Born Albert Luandrew, September 5, 1907, near Vance, MS; died of complications stemming from kidney failure, March 17, 1995, in Chicago, IL; married Big Time Sarah (a blues singer), c. 1974 (marriage dissolved); second wife's name, Geraldine; children: Gregory Perkins.
Blues legend Sunnyland Slim made music over the course of eight decades, from the hard-luck Deep South of the 1920s to the enduring grit of Chicago's South Side in the 1990s. One of the great singer-piano players of the century, Slim worked with blues greats like Ma Rainey and Little Brother Montgomery and fostered the careers of many others, most notably Muddy Waters.
In a recording career stretching from 1947 to 1985, Slim chalked up an impressive catalog of over 250 songs, or "sides," as they're known in blues parlance. Informing the feats of Slim the musician, though, was the heart of a man "who reveled in the hardscrabble, often profane blues life, yet could see--and taught others to see-- the handiwork of God in people from church sisters to streetwalkers; a man whose faith enabled him to travel the hard, dangerous road of a bluesman and yet never fall prey to bitterness, self-destruction or despair," as was revealed in the liner notes to the album Sunnyland Train.
The grandson of slaves, Sunnyland Slim was born Albert Luandrew on a farm in rural Mississippi in 1907. His early musical experiences included playing an organ owned by a church friend; he used a shoe box with keys drawn on it to practice his fingering between sessions on the actual instrument. He ran away from home at the age of 13--his mother had died of pneumonia and his stepmother was abusive. He made his way by doing odd jobs, like carrying water for a railroad gang and driving a doctor's car, until he finally landed a piano gig two nights a week at a juke joint (a small, inexpensive club) in rural Mississippi. Blues chronicler Dave Whiteis, in the liner notes to Slim's 1994 Decoration Day CD, described a typical sawmill juke joint scene of the 1920s: "Hard-working men, calloused and with rippling muscles, quaffed whiskey and danced with pretty women who'd been made available for the occasion. A high-stakes card game of Georgia skin was going on, dice were rolling, money moved from hand to hand. Most of it would end up in the coffers of the company that owned the mill, the juke, and--for all intents and purposes--most of the workers as well."
Such was the setting of Slim's first significant collaboration-- with Little Brother Montgomery, a major southern blues pianist of the 1920s and 1930s. In 1923 Slim was traveling with a gambler-pimp friend and his party of prostitutes when an overnight jail stay followed by a car breakdown led him by chance to a juke where Montgomery was performing.
Slim's playing and singing impressed Montgomery, and the two men soon made their way to Memphis, where piano players could get decent work in cafes and gambling houses. This was preferable to the fate of country blues guitarists, who played for change in parks, but not as lucrative and prestigious as gigs in vaudeville theaters, which required an ability to read music and improvise jazz. "Memphis used to be a barrelhouse town," Slim told Deep Blues author Robert Palmer. "It was the greatest town in the world for pimps and hustlers. That's where a whole lot of people got killed, you know." Palmer cites a 1916 insurance company report documenting a murder rate of 90 per 100,000 inhabitants, higher than that of Washington, D. C. in the 1990s.
Rather than stay in Memphis, though, Slim decided to travel the Mississippi River, shifting between river towns and lumber and turpentine camps. He picked up a number of skills while working to supplement his performance income, including cooking, barbering, pipe fitting, and electrical wiring--not to mention the more crafty talents associated with professional pool, dice, and card playing. Up to this point he was known by his given name; he acquired the moniker "Sunnyland Slim" in the 1930s when he wrote a song recounting the deaths of two families that occurred in the span of a week on the tracks of the Sunnyland train. The train ran from Memphis to St. Louis, Missouri, and would often catch people unawares as they crossed the tracks, which ran right through the fields of the flat Mississippi Delta plains. "Seein' those little ... kids killed, that given me my tender heart. That rested on my mind and it given me a tender heart," Slim told Down Beat 60 years later.
These years of constant traveling and playing introduced Slim to a number of important southern blues musicians of the time. Among them were fellow pianists Roosevelt Sykes and Memphis Slim, harmonica players Sonny Boy Williamson and Snooky Pryor, the guitarist Honeyboy Edwards and--if Slim is to be taken at his word- -even blues legend Robert Johnson himself. The fruit of these early experiences was a distinctive piano style that, according to Whiteis in the liner notes to Sunnyland Train, combined early Delta roots with newer urban energy: "Sunnyland's signature riff was a shimmering treble cascade--beginning with a chiming upper-register flurry, he'd ease back into the melody with a complex descent through the registers. But, at any given moment, he might also unfurl a driving boogie flagwaver, or ease into a melodic stride; listeners might hear anything from the high, lonesome tones of field hollers to a super-charged rendition of the standard "Rollin' and Tumblin'."
Though his first studio experience may have been as far back as 1929, Slim did not join the musicians union until the late 1940s; his earliest recordings date from 1947. It was that year that he recorded eight sides for the RCA Victor label as "Dr. Clayton's Buddy." The pseudonym was an attempt to capitalize on his prior association with the late Peter Cleighton, who had attained some measure of success before drinking himself to death following the loss of his wife and two children, again in the path of a speeding train. He also recorded a few songs as "Delta Joe" on the Opera label.
Slim's traveling days wound to a close when he moved to Cairo, Illinois, in the late 1930s. In 1939 he settled down for good in Chicago, where he met Muddy Waters, who went on to become one of the most successful and perhaps most widely known of all blues musicians. About five years after moving to town, Slim joined a band at the Flame Club on Chicago's South Side that featured Waters's country-style guitar picking. That band didn't last long, but Slim and Waters formed a mutual respect based on musicianship and professionalism. When Slim was asked to play piano on a Columbia Records session in late 1946, he brought Waters along. Though the label released nothing from that session, Slim arranged another the following year with Aristocrat Records (later Chess), which began a long association between Waters and the label's owners, Leonard and Phil Chess. The relationship, and Chess Records, would make musical history.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Slim continued his collaboration with top musicians like guitarists Lonnie Johnson, Hubert Sumlin and Robert Jr. Lockwood, harp player Big Walter Horton, and tenors Red Holloway and Ernest Cotton. Many of these would perform at Slim's after-hours "parties" at his home, which brought in a fair amount of cash--even after local authorities were paid off. Slim was proud of his efforts to help younger musicians get their start, modeling his mentor role on that of Big Bill Broonzy, who had done the same for him when Slim first arrived in Chicago. "It's not a day goes past that I don't think about somethin' Slim said," singer Zora Young recalled in Living Blues. "When you left Sunnyland's finishing school, you were ready for the world."
Slim's varied collaborations were matched by the large number of labels for which he recorded, including Hytone, Mercury, Apollo, Regal, Chance, Blue Lake, Cobra, and J.O.B. (which he co-owned). His album debut came in 1960 with the release of Slim's Shout on Bluesville (a subsidiary of Prestige), featuring a New York band that boasted the tenor sax talents of King Curtis.
In the late 1950s and 1960s the blues enjoyed a "revival" as increased attention was paid to the uniquely American musical form. Musicians like Slim became highly sought after for Canadian and European tours. Traveling with the American Folk Blues Festival in Europe in 1964, Slim was among the first blues musicians to play in Eastern Europe. Back home in Chicago, years of peddling records out of the trunk of his car when conventional distribution proved inadequate gave way to more refined methods--Slim started his own Airway label in 1974. Another example of his grandfatherly role in the Chicago blues scene, the label featured a host of local talent, as well as Slim's own recordings, the first of which was Sunnyland Slim Live in Europe, 1975.
Beginning in the early 1980s and continuing for over ten years, until his health failed him, Slim was a regular Sunday night feature at Chicago's B.L.U.E.S. club. But the effects of a stroke and a broken hip, among other infirmities, took their toll in these last years and moved one observer to describe Slim hunched over his piano as resembling an ancient question mark. His performances were nevertheless strong to the end. "He flies over the furiously swinging ensemble with singing so powerful as to give the lie to his eight and a half decades of life," John Brisbin wrote in Living Blues. "Twisting a long sweet note into a lemony falsetto howl, he sheds years and ailments like a faith-healed believer." Slim died of complications stemming from kidney failure on March 17, 1995.
Like so many other blues musicians, Slim never achieved a level of mass appeal in accord with his stature in American music history. He played featured sets in the annual Chicago Blues Festival, however, and honors bestowed on him in his later years include a 1987 City of Chicago Medal of Merit and a 1988 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Foundation Award. The 1995 Chicago Blues Festival, mounted two months after Slim's death, showcased the first annual Sunnyland Slim Memorial Piano Set, and the city's mayor declared the final day of the festival "Sunnyland Slim Day in Chicago." Perhaps the most telling reflection of Slim's legacy, though, was a four-hour musical tribute undertaken by his fellow musicians and attended by many of his earnest fans--beneficiaries one and all of his conviction that "you can't have it all. You gotta spread some of it around."
by John Packel
Sunnyland Slim's Career
Worked at odd jobs, including water carrying and chauffeuring; began playing piano professionally, c. 1922; played at cafes and gambling houses, Memphis, TN, c. 1923; performed in juke joints along Mississippi River, 1920s-30s; also worked as a cook, barber, pipe fitter, and electrician; recorded with Muddy Waters, 1946-47; began solo recording career, 1947; worked as house pianist at J.O.B. label, which he co-owned; became bandleader, Chicago, 1940s-50s; released album debut, Slim's Shout, Bluesville/Prestige, 1960; toured Canada and Europe, 1960s; recorded over 250 songs and numerous albums; founded Airway label, 1974; performed regularly in clubs and at festivals until his death.
Sunnyland Slim's Awards
City of Chicago Medal of Merit, 1987; National Heritage Foundation Award, National Endowment for the Arts, 1988; Sunnyland Slim Memorial Piano Set, Chicago Blues Festival, established in 1995.
- Selective Works
- Singles As Doctor Clayton's Buddy; on Victor, 1947 "Nappy Head Woman."
- "Broke and Hungry."
- "Illinois Central."
- With Muddy Waters; on Aristocrat (later Chess), c. 1947-48 "Johnson Machine Gun."
- "Fly Right, Little Girl."
- "She Ain't Nowhere."
- "My Baby, My Baby."
- On Hytone, 1949 "Jivin' Boogie."
- "The Devil Is a Busy Man."
- "Mud Kicking Woman."
- On Constellation, 1953 "Bassology."
- "When I Was Young."
- "Living in the White House."
- With Lefty Bates and Willie Dixon; on Cobra, 1956 "It's You Baby."
- "Highway 51."
- Also recorded for Opera label as "Delta Joe."
- Albums Slim's Shout, Bluesville/Prestige, 1960.
- Sunnyland Slim Live in Europe, 1975, Airway, 1975.
- Be Careful How You Vote (includes "You Can't Have It All" and "Johnson Machine Gun"), Airway, 1981, reissued, 1983, reissued on Earwig, 1989.
- Sunnyland Train (includes "Sunnyland Train" and "Highway 61"), Red Beans, 1983, reissued, Evidence, 1995.
- Chicago Jump (includes "You Used to Love Me" and "Chicago Jump"), Red Beans, 1985, reissued, Evidence, 1995.
- Sunnyland Slim Blues Band, Red Beans, 1986.
- Decoration Day (recorded in 1980; includes "Rock Little Daddy" and "Dust My Broom"), Evidence, 1994.
- (With Koko Taylor) Off the Record, Chess.
- With others, also recorded Sunnyland Slim (from sessions as J.O.B.
- Records house pianist), Flyright.
- The Blackwell Guide to Blues Records, edited by Paul Oliver, Basil Blackwell, 1989.
- Blues Records, January 1943 to December 1966, edited by Mike Leadbitter, Oak Publications, 1968.
- Nothing But the Blues, edited by Mike Leadbitter, Hanover Books, 1971.
- Palmer, Robert, Deep Blues, Penguin, 1982.
- Periodicals Down Beat, September 1984; December 1985; April 1986; February 1991; May 1991; June 1995.
- Living Blues, May/June 1995.
- New York Times, March 20, 1995.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Dave Whiteis, John Brisbin, and Bill Dahl to the Evidence and Earwig releases cited above.