they're the best. Yes, I always chose all the musicians on our recording
dates, chose them because I liked them - Howard McGhee and such like.
'Our next bit was Tutti Frutti. It wasn't as big as Floogie but it
helped to get us regular broadcast, on \V NEW in New' fork.
'In 1942 Slam and I came out to Hollywood to make the movie
'Hellzapoppin'' with Olsen and Johnson. We had a band with Rex Stewart,
Sonny Greer, Buster Bailey and Vic Dickenson. We made a few movies out
there and we were both due to
go into `Stormy Weather' with Fats Waller and Benny Carter. Slam
appeared in it, but I got called into the army as filming began and that
was the last I saw of Hollywood for a year or so. But we liked the West
Coast, Slam bought property out there and was very comfortable. But
eventually he got restless for New York and when I came out of the army
he had gone back, so we split finally, because I was determined to stay
'Tiny Brown, who was a very big man, came in on bass to replace Slam. In
some ways his sense of humour accorded more with mine. Slam had a very
mellow sense of humour, but Tiny's bad more bite and he could improvise
with it. The vout thing bad started early on in New York when we
recorded Floogie and I just kept right on with it. As long as you had a
vivid imagination it grew by itself. I used to think of the most
impossible things and let my imagination run riot and one thing led to
another. The basis of it was making the impossible possible. For
instance, in B19, where the bomber is into a dive and we put it in
reverse, or in How High The Moon where they grew potatoes the size of
the Hollywood Bowl on the moon. It didn't need too much imagination to
follow that it needed a bulldozer to peel them.
'Anyway, when I came out of the army I went to work in Billy Berg's club
in Hollywood with Tiny. The management decided that he should be called
'Bam' because he was the successor to Slam and he 'bammed' the bass, or
something. We worked a lot at Berg's, I was there for years, and that's
when I made those recordings for Beltone with Bird and Dizzy. I had a
record date for my quintet with Dodo Marmarosa, Jack McVea, Barn and
Zutty Singleton. At the time we were working opposite Bird and Dizzy who
were making their famous first trip out west, so they came on the date,
which was very good fun.
'Those titles we recorded came out on so many labels afterwards that I
could never keep track of them. I made so many recordings and broadcasts
during the forties, and a lot of them have been coming out on albums
lately. I get zero. You can write letters, call on the companies, but
nothing. They just take everything away from you and you get no composer
royalties or anything. (An honourable exception is the Hep label which
has reached a financial agreement with Slim - SV). French Verve have
just brought out an album with 'Opera In Vout' and a lot of the studio
things I did for Norman Granz, and I get nothing for it. I'll have to
get in touch with Norman!
'The 'Opera In Vout' concert was a great one for me. We were just part
of it, because it was a typical Jazz At The Philharmonic concert with I
think Buck Clayton, Prez, Hawk and Charlie Parker. That opening on C Jam
Blues was actually a take off on a phrase that the Hampton band was
famous for at the time. I think Barn played piano on that one as well as
me. I don't think I played two instruments simultaneously that night.
Sometimes I used to play guitar and piano at the same time. You can turn
the volume up on the guitar and it'll play itself - you just make the
chords and hit the strings, feedback!
'I like to pay different instruments, but of course these days the main
one is the guitar. I used to have some good sessions with Charlie
Christian, but I learned most from Bernard Addison in New York when he
was with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. Eddie Durham played nice guitar
too, in the style that I liked with the down stroke. Sometimes guitar
players have an up and down stroke with the plectrum, but I only do that
when I'm doing funny things. Charlie Christian always used the down
stroke, never did go up and down. I developed that style, too. Charlie
would come up to 117th Street to the Cecil Hotel and we would jam. There
were regular sessions there. Dickie Wells used to blow and Art Tatum
came up a lot. When daylight came you'd get him off the piano! I'd sit
there and listen to him, because you learned a lot from him. It really
was a musical education. Apart from the jam sessions I played guitar
with him.' e worked together in Pittsburgh, although it wasn't in that
tight trio style he had with Tiny Grimes. Good fun. He was the champion.
I've never known anyone achieve such mastery of an instrument.
`But the later days out on the West Coast were good, too. As I say I
worked for Billy Berg from when he first began. In fact originally he
began with a place in Beverly Hills called The Country and I had the
band there with Lester and Lee Young. and Leo Watson.
`From time to time I used to get lost. During the fifties I hung around
the West Coast and didn't work in music at all for about seven years. I
worked in lots of movies and TV shows and I never would play music. They
used to ask me but I told them I'd given up music altogether. In fact I
only really got back into music not too long ago at Parnell's jazz spot
up in Seattle, where I now live.
' I got into movies quite casually. I used to go to a Hollywood
restaurant called Theodore's where all the top comics would come in the
morning for breakfast. Guys like Joey Bishop, Milton Berle, Danny Thomas
and Johnny Carson would meet there and tell each other their jokes and I
used to go to listen to them talk. One day, out of the blue, a guy came
up to me in Theodore's and asked if I'd go out to the
studio and read a script. I told him I wasn't an actor. "Would you do me
a favour and come to the studio?" "Well, OK, but I tell you now I'm not
an actor." So I read the script and the guy said "Right, you're leaving
tomorrow at five in the morning for Phoenix, Arizona." I went out there
and worked for about 12 days, and when I came back they had another
thing for me for Universal, Marcus Welby, MD'. So I jumped from M to
Universal and then back to MGM and I kept bouncing from one studio to
another. More recently I was in `Love's Savage Fury'. with Raymond Burr
and `Roots - The Second Generation'.
`But I've been delighted with the reception I've had recently at some of
the American and now European festivals. So I might just stick with the
festival thing or do some more club work. After all, I've got albums out
in Sweden, England and France. Even if they don't bring me any bread I
suppose they let people get to know my work. and I might as well pick up
what I can on that.'
> Dear Norman,
> Slim was a delightful person. He enjoyed living in London for a year
> or so.
> He was booked to appear one night at the Bath Jazz Club, of which I
> was a member. Knowing it would be an entertaining evening my wife and
> I took ten friends with us.
> I spoke to him beforehand and told him that my wife had a problem with
> flat feet. I gave him a slip of paper with her name on it and asked
> him if he would sing "The Flat Foot Floogie" for her.
> Halfway through the evening he announced, "Edwina, where are you?
> Stand up please, because I am going to sing a little song, just for you!"
> Can you imagine how astonished and pleased our friends all were?
> Best wishes and a Happy Christmas.
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