OBITUARY : Sunnyland Slim
Tuesday 21 March 1995
Though not himself a great innovator, with a rolling, church-based piano style closer to the music's rural roots, Slim probably did more to drag its music into the urban, electrified age than any other single musician. He also helped the Chess brothers to realise that the future of the black music they loved lay not with the sophisticated acts like Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine, who performed at the Macomba supper club on 39th and Cottage Grove, but with the rougher music brought into the Windy City by immigrants from the rural south, a music which Phil and Len Chess had thought was already on the way out.
When Slim managed to persuade Len Chess that he ought to issue Muddy Waters on his Aristocrat label in 1947, he had already recorded for the company himself, and indeed in those first few releases you can see a transition, as Slim slid out of the picture. First, Slim himself recorded "Johnson Machine Gun" and "Fly Right Little Girl", then he and Big Crawford on bass backed up Muddy's first two titles. But by the time of Muddy's first great hit, "I Can't Be Satisfied", in April of the following year, Slim was not on the sessions any more, and he returned to the South Side clubs where his keyboard provided a solid foundation to the music of everyone from Waters to Jimmy Rogers, the bluesman from Atlanta.
Slim was born Albert Luandrew in 1907, on a plantation between the towns of Vance and Lambert in Quitman County, Missouri, and started playing piano in the local church at the age of 14. In 1924 he got a job playing music behind silent movies at a Lambert cinema and adopted the "Sunnyland" nickname.
He moved to Memphis in 1927, and stayed there for 15 years, ranging widely over the south from Tennessee to Mississippi, playing piano and roaring out the vocals in his powerful, blues-shouter voice, in any little dive or juke joint where mill workers gathered after hours. It was during this time that he first met Muddy Waters, seven years his junior, who had yet to be plucked from his rural niche.
Like many inhabitants of the rural south, Slim trekked north in 1942 to Chicago, stopping off briefly in St Louis en route, and while he worked in various manual jobs, mainly as a factory hand or trucker, he was soon playing regularly with the cream of Chicago blues players, including Waters, who had made the same trip himself the following year.
As a pianist, Slim was not so sophisticated as Memphis Slim or Otis Spann, who succeeded him in the keyboard hierarchy, and his singing also harked back to the acoustic era, carrying strong influences of Peter "Doctor" Clayton. Indeed, after drink killed Clayton, Slim was identified on his first recording break on the Victor label as "Doctor Clayton's Buddy", though interestingly these sides' impact was diminished by the fact that Slim did not play piano on them. His Aristocrat work ismore representative of his style.
Sunnyland Slim's contribution to African-American music was acknowledged in 1988 when he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Albert Luandrew (Sunnyland Slim), pianist: born Quitman County, Missouri 15 September 1907; married (one son); died 17 March 1995.
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