Though he may not earn the same accolades as, let’s say, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, or Howlin’ Wolf, most likely because he was a blues pianist as opposed to a blues guitarist, Memphis Slim was an important cog in the wheel of blues music.
September 3rd marks the 100th birthday of Memphis Slim, who was born John Len Chatman in Memphis Tennessee. As a young child Slim saw his father, Peter Chatman, bang on the patio, play guitar, and sing in the juke joints he ran.
By his late teens, Slim was touring juke joints, dance halls, and honky tonks around West Memphis, Arkansas, and southeast Missouri before settling down in Chicago in 1939. Once in the Windy City, Slim collaborated with other blues artists who had migrated from the south to Chicago to become part of the budding Chicago blues scene. Slim first hooked up with Big Bill Broonzy and went on to record his first two singles “Beer Drinking Woman,” and “Grinder Man Blues” for the Bluebird label. These two songs would stay in Slim’s setlist for the majority of his career.
Slim also became a highly sought after session, blues piano player recording with John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Washboard Sam, and Jazz Gillum as well as continuing to work with Broonzy well into the 1940s.
As Slim’s talents grew, he became a composer bringing in alto sax, tenor sax, piano, and string bass, played by the legendary Willie Dixon on the first sessions. The sound would be well known with the “jump blues” as Memphis would call his band Slim and the House Rockers, named after their first single “Rockin’ the House.” In 1948 Slim and his band hit the top of the charts with their first number one hit—”Messin’ Around.”
A hallmark moment for Slim and the House Rockers was after a concert in New York when blues musicologist Alan Lomax took Slim, Broonzy and Williams to Decca recording studios in1947 where they would record sessions. Lomax would present these recordings to BBC Radio in the early 1950s as a documentary titled “The Art of the Negro,” and Lomax would release it later on an extended LP called “Blues in the Mississippi Night.”
Slim became a household name in the world of blues when his song “Every Day I Have the Blues” (originally titled “Nobody Loves Me”) was recorded by blues legends B. B. King; Elmore James; T-Bone Walker; Ray Charles; Ella Fitzgerald; Jimi Hendrix; Sarah Vaughan; Eric Clapton; Carlos Santana; and many more. The blues standard would be inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1992.
With the blues scene hitting hard times after World War II, Slim recorded for any label he could including Hy-Tone, King, Peacock, Miracle, Premium, Mercury, and Vee-Jay. Through the years, and labels, Slim made a few changes to his Slim and the House Rockers line up, adding another tenor sax player and guitarist, and recorded an ample amount of successful singles—”Mother Earth,” “Gotta Find My Baby,” “Rockin’ the Blues,” “Steppin’ Out,” and “Slim’s Blues.”
With blues music pretty much on life support in the States, the blues were making a big impact overseas. Slim had to pack up his band in 1960 and ’62 to tour Europe with Willie Dixon. Slim and Dixon played many festivals, which Dixon organized, they also recorded profusely while on tour. Folkways Records signed the duo releasing several of their albums including ‘Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon at the Village Gate with Pete Seeger’ in 1962.
With his star rising in Europe, Slim permanently moved to Paris in 1962 and became one of the most prominent blues artists for nearly three decades. Slim became a blues star appearing on television programs, touring throughout Europe, he even wrote the score for the film “À nous deux France” in 1970, and acted in a few films.
In 1986 Slim was christened a Commander in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of France. In addition, the U.S. Senate honored Slim with the title of Ambassador-at-Large of Goodwill.
Slim made his last appearance back in the States in Austin when he reunited with former guitarist Matt “Guitar” Murphy for a gig at Antoine’s in 1987. Less than a year later, Slim, back in Paris died from renal failure on February 24, 1988 at the age of 72. He is buried at Galilee Memorial Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee. A year later, 1989, Slim was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
It’s a shame Slim isn’t a bigger name when people think of the blues because he was just as important as the more popular artists. That’s not to say the pioneering blues pianist had a bad life, far from it, it’s just that his music and memory should never die.
Rest in Peace Memphis Slim.