Does it really matter if Slim Gaillard was born in Detroit, Michigan or Santa Clara, Cuba? Is it important to know with certainty whether he was accidentally abandoned for half a year in Crete by his seafaring father?
I say no. Slim Gaillard the entertaniner spun tales both musical and verbal for effect, for laughs and notoriety. He spoke with authority and glibness in a jive tongue all his own. He knew what to do when the spotlight was on: amuse and enthrall. Even confronted with the documented truth of his birthplace and origin I'd harbor doubts. The stories are too good, too fitting. Part of me will smile and say, "They could be true. . . "
Slim Gaillard the musician was a master of guitar and piano and voice, equally as entertaining as he was authoritative. His decades long career has many highlights, even though today he does not enjoy the reknown he is due.
Proper Records has assembled a powerful four disc set compiled from Slim Gaillard's recordings between 1937 and 1952. These pieces showcase Gaillard's virtuosity as a singer and instrumentalist, and if listening does not, to quote a Gaillard phrase, "make you happy and a lark," then please consider consulting your physician in the near future. And be sure to bring one of the discs into the doctor's office when you visit!
The first disc opens with Gaillard's recording debut as a vocalist for a Frankie Newton session. Two nice jump blues tracks, sounding a little muffled. Immediately following are a barrage of recordings by Gaillard as a leader that are very different: the focus is on the voice and the songs' stories, with a swinging quartet of Gaillard's guitar with piano, bass and drums. The music swings and is arranged with precision, each instrument helping to propel the listener along. And from the very first lines of "The Flat Foot Floogie," today's listener knows something very unusual is going on...
The contemporary audience for these recordings may have been better prepared. Fats Waller and his Rhythm were becoming very popular during these years, and many aspects of Gaillard's singing could be viewed as well-crafted with Waller characteristics, as can that of his partner for much of this time, bassist-singer-zoomer Slam Stewart, and the vocal exchanges they shared. The "novelty song" was a fixture on radio and in club performances of the time.
Gaillard, however, stood in front of the microphone and the audience and boldy and deftly sang songs unlike almost any before. Songs about avocados and bongos, atomic cocktails and chicken rhythm, cement mixers and (of course) vout have never been commonplace. Delivered in a private Gaillard jive or in English and other languages real or imagined, the virtuoso vocal performance and the daring character that Gaillard projected lifted these recordings to a unique place in the world of swing music.
As the '40s began and progressed, Gaillard found success in Hollywood and Los Angeles, becoming a favorite of movie stars and the Central Avenue crowd, enriching the music scene that harbored T-Bone Walker, Nat Cole, and many other popular music artists. He appeared in a few movies, he was on the radio, he headlined at Billy Berg's. Life was vout-oreenie indeed, mellow as a cello, fine as wine.
Gaillard was in the studio often, parodying the crooners, cutting swing music incorporating Cuban, Yiddish, boogie woogie, and many other elements. His guitar playing took advantage of the electric amplification that had been pioneered by Charlie Christian, Les Paul and others, and he began to play very competent piano and vibes. He was able to record for the Armed Forces Radio, featuring then young lions Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Norman Granz signed him and he toured with the Jazz at the Philharmonic star package, bringing his "Opera in Vout" to city after city.
By the close of the decade and into the '50s, the momentum slowed, and Gaillard recorded less and almost slipped into obscurity. He recorded a wonderful record for Dot at the close of the '50s, and then was silent until many years later he recorded a final two, including one of Cuban music and his "reminiscences" of Havana. He starred in the TV epic "Roots" but was never able to see the "big comeback" he may have hoped would arrive.
Proper has chosen a strong collection of the material from these years, arranged chronologically and accompanied by a 44-page booklet that begins to tell the story of this zany artist. The collection showcases his amazing singing. Slim could swing a lyric like no one else. He glibly tossed off phrases that I could study for weeks and not duplicate. "Laughing in Rhythm" serves as an excellent introduction to this fascinating man and his art.