Lightnin’ Slim

TrackSingle
Bad LuckFeature 45-F-3006
Wonderin' And Goin'Excello 45-2080
Mean Ole Lonesome TrainExcello 45-2106
Hoo Doo BluesExcello 45-2131
It's Mighty CrazyExcello 45-2131
My Starter Won't WorkExcello 45-2142
Rooster BluesExcello 45-2169
Winter Time BluesExcello 45-2224
I'm EvilExcello 45-2228
Loving Around The ClockExcello 45-2234

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Lightnin Slim photo 2

Lightnin’ Slim

 

Contributors: Dave Stephens – with Cal Taylor

Two guys named Slim are probably the first ones to come to mind when/if you think Swamp Blues. That’s Lightnin’ Slim and Slim Harpo of course. But what’s the swamp blues thing all about in the first place? Well, both gentlemen were resident in Southern Louisiana, not a million miles from Baton Rouge, often referred to as swampland, and both played the blues, so …

Ye-es, that’s sort of correct but there was more to it than that. In fact outside New Orleans there wasn’t really a blues tradition in Louisiana unlike other southern states, or at least there didn’t appear to be in the immediate post war period and the early fifties. While Louisiana had had a high black population for many years, a major portion of it came from French-Caribbean origins. And it could well be that the men (generic of course) who travelled round signing up blues and roots musicians might have been blinded by the musical gumbo that was New Orleans and the equally fascinating developments that were taking place in the Cajun and/or zydeco communities. The result of this lack of attention was a growth in artists who learned their music from records rather than fellow live performers. Someone like Lightnin’ Slim starting out in music would have been more familiar with blues artists like John Lee Hooker (Mississippi) and Lightnin’ Hopkins (Texas) than local musicians like Robert Pete Williams and Snooks Eaglin. That’s the theory put forward by John Broven in his excellent “South To Louisiana: The Music Of The Cajun Bayous” or, at least, my paraphrasing of it.

Enter J.D. Miller, often shortened to “Jay”. Starting out as a country musician himself he went on to open a record shop in Crowley, Louisiana and shortly after founded the state’s first record label, Fais-Do-Do (in 1946) in order to meet a sizeable demand for Cajun records. In June that year he travelled to Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans to produce the first Fais-Do-Do release, Allons Dance Colinda/Setre Chandelle from Happy Fats & his Rayne-Bo Ramblers. Later that year he established his own studio in Crowley, initially in his house and then within the premises of M&S Electric, a company jointly owned with his father. In 1947, he opened a replacement label, Feature Records, and added country music artists to his recording roster. The information in this para comes from an online article written by Shane Bernard, son of Rod Bernard, entitled “J. D. Miller and Floyd Soileau: A Comparison of Two Small Town Recordmen of Acadiana”.

In 1954, Jay Miller discovered Lightnin’ Slim. Acting on a tip off from a Baton Rouge DJ he had gone to hear a band play. To quote Jay himself, from John Broven’s book:

“And I was just walking out of the hall when I heard a guitar playing some of these low-down blues. So I just turned around, I said “Who in the world is that?” … “Had him show me some of that playing. I asked if he did any singing, He said “I knows a few numbers …” – you know how he talked, real slow and everything.”

Jay recorded Otis Verries Hicks – for that was the gent’s name – on his Feature label but rechristened him Lightnin’ Slim. The A-side on his first record was Bad Luck, of which more later. Suffice to say that it was the song that Lightnin’ sang on his ‘audition’. The record started selling almost immediately and, after a couple more singles, Miller came to an agreement with Ernie Young in Nashville to send tapes to him for distribution on the latter’s Excello label which already had some blues pedigree.

And that was the start of ‘Swamp Blues’ as we know it. By dint of other artists flocking to his studio à la Sun Records post Elvis, plus more discoveries, a new, well ‘newish’, sound was born. Electric blues seemingly aping Chicago with significant influence from Jimmy Reed, an artist who’d travelled north to achieve success, plus wide usage of Lightnin’s own patented slow blues and plenty of harmonica, all topped off with delightful slurring of the words in Louisiana style.

That’s a simplification as most things are. But usage of the same studio, recording techniques, producer (Miller himself) and the same or similar, albeit evolving, backing band, would tend to reinforce similarities in style and sound.

What is underappreciated by much of the world is that there were other musicians in Louisiana, sometimes influenced by the Crowley guys, sometimes not, who had just as much right to the overall name of ‘Swamp Blues’ (see also Footnote #1).

Otis Hicks was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1913 but the family moved to St. Francisville, Louisiana in the late twenties. He learned guitar from his father and his brother, Layfield Hicks. Lightnin’ dropped out of school and started work in a fertiliser plant in Baton Rouge (the second city of Louisiana), and switched home to there. He sat in with various bands and frequently worked with harmonica player Schoolboy Cleve who would later appear on some of the Crowley records. On that fateful night when Jay Miller came across Lightnin’, he was working with Big Poppa (real name John Tilley) and the Cane Cutters. This was the outfit that Miller had gone to see.

One other personal note: Lightnin’ later married Slim Harpo’s sister.

Back to that first record, Bad Luck. Electric guitar, harmonica and drums. Deep, gravelly voice. Slow blues of a style that you might have been familiar with if you’d listened to some Lightnin’ Hopkins slow blues but shorn of embellishment other than the harmonica following the guitar line. The sound was immediately distinctive. It wasn’t Hopkins and it wasn’t Chess even if it had elements of both. John Broven states that Hicks/Slim started out as a Hopkins imitator. I’m sure that’s true but by the time this record was made such an influence had been fully assimilated and the Lightnin’ Slim style was in place to the extent that the listener felt that he could have been playing this way for years. And in spite of all that seemingly unsophisticated rawness, Lightnin’ had sufficient commercial savvy to give the world a hook in that first line.

Lord if it wasn’t for bad luck
I wouldn’t have no luck at all

Readers will probably realise that they have heard that line before. The self-same line appears in Born Under A Bad Sign by Albert King, who almost immortalised it – but that was 13 years after, in 1967. Lightnin’ Slim had recorded Bad Luck for his first record in 1954, when he was 31. (Those words come from Cal since I’d not too cleverly managed to forget the connection.)

The world was also introduced to a new catch phrase which was to appear with some frequency on future records.

Blow your harmonica, son!

Following a tried and trusted formula in blues and R&B, the flip side was up tempo. Rock Me Mama had already appeared in differing versions and would appear again. B.B. King‘s Rock Me Baby is its most well-known manifestation even if the lyrics differ almost completely. However, in Lightnin’s hands it was an immediate demonstration that the new man on the block could handle something that would get people out onto a dance floor better than most.

Lightnin’ would stick with the basic guitar (his own), harmonica and drums backing for years. Although the combination did eventually see the addition of bass and then second guitar, the basic sound remained largely unchanged until circa 1963 when keyboards were added with Jay attempting to revive a then flagging career. Though I’d hasten to add that it was interest in blues, particularly of the gutbucket Crowley type, which was disappearing rather than in Lightnin’ per se.

The harmonica player and drums man did change though. On mouth harp for Bad Luck / Rock Me Mama was Wild Bill Phillips, a man that Miller had found via a friend J.P. Richardson (later to be known as the Big Bopper). However, Phillips didn’t turn up for the second Slim session and another harp man called Henry Clement stood in. (Source for the last couple of sentences: “South To Louisiana: The Music Of The Cajun Bayous”.) It’s noticeable that the slow blues from the session, I Can’t Be Happy was played even more slowly than Bad Luck and I do wonder whether that was to assist the stand-in harmonica gent.

What is also noticeable is that the tune and accompanying guitar work on both numbers were near-as-dammit identical. Lightnin’ evidently saw no need to change a perfectly serviceable formula and it saw usage on most records that followed though it usually occupied one side only. Apart from the relatively rare rehash of an earlier song, his ability to come up with fresh and interesting lyrics was highly impressive. John Broven reports Jay Miller as saying that he would toss an idea or a brief story line to Lightnin’ and the latter had the ability to turn such a morsel into a song with considerable speed and effectiveness.

Choice of which of these slow blues – I started getting into the habit of calling them LSB’s for short – would make the list was far from easy since there was very little quality variation between any of them. Cal and I eventually narrowed the list down to four, of which the first was Bad Luck and the last, in order of release, was 1962’s Winter Time Blues:

You know winter time done roll around
And here I am again by myself (repeat)
You know the little girl that I used to love
Well she loving somebody else

The slightly fuller instrumentation – there’s an extra guitar present – does no harm to the rapport between Lightnin’ and his usual backing team. The interjections – “How’d you know Lightnin’” etc. – come from Lazy Lester who took over as Mr Harmonica Man in ’57 and subsequently appeared on the bulk of Lightnin’s singles, occasionally playing a straight man vocal role to Lightnin’s lead, as on this one. He was the harmonica ace on 1957’s Hoo Doo Blues and My Starter Won’t Work from the following year. From the title you might guess (correctly) that the last named is packed with not overly subtle but still enjoyable double entendre.

While Jay Miller resisted tampering with the LSB most of the time, he did try some experimentation on a couple of late singles. The Strangest Feeling (1964) featured a vibrato guitar and Just A Lonely Stranger (1966) had a pianist present, possibly Katie Webster. Both had some merit though my preference would be for the more mellow sound of Just A Lonely Stranger.

When we move across to survey the more up tempo records, two things become apparent: the greater stylistic range of the performances and the appearance of external influences though I wouldn’t belabour the second point; such sides were in the minority. Taking this second thread first, both Wonderin’ And Goin’ and I’m Leaving You Baby displayed echoes of Howlin’ Wolf on tracks like Smokestack Lightning and Moanin’ At Midnight. There’s a riff present driving the numbers along but it’s not quite as stark as the Wolf sound and not quite the same riff either. On Wonderin’ And Goin’, Lightnin’ and Jay mix things up even more by incorporating a near latin form of syncopation using an instrument I just can’t identify but it’s mighty effective. Lazy Lester picked up a reputation for adding unusual percussive effects in the Crowley studio via use of claves, banging on a cardboard box, hitting with a rolled up newspaper, slapping his knee, etc, etc. According to the Stefan Wirz discography, Lester wasn’t even in the studio for this one. Maybe he was though, just didn’t bring his mouth harp(s) with him.

Both I’m Grown and I’m A Rollin’ Stone suggest that Lightnin’ had been listening to Muddy Waters while Don’t Start Me Talking was almost a straight crib from Sonny Boy Williamson II even if some lyric changes had been made. This last one could be forgiven since it was late in Lightnin’s stay at Crowley/Excello and blues record sales had fallen through the floor. Just Made Twenty One was a Boogie Chillen variant but I guess every black record buyer in the south would have been aware of the Hooker classic.

The relationship between Lightnin’s I’m Evil and the Wolf’s “Evil” is much more tenuous but still present. It’s likely that Lightnin’ and/or Jay would have heard the Wolf’s record and it could well have sparked the idea but that’s probably as far as it went. Yes, both are stop time medium tempo affairs but the switch from third person to personalising the satanic aspect, lends a touch of noir humour to the Lightnin’ song. And the punch line takes some beating:

I’m so evil little woman, though my shadow’s scared to follow me

Elsewhere, although comparisons are often made between the Lightnin’/Lazy Lester pairing and the Muddy/Little Walter one, the Crowley duo came up with plenty of good original records in their own right, so many in fact, that it made the selection difficult.

It’s Mighty Crazy is one of the rare ones that doesn’t follow the twelve bar format. Indeed, had it not been the strong blues phrasing of Lester’s harmonica (and possibly the lack of accordion) one might have been tempted to label it as zydeco. The lyrics used laundry day as a metaphor for masturbation. Hardly high art but of appeal to his audience and not so far from the sort of song jump blues singers across the USA had been performing for years but with a smidgeon more directness and wit.

I may be susceptible but in my experience there’s no such thing as a bad train song. There are good train songs and great train songs. Mean Ole Lonesome Train is a great train song. Via his instrument, Lester’s harp announces that the train is leaving, the conductor yells “All aboard” and then Lightnin’ informs us in his coolest voice, “Have to catch that train man, that’s the train my baby’s on”. Splendid intro and what follows matches it totally.

I’ve been out west
I’ve headed east
I want my baby
Back home with me
Well, she done grab that mean old train and gone

If Bad Luck was the archetype Lightnin’ slow blues then 1959’s Rooster Blues was the nearest he came to an archetype fast blues. Stop time with Lazy Lester in full cry and a whacking great backbeat from the drummer. In the John Broven book, Jimmy Dotson, one of Lightnin’s regular live drummers (and a Crowley session man) is quoted as saying:

“Lightnin’ had three pieces – himself, Lazy Lester, and a drummer. And the drummer in most cases tonight wouldn’t be the one he used last night. You could only play one night with Lightnin’, you had to rest a couple of days because your hand would swell up. He was a nut for the backbeat, and he wanted you to slam that backbeat in, he didn’t want you to do anything but the backbeat … whoom!”

Rooster Blues was also the nearest Lightnin’ came to a serious hit i.e. one that achieved sales beyond the realm of Southern Louisiana. It made #23 in the national R&B Chart.

There’s a bit of sentiment attached to my final selection. I first heard Loving Around The Clock on an LP which came out in 1964 which introduced Swamp Blues from Excello in all its glory to an unsuspecting UK. The album was Authentic R&B and it contained tracks selected from the Crowley artists’ contribution to the Excello label’s output (and there’s more on this album in the Lonesome Sundown Toppermost). Lightnin’ opened the set with I’m Evil and closed it with Loving Around The Clock, and there was another Lightnin’ track among the rest of the, then generous, 16 tracks. The LP was an absolute eye and ear opener.

Loving Around The Clock came from a session held in May 1963 when Jay Miller was getting experimental. Dave Sax, the writer of the sleeve notes for the Ace album Winter Time Blues: The Later Excello Sessions, refers to it and its flip as “identical pop tunes … which Excello unwisely put out as one single!” (and the ‘!’ was his). I beg to differ. I don’t think many people would call this pop. It’s blues cum R&B of an entertaining nature. You could say the theme had been a little done to death – there’s discussion of it in the main body of text plus the footnotes of the Joe Turner Toppermost – but it’s no worse than a lot of other blues standards. What makes it is the performance. The bass and second guitar are as prominent as Lester’s harmonica and the whole thing has an easy swing which motors along nicely to the fade. I have fond memories of this one closing, lifting the record up, turning it and positioning it again on the turntable and there was Lightnin’ yet again “Well I warned you pretty baby ’bout messing with me. You knows I’m evil as a man can be.”

I have used words like experimental in reference to Lightnin’s later period at Crowley; that is broadly 1962 to 1966. That might have negative connotations but what I really hear during this time frame is Lightnin’ being encouraged to move away from his comfort blanket. Some examples are in order. At least a couple of these were under consideration for the ten.

Mind Your Own Business (1962) – a fine record, totally outside Lightnin’s normal style and not unlike a Texas shuffle. The lead guitarist who’s not identified in the Wirz discography should be applauded.

If You Ever Need Me (1963) – in the vein of such things as Jimmy Reed’s Honest I Do and Slim Harpo’s Rainin’ In My Heart. It could be called the blues version of Swamp Pop. Perhaps surprisingly this one worked rather well but the vein didn’t get any further attention from Lightnin’ and Jay.

Darling You’re The One (1965 but not on YT) – I can only call this soul blues with organ accompaniment, possibly from Katie Webster.

Goin’ Away Blues (1966) – Lightnin’ very rarely deployed the Jimmy Reed riff but this one is slower and more intense than Jimmy ever got.

In 1965, Lightnin’ Slim parted ways with Excello and Crowley and moved north, obtaining work in factories in Pontiac and Michigan. However he re-signed with Excello in 1970 with the label under new management. He also recommenced live work with Slim Harpo’s band. He made several tours to Europe from 1972 onwards, sometimes in cahoots with another Crowley artist, harmonica player Whispering Smith. In 1974, he was diagnosed with a stomach tumour and died in hospital in Detroit in July that year.

Lightnin’ Slim was tremendously influential on Crowley blues artists in general plus other artists residing in Southern Louisiana and South East Texas. However, he still doesn’t receive the same acclaim as several other blues performers operating in the fifties. The quotes below might go a little way to put that right:

“He was in his own way one of the truly great “unspoiled” bluesmen of the post war era.” (Source: Mike Leadbitter in Blues Unlimited)

“Lightnin’ Slim was the king of the blues in Louisiana, he influenced everybody.” (Source: Fellow blues artist Boogie Jake in Living Blues)

“Lightnin’ to me was the greatest, not only of my artists but all of them. Lowdown gutbucket blues.” (Source: Jay Miller on the LP sleeve of Lightnin’s post-1963 recordings and also in the John Broven book)

There aren’t many clips of Lightnin’ live, but below is one of him along with Whispering Smith from the American Folk Blues Festival in Paris in 1972:

Those exhortations to the harp player are clearly present.

 

FOOTNOTES

1. The Swamp Blues series on Toppermost covers discs from four of the key artists who recorded blues at Jay Miller’s Crowley studio from the mid fifties to the early/mid sixties. They are Lightnin’ Slim, Lonesome Sundown, Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester. Swamp Blues #5 is nominally allocated to another Crowley/Excello artist, Silas Hogan, but in fact covers other minor Excello artists plus artists whose records appeared on other Louisiana labels. The latter grouping are just as deserved of the ‘swamp blues’ label but have tended to receive less attention than the Excello artists.

2. Excello was founded in Nashville by Ernie Young in 1952. It was set up as a subsidiary to Nashboro Records, itself formed in 1951, which was dedicated to gospel music. Young had two considerable advantages compared with most other record label owners: a radio station with 50,000 watt coverage to promote his records, and Ernie’s Record Mart, a store and mail order business for selling his product. Ernie recorded blues in Nashville as well as receiving a feed from Jay Miller from ’55 onwards. He also recorded R&B, early soul and doo-wop. In the last category one of the most notable singles to emerge from the Nashville Excello studio was Little Darlin’ from The Gladiolas (who included Maurice Williams, later to star with Stay).

3. Jay Miller had another claim to fame in addition to running the Crowley studio. He was the man who wrote It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, a hit for Kitty Wells and the answer disc to the Hank Thompson hit, The Wild Side Of Life.

4. The name ‘Lightnin’ Slim’ was the first of a whole series of names conjured up by Jay Miller for his artists. ‘Lightnin’’ came from his slow and deliberate manner, and ‘Slim’ from his wiry frame (source: John Broven’s book).

5. At my request, Cal has done some digging into the song that is usually known these days as Rock Me Baby:

Rock Me Mama/Rock Me Baby. Lightnin’ Slim on his first release, recorded around May 1954, did a great early version of that song, calling it Rock Me Mama. Probably the most famous version of the same song as we know it is Rock Me Baby by B.B. King. That wasn’t released until 1964 (and was B.B.’s first pop chart entry) but had actually been recorded two or three years prior to that. Since then the song has been recorded by well over a hundred different artists.

Like many blues songs it had evolved over years with bits of lyrics and bits of music taken from many different sources. Curtis Jones’ Roll Me Mama in 1939 could be said to have contributed, Big Bill Broonzy’s Rockin’ Chair Blues from 1940 definitely contributed and Tommy McClennan’s Roll Me Baby in 1942 plus Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s 1944 Rock Me Mama were all part of the history. But … the version that is recognisable as the same song as Lightnin’ Slim’s and B.B. King’s was first done by Lil’ Son Jackson, who recorded it as Rockin’ And Rollin’ in December 1950 and released early in 1951. Muddy Waters joined the party at the end of 1951 when he recorded a variation called All Night Long (which he updated five years later as Rock Me). So Lightnin’ Slim was one of the first to record Rock Me Mama but owes most to Lil’ Son Jackson.

Lil’ Son Jackson was born in 1915 as Melvin Jackson. He was a blues guitarist from Texas and a contemporary of Lightnin’ Hopkins. He started recording in 1948 and had his only hit in that year – Freedom Train Blues on the Gold Star label. It reached #7 in the R&B charts. He recorded for Imperial between 1950 and 1954, where although Rockin’ And Rollin’ (Rock Me Mama/Baby) was never a hit, it was his grand legacy. He died in 1976, aged 60.

6. The main text gives the impression that there was uninterrupted recording by Lightnin’ for Crowley/Excello from 1954 to 1965. There was actually one exception to that sequence. In his very early days, Lightnin’ ‘moonlighted’ for one single on Ace Records. And I should emphasise that I’m talking about Ace Records of Jackson, Mississippi rather than Ace Records UK to which I also refer in the text albeit without the ‘UK’. The record was Lightnin’ Slim Boogie c/w Bad Feeling Blues. For those curious, the record doesn’t sound dramatically different to his Excello outings (and the exhortation on this one is “Let’s boogie awhile”). Jay Miller was understandably unimpressed by this activity but took the line that Johnny Vincent (Ace Records owner) deliberately misled Lightnin’ into thinking he (Miller) was not going to record Lightnin’ again (source: John Broven’s book).

7. I interrupted myself when talking about harmonica accompanists to Lightnin’. I should have confirmed that Schoolboy Cleve was one prior to Lazy Lester adding some permanence to the role. It’s also been stated in various places that Slim Harpo was another session accompanist but this is challenged by the discography/sessionography from Stefan Wirz.

8. “Schoolboy” Cleve whose full name was Cleve White was another harmonica man from Baton Rouge whose early influences included Sonny Boy Williamson I. He accompanied Lightnin’ on several early tracks and cut tracks of his own at Crowley. He also cut a few more tracks in the late sixties but then largely retired from the music business. The nickname came from his youthful appearance as in “Have you seen that schoolboy?”

9. Moses “Whispering” Smith was a Crowley artist who recorded by himself and with Silas Hogan – see Swamp Blues #5 (coming soon) – and of course, with Lightnin’. He is represented on Authentic R&B by the track, Mean Woman Blues (not to be confused with the Jerry Lee Lewis number).

10. I included mention of “borrowing” from Chicago Blues deliberately, on the basis that if I didn’t mention it someone else would. However, it was far from excessive and should be seen more in the context of blues artists carrying on other blues artists’ work. The great Muddy Waters was notable for such practices (see the Cyril Davies Toppermost for further discussion and examples).

11. I have made heavy usage of John Broven’s excellent book ”South To Louisiana: The Music Of The Cajun Bayous” (see link below) to the extent that I’ve sometimes shortened the reference to “John Broven’s book”. I can’t recommend this document too highly. In addition to blues it gives the best coverage of Southern Louisiana music in general that I have come across.

 

 

Lightnin’ Slim (1913–1974)

 

Lightnin’ Slim discography

Lightnin’ Slim song lyrics

Lightnin’ Slim reissues on Ace Records

Lightnin’ Slim: I’m A Rolling Stone – Louisiana Swamp Blues – The Singles As & Bs 1954-1962 on Jasmine Records

“South To Louisiana: The Music Of The Cajun Bayous” by John Broven (1983)

Excello singles discography

Excello albums discography

Lightnin’ Slim biography (iTunes)

Swamp Blues toppermost series
#1 Lightnin’ Slim
#2 Lonesome Sundown
#3 Slim Harpo
#4 Lazy Lester
#5 Silas Hogan

Swamp Pop toppermost series
#1 Rod Bernard
#2 Cookie and the Cupcakes
#3 Jimmy Donley
#4 Bobby Charles
#5 Freddy Fender

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding and Betty Harris.

The Stephens/Taylor toppermosts include Johnny Ace, Arthur Alexander, Cyril Davies, The Falcons, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Alexis Korner, Johnny Otis, Junior Parker, T-Bone Walker.

TopperPost #709

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Apr 6, 2018

    Dave and Cal, thanks for yet another superb introduction to an artist, who i have to admit, I knew very little about before reading this. Will now have to explore his work further. Thanks again -and the footnotes here are an education in themselves.

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