His musical inspirations were the House Rent piano players before him; pianists that could keep a party dancing from Saturday night until it was time to leave for church on Sunday:
House rent parties [helped pay] rent. Neighbors brought all kinds of food—fried chicken, baked ham, pig’s feet, pork chops, gumbo, potato salad, and more—to which a supply of bootleg liquor was added. An admission was charged, and the piano players supplied the entertainment. ” — Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
This is a Problem
Only one instrument to play for an entire party? This presents a problem: dances derived in the African American tradition (like Blues and Swing) requires music that inspires poly-rhythmic movement.
What are poly-rhythms? Two rhythms played at the same time that are different or conflicting. Now think how tough that can be on one instrument…
Fortunately, a Blues style was spreading upwards from the deep south (later named ‘Boogie Woogie’) that did just this: with a steady dance beat on the left hand, the pianist would play a completely separate sound with the right hand that got dancers springing to action.
This style bubbled up in the 1870’s from Texas, but its source was much older:
In [West African] community, dance drumming is an integral part of life from birth. A main beat scheme represents a strong purpose in life and a secondary beat scheme represents an obstacle. Tension created by these characters conveys a number of ideas simultaneously.” — Cultural Understanding of Polyrhythm, African Music
Our Artist is…
Memphis Slim’s father operated juke joints in Memphis, Tennessee. From this hotbed of musical gumbo came a uniquely talented player who merged the House Rent playing style with the newest innovations of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and onward.
Slim’s music ranged from languid to rabid, poetic to chaotic, but above all he was a storyteller who delighted crowds with his charisma and imaginative lyrics…he just happened to also be a butcher on the ivory keys.
The Song You Need
Why This Song is Amazing
First, watch and listen to those different rhythms and tones:
- See his left hand working the heavy bass line? Dancers, this keeps the time for your body.
- Did you spot his right hand adding a layer of rhythmic complexity? As a dancer, this gives you a complex tension to play with in your movements.
- Then his voice acts as a third instrument — all three of which you can express through your movements
Secondly, this song became (as Slim says in the video) his “breadwinner”; it was this tune that shot Slim into fame and fortune. It was so good that world-famous Blues and Swing artists have wanted to play it themselves ever since it came out.
One of the most popular covers is by B.B. King:
A Swing version by Count Basie (sporting a rockin’ mustache!) and Joe Williams:
Note: the first song heard is the ending of “April in Paris”
My personal (non-Slim) favorite is in the Slide Guitar style of Elmore James:
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