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Memphis Slim

Fip, Fil and Fim


by Ian Mann

August 23, 2009


A welcome and enjoyable reminder of the talent of Memphis Slim but far from being the definitive collection

This collection from the French based Milan label is a welcome reminder of the talents of blues pianist/vocalist Memphis Slim (1915-1988). Born Peter Chatman in Shelby County, Memphis, Tennessee he got his nickname from his skinny 6ft 2 in frame and learnt his trade in the clubs of Beale Street before moving to Chicago in the late 1930’s.

His big break came when he became Big Bill Broonzy’s regular accompanist staying with him until the early fifties. By this time he was ready to strike out on his own leading his own band the House Rockers and recording prolifically under his own name. Slim became an increasingly important figure on the Chicago scene collaborating with Willie Dixon, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Sonny Boy Williamson and others. 

He also visited Europe playing in Belgium in 1960 at the request of Yannick Bruynoghe. Hugues Panassie subsequently brought him to France and in 1962 Slim decided to settle permanently in Paris. Like Sidney Bechet before him he was much loved in his new home and remained there until his death, only occasionally returning to the USA.

Slim was a dynamic boogie woogie pianist with a formidable right hand and he was also a powerful and authoritative singer. A talented songwriter his best known composition is the blues standard “Every Day I Have The Blues”, a brilliant tune memorably covered by Count Basie and Joe Williams, Lowell Fulson, B.B.King, Buddy Guy and others.

Unfortunately that song doesn’t appear on this welcome but uneven collection. Recording dates and locations are not given but I suspect that most of it was recorded following Slim’s move to Europe. Certainly the second part of the album seems to be drawn from “Memphis Blues;The Paris Sessions”, a good natured jam session originally released on Stash Records and featuring guest slots from Evelyn Young (vocals & alto sax), Sunny Blake (harmonica and vocal) and Booker T. Laury (vocals). The guitarist on the session was Don McMinn. Although these guests make perfectly acceptable contributions they aren’t in Slim’s class and the best moments on the album come when Slim is in command. This recording can’t really be described as a “Best Of” when the composer’s best known song is absent but there are some fine moments here for all that. 

“Fip, Fil and Fim” certainly shows off Slim’s abilities as a composer. The opening title track is classic boogie with a daft chorus that recalls Slim Gaillards’ “Flip, Flop, Fly.” The quirky instrumentals “Zorba The Freak” and “Violin Boogie” display Slim’s pianistic skills and the songs “Movin’ On” and “Down In Alabama” are convincing slabs of high energy piano led blues boogie. Memphis Slim was one hell of a piano player and his virtuosity won him the approval of the jazz audience. However as this album shows he was primarily a blues man, the feeling is there in his voice, but his skill at the piano is an enormous bonus. 
Elsewhere there are some powerful slow blues that bring out the soulfulness inherent in Slim’s playing and singing. These include “Christina”, “Sassy Mae”, “That’s Where I’m Coming From” and best of all the dramatic “Keep The Blues Alive”. This last tune is almost social commentary, setting the blues in their historical context and with Slim revelling in his role as keeper of the flame. “Christina” even manages to throw a Thelonious Monk quote into the mix.

“All By Myself” and “Bye Bye Blues” are little more than snippets culled from live performances but they effectively usher in the second half of the album and help to illustrate the energy of the man in a live situation.
Three items of outside material follow. Leon Russell’s “Call Me The Boogie Man” speaks for itself but with guitar as prominent as Slim’s piano. Harry Godwin’s “1040 Form Blues” is more down home with Blake’s harmonica prominent in this lament about the miseries of paying income tax. Dennis James’ “You’ll Soon Be Singing The Blues” is back to the blues boogie template.

“He Flew The Coop” features the theatrical vocals and occasional alto sax of Evelyn Young alongside Slim. Young also plays alto on the slow blues “Going Back to Memphis”, Slim’s autobiographical account of his poverty stricken upbringing. Guy Peellaert’s cover art borrows from the imagery evoked in the song. “Do You Think I’ve Got The Blues” is a short, cogent piece of blues boogie urgently delivered by Slim and the band. As on the original Stash release the rhythm section unfortunately remain uncredited.
“Fore Day Train” and “Shaking That Thing” are features for Blake’s harp and vocals. The first is an instrumental with Blake’s harp imitating the whistle of the train in the title. “Shaking That Thing” introduces Blake’s distinctly average vocalising. He’s nifty enough on the harp though.
Booker T. Laury sings the last two tracks. Essentially a blues shouter he’s a more effective vocalist than Blake but lack’s Slim’s finesse.  Both"Early In the Morning” and the closing “Memphis Blues” feature his hoarse vocals alongside Young’s alto sax and Slim’s piano. 

“Fip, Fil and Fim” is a welcome reminder of the talents of Memphis Slim and there is much to enjoy here. However it can’t be regarded as the definitive collection of the man and his works. Slim recorded prolifically in the States before his move to Europe and there are plenty more collections of Memphis Slim material available on the market. It’s almost certain that some of these will offer better quality material than much of that collected here, fun though it is.

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