Singer, songwriter, electric blues guitarist
Born Edward Lee Jones, 10 December 1925, Greenwood, Mississippi
Guitar Slim is the biggest one-hit artist in the history of the R&B charts. His 1954 million seller "The Things That I Used To Do" was one of the most influential R&B songs of its time. Unfortunately, excessive drinking, womanizing and life in the fast lane took its toll and Slim was only 32 years old when he died.
Guitar Slim was born Eddie Jones in Greenwood, Mississippi, a rural region of intense cotton production. Times were tough and Slim did his fair share of chopping in the fields as a youngster. He was a singer and a dancer before he took up the guitar ; early influences were Robert Nighthawk and Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown, later T-Bone Walker. After military service (1944-46), he started performing in blues clubs in and around New Orleans. In 1949 - around the time Jones adopted the stage name Guitar Slim - he met 15-year old Huey 'Piano' Smith, who became his pianist. Drummer Willie Nettles completed the trio. They had their first recording session on May 16, 1951, resulting in two Imperial singles, "Bad Luck Is On Me"/"New Arrival" and "Standin' At the Station"/"Cryin' In the Morning", both credited to Eddie 'Guitar Slim' Jones and his Playboys. Poorly recorded, they failed to sell. More successful was his third 45, "Feelin' Sad" (J-B 603, 1952), a minor local hit, produced by Jim Bulliet in Nashville, and covered by Ray Charles in 1953 for his fourth Atlantic single.
Meanwhile, Slim honed his personal appearances into a memorable act, with loud flashy clothes, and a 300 feet long extension cord into his amp which was cranked up to full volume. This allowed him to wander far from the center of the stage, down into the audience and even further. No 1950s blues guitarist even came close to equalling the flamboyant Guitar Slim in the showmanship department. By 1953, he was one of the biggest draws on the Southern R&B club circuit. His guitar playing (very loud and often distorted) was way ahead of its time and an influence on Jimi Hendrix, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others.
Atlantic bosses Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler bought his release from Jim Bulliet, but naively neglected to get Slim's signature on a contract. Instead, he was signed by Johnny Vincent, then a Specialty A&R man. On October 26, 1953, Slim entered Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studio to record four songs. He was backed by the Lloyd Lambert band, who also accompanied him on stage. Johnny Vincent claims he had to bail Ray Charles out of jail to arrange and play piano to complete the personnel. Among the songs was "The Things That I Used To Do", which Vincent suggested to Specialty owner Art Rupe as the A-side of Slim's first Specialty single. Rupe was less than impressed with the result. He told Vincent, "I'm gonna put it out, but if it don't sell, you start looking for a new job".
Johnny Vincent's judgment turned out to be better than Rupe's. "The Things That I Used To Do", Slim's own composition, spent no less than fourteen weeks at the top of the R&B charts in 1954 and was one of the biggest sellers in Specialty's history. "Story Of My Life", from the same session, was issued as the follow-up. A second session took place in April 1954, with the same personnel, minus Ray Charles (John Gerard replaced him on piano). Four more Specialty sessions followed in 1954-55, yielding six further singles in the same vein, but in spite of Slim's popularity and the high quality of the recordings, Guitar Slim would never see the charts again.
From March 1956 until January 1958, Slim recorded for Atco (Atlantic's subsidiary label), both in New Orleans and New York. There was not much departure from the Specialty sessions, largely due to the strength of Lloyd Lambert's tight band. Atlantic had visions of crossing his records into the teenage market on the same scale as Chess had done with Chuck Berry, but it was not to be. His last Atco single contained the prophetically titled songs "When There's No Way Out" and "If I Had My Life To Live Over".
Despite doctors' warnings about his heavy drinking, by 1958, Slim was really sick and getting weaker, so much that he was unable to travel. In February 1959, he was ready to give it another try and embarked on a tour of dances and nightclubs in New York State. The first two performances, in Rochester and Newark, didn't go well and it was clear that Slim needed medical help. The Lloyd Lambert band drove to New York City for the next gig, but Slim died (of complications from pneumonia) at the Cecil Hotel before they could take him to a doctor. It was February 7, 1959, four days after the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. What a terrible week for rock n roll.
Guitar Slim was buried in Thibodaux, Louisiana. Later, Slim's widow would marry Lowell Fulson and one of Slim's sons (Rodney Armstrong), from his many common law wives, performs as Guitar Slim Jr.
More info :
Recommended reading : the chapter on Guitar Slim in Jeff Hannusch's book "I Hear You Knockin'" (Swallow Publications, 1985), page 177-188.
Acknowledgements : Jeff Hannusch, Jerry Wexler, Bill Dahl.
Dik, April 2014
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