Thursday, January 26, 2017

Traffic stopped. Drivers honked. Woman ran up and touched him: the Legend of Guitar Slim Onstage

I love this passage about New Orleans legend Guitar Slim in Randy McNutt's terrific and overlooked book Guitar Towns: A Journey to the Crossroads of Rock 'n' Roll:
He attracted thousands of customers to the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans. Like Slim, it never shut down. When he climbed up on its stage, he became a Crescent City happening through which customers vicariously fulfilled their fantasies—the women, the adulation, the money, the cars, the no-cares lifestyle. For a few hours, at least, they could forget the kids and the bills. With the hit ["The Things That I Used To Do", January, 1954], Slim finally gained the national audience he needed. He sang at Gleason’s and the Ebony Club in Cleveland, the Club Walahiye in Atlanta, and the Palms Club in Hallandale, Florida. At the Apollo in New York, Slim once became so excited that he wouldn’t stop playing. Stagehands had to drop the curtain, but Slim continued. In Louisiana, his act became a legend. Before battles of the bands, Slim would tell the other performers—Fats Domino, Bobby Bland, and anybody else with enough nerve to share the stage with him—that he would win. In clubs, he’d often walk off the stage and into the street, playing guitar with an electrical cord that stretched, according to varying estimates, from 200 to 350 feet. Sometimes he Stood on the shoulders of a muscular valet. Traffic stopped. Drivers honked. Woman ran up and touched him. He walked on the tops of cars, picking his guitar and somehow not missing a beat.
More epic details from Ted Barron in Perfect Sound Forever:
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.... 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.
Barron's piece featured a rare shot of Slim doing his thing live:
Guitar Slim: what a rock and roll spectacle he must've been onstage—and off!—breaking down the walls between performer and audience well before 1960s and '70s rock and roll and punk bands. Sadly, I can find no footage of Slim playing onstage; he died in 1959. We're reliant upon the memories and first-hand accounts of knocked out witnesses.

Here's a killer b-side, with insane guitar distortion, from 1954:

Photo of Guitar Slim via Innocent Words.


Steve Coleman said...

From what is described, Guitar Slim's approach sounds a lot like Super Rock and that makes me want to dig out the album that Ace Records put out. Thanks for the reminder, Joe.

Joe Bonomo said...

I made that connection, too!