Way too many morning beers: that's the only thing that could explain a strange and impromptu off-stage performance I witnessed and quickly dismissed at the 1996 Jazz and Heritage Festival. But over the course of the last month and a half, this incident has been a starting point for a succession of events signaling a possible return from a performer who had vanished into hard times.
I had gone off on a food and beerage run one scorching-hot day at the Fairgrounds, leaving a female friend alone on a blanket in from of the House of Blues stage. When I returned, half of the blanket was occupied by an extremely large fellow sporting cowboy boots and a stifling combination of black jeans and a black long-sleeve-shirt, singing the last verse of "You Are So Beautiful" to my companion. He begrudgingly acknowledged me and then launched into a rambling monologue on how long he'd been coming to the festival (35 (?) years"), how he was getting too old for this, and eventually saying how he'd played with Stevie Ray Vauchan at JazzFest, breaking into song again for Stevie ray's "Pride and Joy." He must have mistaken the uncomfortable looks on our faces for skepticism, and was mildly offended that we didn't believe him. At one point he seemed headed for a nap right then and there, but got up and shuffled on to tell his story to the next batch of people he bumped into.
After the standard "there's on in every crowd" conversation after his departure, he was forgotten. However the following week after JazzFest, the scene started turning over in my head, and I knew I had seen him before. After a few weeks of frustrating mind games, it hit me: the face I kept seeing was Guitar Slim Jr.
The mental match came courtesy of the cover shot of his 1988 CD The Story of My Life on Orleans Records, a powerful debut that affirmed the talent of this son of legend Eddie Jones, aka Guitar Slim.
After the release of that record, Guitar Slim Jr. slipped into anonymity, making unfortunate headlines with a run-in with the police in 1995 that found him holed up in a shack with no running water. Jumping to conclusions, my encounter with him a JazzFest seemed to support unflattering stories circulating about his current frame of mind.
Sometimes being proven wrong is exhilarating. Listening to WWOZ the week after making a positive identification from my odd JazzFest encounter with Slim, the disc jockey ran down a set list that included "the brand-new Guitar Slim Jr., featuring The Memphis Horns."
It was no mistake. On the tiny Warehouse Creek label out of Virginia comes Nothing Nice, a diverse collection of songs worthy of coaxing Guitar Slim Jr. back into the public eye. Recorded at Soundservice Studio in New Orleans and historic Ardent and Sun Studios in Memphis, Nothing Nice offers something for guitar buffs, blues lovers and soul fans. Multi-talented Slim Jr handles harmonica, keyboard, six-string and vocal duties, and does his father proud on covers of his classic "The Things I Used To Do." as well as the lesser-known but equally compelling compositions "Our Only Child" and the rollicking "I Got Sumpin' For You."
The production is glossy in spots, but Slim Jr. cuts through it like a man with something to prove. He sounds like vintage Leo Nocentelli on the chicken-scratch guitar into to "If You Think That Jive Will Do," and brigs a knowing dramatic solo to the lament "I Feel So Bad." The Memphis Horns - Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love - assimilate their historic background in Southern Soul with majestic charts on "Steal Away." and swing mightily on the aforementioned "I Got Sumpin for You," which jumps with a pronounced New Orleans shuffle and piano track to boot. Vocally, Slim Jr.'s closest companion is Walter "Wolfman" Washington, as the two performers share rich phrasing and unbridled enthusiasm for tasty materials and well-crafted originals.
In the liner notes to the CD, Slim Jr. says, "To the people that buy this alnum - Thanks, and I hope to do more in the future. I feel good about my life right now. There was a whole lot of darkness, but now there is light." Amen to that. At press time, Slim's whereabouts were unknown, but look for an update in our next issue on future live appearances.
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