Born: September 3, 1915 | Died: 1988 Primary Instrument: Piano
Memphis Slim would take the Blues to places it never imagined. He was a prolific author of many enduring classics of the Blues lexicon, including “Mother Earth,” “Everyday I Have the Blues,” and countless others. But as a performer, his everlasting significance was in opening unexpected doors, and letting the music take wing in places where it had never extended. Blues artists had often attained modest levels of popularity, but the bulk of the audience base was essentially derived from the black lower classes. Blues clubs, where common folk let loose at the end of the day, offered music that was ribald and highly suggestive. He was a fabulous keyboard player, an accomplished composer and a soulful vocalist. Like most adept blues pianists, his range goes beyond basic Chicago blues to boogie, jump blues and R&B flavors.
Whether it was the 30’s, 40’s, even the 50’s, Blues tended to be isolated from larger society, Memphis Slim changed all that, especially in the aftermath of settling in Europe in 1963, living in France until his 1988 death. He proceeded to bring a brisk air of sophistication and polish to a rough-hewn art form, developing a presentation that was conducive to concert hall environs. He was a pioneer in this regard, realizing that Blues could only capture the imagination of a mass audience if it was presented with stylishness and refinement. Yet he never compromised the integrity of the music, its core grittiness and honesty was fully maintained. Peter 'Memphis Slim' Chatman went on to become the toast of the Continent.
Memphis Slim's fascinating story begins in Memphis in 1915, and sometime in the 1930’s he settled in Chicago and began displaying his considerable piano skills, landing his first record deal with Okeh in 1939. The first of many labels he recorded for over the next 50 years. Roosevelt Sykes was Slim’s mentor, but Slim never imitated him. He took Bill Broonzy’s advice and developed his own style, characterized by a forceful delivery from burnished vocals while his keyboard work was equally dominating. In 1947, he recorded for the Miracle label backed by his band The House Rockers. Some of the classics included “Lend Me Your Love,” “ Rockin’ The House,” Messin’ Around,” “Blue and Lonesome,” and “Nobody Loves Me” (better known by subsequent covers by Lowell Fulson, BB King, and Joe Williams as Everyday I Have The Blues).
The first of several versions of “Mother Earth,” was heard circa 1950 on the Premium label. He had a very fertile stay on the United label from 1952-54, while also acquiring guitarist in Matt 'Guitar' Murphy. He did “At the Gate of Horn,” a superb date for Vee Jay in 1959. This session had everything: super piano solos, a strong lineup of horn players, clever, well-written and sung lyrics, and a seamless pace that kept things moving briskly from beginning to end.
Recording prolifically during every period of his career, he had a very strong relation with Folkways, which has been reissued as “The Folkways Years 1959-1973. Then he found time to record five albums for Bluesville and Battle during 1960-1962 that have been reissued in the Original Blues Classics series. “Raining the Blues,” has an extended trio session with guitarist Lafayette Thomas and bassist Wendell Marshall plus a solo set that includes four guest appearances by Buster “Harpie” Brown on harmonica. “All Kinds of Blues,” “Alone with the Blues,” and “Steady Rolling Blues” are each solo outings with Slim showing off his expertise on blues at various tempos, boogie-woogie, and blues ballads. He also makes four rare appearances on organ during “Steady Rollin’ Blues.” In Paris: “Baby Please Come Home,” is a spirited trio outing from 1962 with bassist Willie Dixon and drummer Philippe Combelle. When the combo toured Europe that year, Slim decided to take up permanent residency in Paris.
He was able to capitalize on the Blues Revival of the late ‘60’s and became a superstar in Europe, and that transcended back to the states where he was acknowledged as a master by hordes of aspiring rockers and record buying fans. Among his many European recording sessions, in 1970, Memphis Slim hooked up with fellow Chicago blues great Buddy Guy while the guitarist was touring Europe with the Rolling Stones, and recorded the tracks for “South Side Reunion,” originally released on Warner Bros. in 1972.. He did a lot of solo sessions with just a drummer Michel Denis, for most of the ‘70’s and 80’s. He lived very well in his exile, and would go on touring and recording throughout the rest of his distinguished career
Memphis Slim took his blues piano from Beale Street in Memphis to the Boulevards of Paris, where he died in 1988.
Before his death in 1988, the U.S. Senate honored Memphis Slim with the title of Ambassador-at-Large of Good Will, while the French government bestowed him with the title of Commander of Arts and Letters. Memphis Slim was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1989.