“Rock Me Baby!”
By Paul Oliver
Of the blues artists that have gained worldwide acclaim and an international audience Memphis Slim is undoubtedly one of the most prolific. He is of the generation of blues men who were born during the first World War and who reached maturity as artists during and after the Second World War. They were performers whose careers coincided with the technical advances of the recording industry, including the advent of the long-playing record, and with the great increase in mass media of communication and entertainment. Memphis Slim is pre-eminent among the blues singers who have been able to meet the demands of the new media, and is one of the small handful of entertainers with a personality sufficiently extrovert to be able to settle in an alien country and on a different continent.
It takes an exceptional man to extend
himself in the way that Memphis Slim has succeeded in doing. The succession of
events that takes a talented youngster from the slums to the footlights is far
from uncommon – at times it seems even obligatory – in show
business. But in the blues it is somewhat different for such a progression
demands of the performer the ability to preserve his integrity as a creative
folk artist whilst meeting the demands of the entertainment industry. It is a
sobering thought that Memphis Slim, who is now no stranger to television, has
probably brought the blues to more people through these appearances than he has
done in his whole career of playing in the clubs and joints of
In such circumstances one would expect a
marked change in personality, and it it to Slim’s credit – as
well as the secret of his success – that he has remained essentially the
same man as the singer who worked at Ruby Gatewood’s
a score of years ago. He was then however, a little different from his fellows,
a little more worldly, a shade sharper and perhaps quicker-witted than many. He
had mastered a difficult background and tough circumstances in
Popular today in Europe, which he has made his home, and playing often in France, Germany, England and in other countries, with occasional trips back to the United States, Memphis Slim has both brought the blues to audiences who would otherwise have had far less chance of hearing the music created in person whilst he has maintained contact with its sources. Blues men are often used to traveling widely – many are rootless “ramblers” who enjoy working short spells in various cities before moving on to new locations – but few more far from the environments with which they are familiar. This Memphis Slim has done with ease and assurance and has met the exacting demands of concert tours, Blues Festivals broadcasts and telecasts with equanimity and good-humour. Such occasions are intimidating for the blues singer accustomed to a country juke rather than a vast auditorium and though some rise supremely to the occasions, others appear at less than their best in unfamiliar surroundings. Without doubt the weaknesses in ability, the limitations of repertoire and inventiveness, the lack of personality or of confidence are mercilessly revealed under these circumstances but Slim, who matches poise with originality is undeterred. As he drags his long limbs across the concert platform and lowers himself on to the piano stool he gives the impression of a man for whom even the effort of walking is unwelcome. He sits at the piano and turns to the audience with a wry grin as his legs, unable to get beneath the keyboard, entwine rather awkwardly around the piano stool. The curious pantomime is in itself oddly arresting as with an uncertainty which is no way shared by the pianist himself, the audience watches and waits for him to play. He places his huge hands on the keys, masking it seems, an octave with each, and utters in a somewhat tired voice a few words about the blues he is to play. Then suddenly he is galvanised into action; his nimble fingers roll out a bass figure and in a descending cascade of notes his right hand leads into a fast blues.
Pinetop’s Blues leaves us in no doubt that Slim is one of the truly great exponents of the classic Boogie style. With his eyes half shut and the white blaze across his head catching the lights he turns to the audience and begins to holler: loud, declamatory blues verse. Blues this Evening, Caught the Old Coon and Leroy Carr’s In the Evening, reminds us that there is no end to the blues that Memphis Slim can create. Like any blues singer he draws heavily from his experience, his song being chapters of his autobiography.
He sings frequently of the women he has known and loved, sometimes with humour, sometimes with regret (Caught the Old Coon, Little Old Mama and Rock Me Baby.)
Effectively, Memphis Slim points up the poignancy of the one blues by placing it in juxtaposition with another very different mood, permitting the one to flow into the other without the customary break. Customary, that is, on record but not so in the places where he used to play at the time when the original incidents occurred. The three-minute record has imposed its own severe limitations on the blues, forcing the characteristic length of a blues composition to fit the standardised duration of the ten-inch phonograph disc. The long-playing record should have freed singers of this abbitrary restriction but Memphis Slim is one of the few blues artists who has realised and exploited this potential of the LP. In this respect the three blues entitled Little Old Mama, Rock Me Baby and In The Evening which are incorporated in one continuous composition are a rare instance of a full use of the extended medium.
With its many other verses and comments and with its piano solos and interchange with Alexis Korner’s guitar it is rare cante fable of the blues. It shows Memphis Slim’s unusual capacity to perceive and to use the fullest potential of a medium and is incidentally, a clue to his success where others have been wanting in bringing the blues to the new media. This collection compiled from a mammoth session at the threshold of his new career is a timely tribute to a major ambassador of the blues.