Monday, August 9, 2010
Lightnin' Slim was born Otis V. Hicks in St. Louis, Missouri moving to Baton Rouge, Louisiana at the age of thirteen. Taught guitar by his older brother Layfield, Young Otis took to the guitar early, first shown the rudiments by his father, then later by his older brother, Layfield. Given his recorded output, it's highly doubtful that either his father or brother knew how to play in any key other than E natural, as Lightnin' used the same patterns over and over on his recordings, only changing keys when he used a capo or had his guitar detuned a full step.
Slim was playing in bars in Baton Rouge by the late 1940s.
He debuted on J. D. "Jay" Miller's Feature Records label in 1954 with "Bad Luck Blues" ("If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all").The acknowledged kingpin of the Louisiana school of blues, Lightnin' Slim built his style on his grainy but expressive vocals and rudimentary guitar work, with usually nothing more than a harmonica and a drummer in support. It was down-home country blues edged two steps further into the mainstream, first by virtue of his electric guitar, and second by the sound of the local Crowley, LA musicians who backed him being bathed in simmering, pulsating tape echo. As the first great star of producer J.D. Miller's blues talent stable, Lightnin' Slim had a successful formula that scored regional hits on the Nashville-based Excello label for over a decade, with one of them, "Rooster Blues," making the national R&B charts in 1959. Combining the country ambience of a Lightnin' Hopkins with the plodding insistence of a Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Slim's music belonged uniquely to him, the perfect blues raconteur, even when he was reshaping others' material to his dark, somber style.
He also possessed one of the truly great blues voices, unadorned and unaffected, making the world-weariness of a Sonny Boy Williamson sound like the second coming of Good Time Charlie by comparison. His exhortation to "blow your harmonica, son" has become one of the great, mournful catch phrases of the blues, and even on his most rockin' numbers, there's a sense that you are listening less to an uptempo offering than a slow blues just being played faster. Lightnin' always sounded like bad luck just moved into his home approximately an hour after his mother-in-law did.
Slim then recorded for Excello Records for twelve years, starting in the mid 1950s, often collaborating with his brother-in-law, Slim Harpo and with harmonica player Lazy Lester.
Slim took time off from the blues for a period of time and ended up working in a foundry in Pontiac, Michigan, which resulted in him suffering from constantly having his hands exposed to high temperatures. He was re-discovered by Fred Reif, in 1970 living in Pontiac, where he was living in a rented room at Slim Harpo's sister's house. Reif soon got him back performing again and a new recording contract with Excello, this time through Bud Howell, the present President of the company. His first gig was a reunion concert at the 1971 University of Chicago Folk Festival with Lazy Lester, whom Reif had brought from Baton Rouge in January 1971.
In the 1970s, Slim performed on tours in Europe, both in the UK and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, where he was often accompanied by Moses "Whispering" Smith on harmonica. He last toured the UK in 1973, with the American Blues Legends package.
In July 1974, Slim died of stomach cancer in Detroit, Michigan aged 61.