Working the Big Easy's Hard Edge, Guitar Slim Jr. May Turn His Earthy Blues into a Grammy
The one-man party didn't surprise denizens of New Orleans' all-night black clubs who, until recently, were Slim's only audience. Born Rodney Armstrong (not that anybody would dare call him Rodney), Slim is the son of the late blues legend Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones. The senior Slim wrote seven of the 10 standards Slim Jr. sings on his album—including "Bad Luck Blues," with its genealogical warning: "Bad luck is in my family, and it all has fell on me."
Crashed, more likely, Bad luck sits visibly and fiercely on Slim Jr.'s brow and ripples ominously down the jagged scar that runs the length of his nose. Slim was only 8 years old when his father died. That's when he learned that Daddy had two wives and two families, a marital misadventure that cut Jr. out of any inheritance. "I ain't got a shoestring or nothing from him," Slim says.
Nothing that is, except a love for the blues—and a rare and authentic talent for playing them. Long a fixture on the hard side of the Big Easy, a part of New Orleans no tourists know, Slim honed his style at the Colt 38 Club, around the corner from the housing project where he lives with Dianne Weston and their three children. On a good night Slim could make up to $75.
"Slim usually makes his gigs," says manager Alan Pecora, who always has his hands full getting Slim to his next club date. "My turf is wherever I am," says Slim, defending his roving ways. "I'm an all-night person. I can stay up for three or four days. I can make three or four gigs in one night I don't ever run out of songs."
While he credits his father for instilling in him the spirit of the blues, Slim did not learn at Daddy's knee. "I used to run from him," he says of life with his father, who was known for dyeing his hair outlandish colors and leading audiences out of clubs and into the streets. "He'd have purple or green hair, be wearing a blue suit and yellow shoes. When I'd see him, I'd break out and run, man."
Slim Jr.'s memories of Sr. are both sketchy and sad. "I used to sleep in the back window of the Cadillac while we were driving to wherever he was going," Slim says. "I went to his funeral. To the wake., He didn't even have a tombstone. He just went in the ground."
After his father's death, Slim became a chronic runaway. "I used to be a bad boy," he says, "a bad juvenile. I went to the boys home." At 16, he was sent off to a juvenile detention center near Baton Rouge. "Then I met this preacher, and he put me in the church choir," he says. "I just got into music. That's the only thing that changed my life. I was in there three years. I got the crap whipped out of me there, and I'm glad I did. I would have been dead by now if I hadn't."
Slim left with a high school education—"Either you go to school or you go to the hole"—and was hanging out, "ripping and running" on the streets back in New Orleans, when he happened by a club where Little Richard was performing. "I stood outside and listened to the guitar player, and I just started crying," he says. "My daddy was a guitar player. I figured if my daddy could do it, it's gotta be in me."
And so it was. Slim eventually mastered his father's repertoire, but in a style all his own, adding the R&B and soul sounds of his generation. "I am the blues," he says. "I'm not my daddy. I do me. I play from the feel of my heart. My daddy was cool with his stuff. I'm crazy with mine. My blues goes from the heart to the soul. When it comes out of the heart and hits that soul, it's better than making love."
Watch him perform at some roadhouse on the Mississippi's west bank. As soon as the smoky spotlight hits him and he tears into one of his red-hot blues numbers and peels off a furious solo, Guitar Slim Jr. comes ferociously alive. "My daddy was a sonofabitch," says Slim. "When he was around, everybody had to get their ass on the side. Maybe my daddy's trying to come out of me."
Certainly Slim Sr. would be proud of his boy. Win or lose, Jr.'s Grammy nomination in the Best Traditional Blues Recording category is sure to change his life somewhat. Although his album has sold just 1,000 copies to date, manager Pecora says that, thanks to Grammy, "More people are aware of Slim now." There will no doubt be gigs at New Orleans' better clubs and out-of-town appearances that could bring in as much as $2,000 a night. "Slim's biggest problem is holding on to his money," Pecora says. "You give him $50, and he buys the place a round. He just loves to be out on the street where everything is happening. He's a party."
Still, Slim has seldom roamed far from home. "The furthest I've ever been is Nashville," he says. "I hated it. The bars close too early. Nashville is a steak-and-potatoes town. They don't know nothing 'bout no red beans and rice." So there's no telling how he'll react to goat cheese and cilantro when he gets to L.A. for the Grammy Awards show next week (Feb. 22). Probably, though, the experience won't change him too much. "I didn't know what a Grammy was. I still don't know why they picked me," he says. "I'm just looking forward to walking around Hollywood."
—Steve Dougherty, and Johnny Greene in New Orleans