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The use of theatrics while performing has been around a long time in Blues music. Some of the earliest reported antics were displayed by Charley Patton in the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta during the 1920s. Patton was known for his lively stage presence, dancing around while he played the guitar between his legs or behind his back. Numerous other artists adapted some form of a stage act throughout the years. Howlin' Wolf had his tail dragging routine. The playful onstage banter of Louis Jordan and his band made them a top draw that helped find their way onto film. Showmanship certainly came to the forefront in the guise of Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy as they roared across the large festival and stadium stages. But, without question, the unsurpassed true master of this art form was Guitar Slim. An attention loving Bluesman who roared through the clubs of New Orleans during the 1950s, only to pass on at a much too early age.
Flamboyance was the nature of Guitar Slim. He was known to wear specially-tailored, brightly colored suits with shoes and dyed hair to match. An assistant would follow him during his shows, carrying up to 350 feet of guitar cord, just in case Slim would decide to walk through the audience without missing a note. On occasion, Slim would ride on the assistant's shoulders. He would sometimes take these strolls outside the club and into the streets, where it was not unusual for him to bring traffic to a halt. It was after witnessing a Guitar Slim performance, that would seal the fate of a young Buddy Guy to decide to make the Blues his living. Guy would state in his autobiography, "Damn Right I've Got The Blues", "When I saw him, I'd made up my mind. I wanted to play like B.B. (King) but act like Guitar Slim." To this day, he still utilizes the stage antics he learned by watching Slim.
Guitar Slim was born Eddie Jones in Greenwood, Mississippi on December 10, 1926. When he was five years old his mother died, and having never known his father, he was sent to Hollandale to be raised by his grandmother on the L. C. Haves plantation. Living there, he learned to make a living working in the cotton fields and plowing behind a mule.
At a young age, Eddie would spend his free time at the local juke joints in Hollandale. He began to sit in with traveling and local bands as a singer and dancer. In fact, his adept skills as a dancer earned him the nickname "Limber Legs." At the age of 18, he was working with a band fronted by Willie Warren when he met his first wife, Virginia Dumas. The marriage was short-lived though, and for half of their coexistence, Eddie was away in the army, including wartime service in the Pacific. Over the following years, Eddie would live with a number of common-law wives.
Bandleader Willie Warren was acknowledged as introducing Jones to the guitar. He found further influence from the Delta slide legend Robert Nighthawk, who occasionally traveled through Hollandale. Despite the wealth of Blues guitarists in Mississippi, Jones gained his true love for the instrument from the sounds he heard coming out of Texas, in particular, T-Bone Walker and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. And it would be Gatemouth's "Boogie Rambler" that he would use as his theme song for several years.
By 1950, Eddie Jones had already developed his wild stage act and had relocated to New Orleans. He took up the name Guitar Slim and began to experiment with newer guitar sounds that included distorted overtones (a full decade before Jimi Hendrix). He had the chance to record for the Imperial label in 1951, cutting four songs, including "Bad Luck Is On Me", but they were unsuccessful. Next, he tried the Nashville-based Bullet label in 1952, and enjoyed a mild regional hit with the single, "Feeling Sad". This brought attention from both the Atlantic and Specialty labels in 1953, who each tried to add him to their rosters. But, through the persuasion of label boss, Art Rupe and A&R man, Johnny Vincent, Slim signed with Specialty and his first recording with them would became his calling card for the remainder of his life.
"The Things That I Used To Do" was engineered by the New Orleans legend Cosimo Matassa and featured Lloyd Lambert's band backing him up with special guest Ray Charles filling in on the piano. Guitarist Earl King claims that Slim said the song came to him in a dream, where a devil and angel fought each other with their own sets of lyrics. Of course, being a Blues song, the devil's lyrics had won out. Art Rupe hated the song when he first heard it, but released it as a single anyway. It would ride the R&B charts for 21 weeks, six at Number One, and would sell over a million copies. It also placed Guitar Slim on the road for a national tour, where he sold out major venues like the Howard in Washington, D.C. and a week-long gig at New York's famed Apollo. This remarkable feat at the Apollo was unmatched by all other top performers of the day, including Sammy Davis Jr. It is interesting to note that at the beginning of this tour, Slim was involved in an automobile accident involving alcohol and would miss a month. It was a common practice with some labels to use other performers in place of the headliners to an unsuspecting audience in order to keep the music in the forefront. In Slim's absence, Earl King substituted during this period. (Specialty would do this again later in the decade for Huey "Piano" Smith who disliked touring, replacing him with James Booker at the time.) At the end of his tour, Slim decided to settle into a milder atmosphere and moved to Thibodeaux, Louisiana, in the heart of the Cajun country.
He would continue to write and record songs for Specialty for another two years. Despite strong singles like "Sufferin' mind" and "The Story Of My Life", sales could not match the success Of "The Things That I Used To Do" and Art Rupe decided to release Slim from his contract. He quickly signed with the Atco label, a subsidiary of Atlantic, who had tried unsuccessfully to sign him in 1952. His writing skills had not diminished and over the next two years, he charted four more times, including the song, "It Hurts To Love Someone" and "Down Through The Years".
Throughout his career, Guitar Slim had led a hard life that was marred by heavy drinking. Earl King noted that he was drinking "a pint of gin and chasing it with a fifth of black port every day." He was also a notorious womanizer, reportedly with a new female companion every night. In early 1959, the band set out for an East Coast tour despite the problems that he was encountering with his breathing as a result of his alcohol problem. On February 6th, the band was in Rochester, New York, when Slim became violently ill. He was told by a local doctor that he needed to give up drinking. The next day in New York City, the band had to carry an incapacitated Guitar Slim to his hotel room. At the time they believed he was just drunk, but later when they could not revive him a doctor was called. But, it was too late. Guitar Slim had died of bronchial pneumonia, a condition worsened by his drinking. He was just 32 years old. Sadly, his death was overshadowed by the plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper only four days earlier. His body was returned to Thibodeaux, where he was buried in an unmarked grave with his guitar.
Ironically, the final session recorded by Guitar Slim for Atco, would be the single "If I Had My Life To Live Over" b/w "When There's No Way Out". He was survived by a number of children from his various female companions. One of those children is Rodney Armstrong, who has followed in his father's footsteps, performing in New Orleans under the moniker Guitar Slim, Jr. "The Things I Used To Do" still remains a strong Blues standard and is required material for any bar band trying to make a name for themselves. It has been honored by The Blues Foundation as a Classic of Blues Recording in their Hall of Fame. Due to his unfortunate early demise, the world will never know how great Guitar Slim may have been. Those who knew him have no doubt of his greatness. Earl King places him on the same scale as B.B. King and Ray Charles. You need look no further than those who have named him as a major influence to see the truth: Albert Collins, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons are only a handful of this countless number.