JJ 10/61: In My Opinion – Memphis Slim

Sixty years ago Memphis Slim reacted to Big Bill Broonzy ('the greatest'), Fats Domino ('all the white kids on his side'), Thelonious Monk ('people don’t really think for themselves') and more. First published in Jazz Journal October 1961

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Memphis Slim at the Leadmill, Sheffield. Photo by C Worsdale

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians, who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop. Memphis Slim was born Peter Chatman on September 3rd, 1915 in Memphis, Tennessee. Like so many other young Southern blues men, he travelled to Chicago (1939) and it was there he enjoyed his first successes – as pianist with Big Bill Broonzy and later under his own name. At the present day he is one of the most frequently recorded of all blues singers, with some thirteen long-play albums to his credit. – Sinclair Traill

“Memphis Shake”. The Dixieland Jug Blowers. HMV 7M 223
Well, although it says here ‘Dixieland Jug Blowers’, I’m sure that was the Memphis Jug Band, for I knew some of those guys – the four Stidham brothers. One of them has recently made a record for Prestige, and another for Folkways. I manage him and am going to try and bring him over some­time later on. That’s old music, the kind of stuff my father used to talk about. He was a pianist, you know, and also, played guitar. It was good swinging stuff, but nothing much to it really.

“I Don’t Know”. Cripple Clarence Lofton. Vogue EPV 1209
I knew Cripple Clarence very well. When you said just now that he used to be a fine boogie man, did you mean he is dead? If that is right it can’t be long ago, for I was living in Hyde Park, Chicago in 1958-59 and he used to wash my car for me – he did it many times. The guys in the garage where he worked never would believe that he was once ‘big time’. Every time I went around he would say, ‘Slim, please tell these fellers I used to make records in my own name, and that I really am the original Cripple Clarence – they don’t believe me’. And I can tell you that he was still playing good at that time. But the stuff he did didn’t sell good in Chicago – they didn’t go for that boogie woogie in Chicago at that time. He was a very good friend of Lonnie Johnson, they used to play together back in the ’40s. Lonnie was at a place called ‘Square’ on 51st and Michigan and Cripple Clarence used to come and sit in and they would have a wonderful time. I was just getting started at that time, and I used to listen to them playing the blues. Lonnie doesn’t play too many blues these days, but back in America one has to play so many styles to get by – one has to blend with the trend, and do what is the current happening. Here you like blues, but when Big Bill, Muddy Waters, Lonnie or myself came over here, we didn’t know that; there was no one to tell us what we should do. We think maybe you like the same music as they do back in the States, so we sing ballads and sing it pretty and we are a complete flop. But had we known, we would have stuck to the blues. I gather Roosevelt Sykes did alright here. I told him before he came to stick with the blues – he did, and was a success.

“Leavin’ Day”. Big Bill Broonzy. Mercury ZEP 10093
I made more records with Big Bill than anyone else, since Josh Altheimer died. I did all his recordings from 1940 to 1945-46. I also did all Washboard Sam’s recordings. There were only one or two piano players around who could play for Big Bill and the other blues men. There was myself and Blind John, and of course Bob Call did quite a few. That’s me there on that record you know. I don’t care what it says on the back, that’s me alright! I just stuff, those little things one does. That’s me. We made so many records in those days, I don’t remember how many, but we were recording every week. You see, Melrose, he was bringing guys up from everywhere and recording them, and sometime it was just Big Bill and me accompanying some singer he’d brought to Chicago – Joe Williams, the guitar-playing one, and Sonny Boy Williamson, and he had a girl came up from Kansas, called Kansas Katie, and Lil Green and lots of others. I used to do quite a bit of writing, too, in those days . . . did some for Washboard Sam, but I never got anything out of it – pity. You see in those days I didn’t really know what was going on. I was so glad to be on record like all the rest of the blues singers, that I didn’t ask no questions. I wrote some songs – Beer Drinkin’ Woman and others – and when I looked on the label, there was someone else’s name on it. Melrose would do that to throw me off you know, but recently I claimed all my songs and have now got them nearly all back. I have my own publishing company now, so that isn’t going to happen again!

Big Bill was the greatest that I have known. There may have been some better, but I didn’t know them. He was a wonderful person and a lovely artist; and he was popular for a very long time. We used to work in Chicago, West Side on Lake Street. Big Bill, myself and sometimes we’d use a drummer, and if Sonny Boy Williamson was in town we’d use him – just the three of us. And Big Bill was rated as ‘King of the Blues’ in those days, throughout the whole United States, and it went on for a long time. We made Beer Drinking Woman and it went very big, and I became Memphis Slim from making that particular record. You see Bill said, ‘Now you sound like yourself – you got your own original style, so you go for yourself from now on’. I saw things changing quite a bit, so I grabbed me a band and laid it on, and started to try and keep up with the trend, and I did pretty good. So Big Bill, he didn’t ever like the stuff we were doing; he went on doing what he had always done. So he faded out somewhat, until he came over here, where he was a great success. When I say he faded out, I mean with the Negro race. Then, after he started playing concerts, like Carnegie Hall and places, then he again became popular, but – with the white race. And that was very important, because that is where the money is. Being commercial, that’s the truth. And Big Bill was really quite at the height of his popularity when he died. It was sad to lose such a wonderful guy.

Of Fats Domino: ‘I think he is just about the luckiest person on earth. ’Cause I don’t think he plays piano any too well, and I don’t think he sings good either. But his recordings have sold in millions – why, I don’t know’

“The Fat Man”. Fats Domino. London RE-P 1115
Well, I knew Fats Domino before he was Fats Domino. What I mean by that is I knew him before he had ever made any recordings. I used to play at a place in New Orleans called the Club Desire, and Fats was playing across the track from there during the daytime, at Blue Monday. He used to draw big crowds in those days and was singing better than he does today, but I must say that although he is a personal friend of mine I think he is just about the luckiest person on earth. ’Cause I don’t think he plays piano any too well, and I don’t think he sings good either. But his recordings have sold in millions – why, I don’t know. I guess he is just lucky. Now Smiley Lewis, the one that wrote Blue Monday, now he’s a better pianist and a much better singer. I met him, too, in New Orleans. He’s a great artist, but for some reason he has never caught on. You know, it’s the same in Chicago, New York and down South in St. Louis and Memphis – I have run into guys who made me ashamed to go before a piano or a mike, they have so much talent. But they just don’t get that certain break that is needed. It’s a lot different back in the States than it is here. Over there it’s who you know, over here it’s what you do. Mind you, Fats does have personality and appearance – he’s tops on that, and don’t forget he has all the white kids on his side, all the teenagers – and that helps! Now Ray Charles, he’s the real personality man, but it is strange. Sometimes personality-wise he’s just terrific, but at other times he hasn’t got it. Like all musicians, sometimes you have it, sometimes you haven’t. Ray Charles is a terrific musician and that is how he should be rated, not so much as a blues man. He plays very beautiful piano, very good, and arranges, and plays excellent alto. And what a mimic! He can imitate anyone, anybody – if he sings any guy’s song he sings just like that guy. He made Worried Life and, man, he sounded just like Big Maceo, and about a year ago I heard him do a T-Bone Walker number and he sounded just like T-Bone! And you know, when he first started out he was imitating Nat King Cole, playing and singing, and he was very good. He was under-rated for quite a while, but he has now reached the place he richly deserves.

“Every Day”. Joe Williams w/Count Basie. Columbia 33CX 10026

Well that sounds very familiar – hope my name’s on the label, ’cause I was the writer of that song. I wrote it around 1947/8, and recorded it for a small Chicago label called Miracle. The song had a different title then – Nobody Loves Me – and it didn’t sell well. Back in the ’forties, people would only trouble to play one side of a record. If there was a good side, then they would just play that, and on the other side of this particular record was a number called Angel Child which sold very good. So nobody troubled to turn the record over, and Nobody Loves Me – or Every Day, as you know it – never got played then. But a guy out on the coast, Lowell Fulson, he got the record, played both sides, and then made his own record of Nobody Loves Me, which he changed to Every Day. It did very, very well and then quite a few guys recorded it, but Fulson’s was the best version, singing-wise. Of course this Basie version is great because of the band, but somehow I don’t quite see Joe as a blues singer. Now a lot of people have asked me – ‘what do you think of Joe doing your number?’ and I always say, ‘Now listen, this is my opinion – Lightnin’ Hopkins, Smokey Hogg, or anybody could have made that number and it wouldn’t have mattered, ’cause the band sold it, not the singer’. It has been proved, because Joe Williams also made the number in Chicago for Chess, before he recorded it for Basie, with Red Saunders and his fifteen-piece band, but nothing hap­pened. The Basie record really went, and I still get a little taste from that recording every so often. Joe Williams also did another tune of mine, The Comeback, which also went quite well. Now Joe did a good job with that tune, much better in my opinion than he did with Every Day. I don’t think Joe really wants to be a blues singer – he wants to sing ballads and things, and that is his best bet. The money’s better there too. 

“Blue Stompin’. Hal Singer. Esquire 32-122
Hal Singer has been a friend of mine for quite a while – he’s a wonderful tenor man. This is a record that just has to go good with anyone who likes jazz, for it has the top men here. Charlie Shavers, one of the best trumpet men of all time, Ray Bryant, who with Horace Silver is one of my two favourite modern pianists, and Wendell Marshall, a wond­erful bass man. Bryant has a lot of soul, and can play modern and make you like it – as can Silver. Modern with soul, and that’s what counts! Any style Ray can play, and he really gets with the blues. But this is real blues playing. Hal and Charlie were both always very powerful blues men on their instruments.

“R.R. Blues”. Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines. Fantasy 3238
I saw Earl last when he worked the London House in Chicago quite recently – had some pictures made with him. I think they were for the Chicago Defender. Of course, he is one of the greatest piano players that ever was, but you shouldn’t have played me a blues. He’s not rightly a blues man, if you understand me. But as a pianist he’s great be­cause he always knows just what he’s doing – he’s a fine reader and arranger, and is always in perfect command. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I heard he had his fingers split, so that he could get a better reach. I never asked him if it was true or not. I used to hear him a lot when he was at the Grand Terrace with that terrific band. Earl Hines, Art Tatum and another piano player by the name of James P. Johnson are just about the best piano players of all time. Not so many people seem to know about James P. back in America, but I tell you he was sensational! I did a concert with him (Sidney Bechet, Pops Foster, Big Bill and Sonny Boy Williamson were also on the bill) in 1947 at the Town Hall. It was the first time I had heard James P. Johnson and he took me by surprise. I thought I was going to hear the other Johnson, P. Johnson (Pete), but James P. was much greater than P. Johnson. That left hand was the greatest I ever heard. I guess he was well known in New York, but through the United States he wasn’t as well known as he deserved. He was so much greater than Fats Waller, who was also a fine piano man. In fact I think he was better than Hines or Tatum or any of ’em!

“Happy Go Lucky Local”. Duke Ellington (Piano In The Background). Philips BBL 7460

Last time I heard Duke was at the Blue Monday party at the Trocadero Club – everybody was ballin’ and singin’ and drinking, and having a real good time. The Trocadero opens up at 8 o’clock on Monday morning and they use three bands, one after the other. The place is always packed and they play non-stop from 8 o’clock on Monday morning until 4 o’clock Tuesday morning. All the bands which hit Chicago, they all go to the Trocadero. Duke always goes there, and this last time I really pitched in with him. We played piano together and had some pictures taken – it was great. He’s a wonderful piano player – and what a band leader! Along with Jimmie Lunceford he is my favourite band leader. That Lunceford band! In New York now, you can go up to Harlem and find some of his records on the juke boxes, and they sound just as modern as anything played today. Duke, of course, has his own style on piano; there ain’t no one else that can play that way. And like Frank Sinatra, he can take anything, just anything and make something big out of it. I don’t care what it is, when he plays it, it comes out good – he can play blues (and I mean blues), ballads, classics, just anything, and you’ll like it. And I think Frank Sinatra is just the same – anything he cares to sing comes out good. Returning to James P. Johnson, there is quite a bit of him in Duke’s playing, which bears out my statement that James P. was the greatest piano man of them all.

‘As for Monk, who am I to condemn anyone? But that doesn’t move me at all. Of course I have ears, and I can hear, and I think it has got now that people don’t really think for themselves. They just read what they are told and that is what they go by’

“Mood Indigo”. Thelonious Monk. London LTZ-U 15019
That was strange. I met Monk in Chicago, when he was playing at the Beehive, and I had never heard him before. I don’t know if that was his usual way of playing, but there was nothing there to get excited about. I wasn’t with that at all. If I want to listen to the progressive piano players, I’ll listen to Horace Silver or Ray Bryant, or that guy from Memphis, Phineas Newborn. I know Newborn’s father well, he’s a drummer – the whole family are musicians, but Phineas is the best known of them all. Now he can play blues too. As for Monk, who am I to condemn anyone? But that doesn’t move me at all. Of course I have ears, and I can hear, and I think it has got now that people don’t really think for themselves. They just read what they are told and that is what they go by. They don’t trouble to listen and think – ‘do I really like that?’ No, they read what the critics say and just become brainwashed. A smart publicity man with a smart record company can make people think whatever they want them to, and put an artist on top where he really doesn’t deserve to be. All you got to be is an eccentric or something, and you’re there.