Tuesday, August 13, 2013

LIGHTNIN' SLIM - I'M EVIL

I recently picked up a whole bunch of blues 45s on the Excello label from an online seller in Texas. Got 'em on the cheap, too! The great thing about old blues 45s is that they are like cheeseburgers - they're basically all the same, but they're always good. You just wouldn't want to live on a steady diet of 'em....

Anyway, pretty much all the Excello 45s in the lot were by three artists - Lonesome Sundown, Lazy Lester, and Lightnin' Slim. I already had a half-dozen Lightnin' Slim Excello 45s, but he must have made a million of 'em because no matter how many I get, there's always a whole lot more that I don't have. There were a number of Lightnin's good ones in this bunch - "Tom Cat Blues", "Winter Time Blues", "I Just Don't Know" and this one, from early 1963. I threw it on the ol' Thorens TD124 and let 'er rip, and got my HEAD BLOWN OFF! Not only is the band chugging out a bone-crushing shuffle, and not only is Lightnin' Slim singing like he wants to win First Runner-Up for the Jimmy Reed Award For Mumblin', but the one lyric I can clearly make out is such a killer that I'm surprised Willie Dixon didn't write it first: "I'm so EVIL, pretty baby, my SHADOW'S scared to follow me!"

The question then became: why was Lightnin' Slim not at least as well-known as Muddy, Wolf, Sonny Boy and those other famed blues cats?

So I did a little research. Lightnin' Slim (real name: Otis Hicks, 1913-1974) made his first records for Louisiana producer/label owner Jay D. Miller (who would figure prominently in the Excello Records story and also run the infamous Reb Rebel label, which released pro-segregation recordings throughout the late 60s) in 1954. Miller had a label called Feature Records, which released Lightnin's "Bad Luck Blues", and it became a local hit. After releasing two more singles on Feature, Jay Miller realized there was quite a market for blues recordings (up to that point, most of the 45s on Feature were country records), but also realized that running a label was becoming a pain in the ass. So he folded Feature in early 1955 and leased Lightnin' Slim's next record to Johnny Vincent's Ace label. I'm guessing Johnny wasn't exactly forthcoming with the cash generated from Lightnin's record, because Miller ended up making a deal with Ernie Young's Excello Records as an independent producer - Miller would make records in his studio in Crowley, LA, and Excello would press, release and distribute them.

Lightnin' Slim debuted on Excello with "Lightnin' Blues" in late 1955. It sold well throughout the South, and Jay Miller was in business. He continued with many more successful 45s (and 78s) by Lightnin'. In 1956 Miller added Lonesome Sundown and Lazy Lester to his roster of blues artists, and it was around this time that Lightnin' Slim started bringing his brother-in-law to his sessions, a guy named James Moore (who would later become famous as Slim Harpo).

Unfortunately, while Excello was one of the biggest labels in the South, they didn't have a national distribution network. While you could find Excello product in almost every record shop from Florida to southern Indiana to Texas, you'd be hard-pressed to find Excello 45s anywhere else (at least, until the early 1960s, that is). You could order Excello 45s through the mail (did I mention Ernie Young also owned Ernie's Record Mart, one of the biggest mail-order record houses in the country?) but back in those days, mail-order sales weren't charted by Billboard magazine. Plus, let's face it, you weren't gonna hear Lazy Lester or Lightnin' Slim on the radio unless you were in the South (the Chess brothers, up north in Chicago, circumvented this problem by buying a station, WVON, and, to be fair, they also had a fantastic rapport - read: payola - with other Chicago stations and Alan Freed, who pushed Chess product in Cleveland and New York). So Lightnin' Slim became a phenomenon in the southern states, but never went national (and international) on the level of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. Which is unfortunate, because Lightnin' Slim's records are highly prized by those in the know, and some blues historians rank him right up there with Muddy and Wolf.

Unfortunately, Lightnin' didn't make much money in the deal with Jay Miller and Excello (big surprise there), so he stopped making records in 1966 and moved to Michigan to work in a foundry casting metal for auto parts. Fortunately, he was re-discovered by some blues freaks in 1970 and he re-signed with Excello (this time without Jay Miller) and began making LPs for them, spending the rest of his life touring in the US and Europe in blues festivals.

Lightnin' Slim died from stomach cancer on July 27, 1974, aged 61.

Those of you who dig the blues, pick up on some Lightnin' Slim. You won't be disappointed.

Lightnin' Slim - I'm Evil (Excello 2228) - 1963

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