Photo by Phillip Cooke
By Melina Paris, Contributing Writer and Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
This story was updated to include the corrections regarding South Side Slim’s place of birth and a correct information to reflect that his father helped him complete trucking school and employed him in his trucking company.
A stage, an open-mic and a willing ear are the most important elements to developing talent — particularly when it comes to the blues.
It is in these settings that experienced players pass on to younger players what they’ve learned, and younger players pay homage to the ones that preceded them.
An interview with bluesman South Side Slim is reminiscent of this exchange. During that interview he often referenced the blues artists that mentored, guided and played with him, particularly at the Barnyard Juke Joint and Babe’s and Ricky’s in South Los Angeles.
He performed at the Seabird Lounge, playing a variety of songs from his discography, including his 2008 album South Side All Stars Doing Barnyard Hits and his 2009 follow-up, Life Under Pressure.
“I think it’s a historic CD [South Side All Stars] because it’s got all those guys on it that have never been documented,” South Side Slim said. “They are blues legacies. If I’m lucky to live long enough, it would be a miracle if someone could take everything in my head and materialize it.”
South Side Slim, who has been steadily recording and releasing music since 1999, plays a Chicago-style brand of blues. His electric guitar play is reminiscent of other greats like Guitar Shorty and Bo Diddley. As a vocalist, he’s like Johnny Guitar Watson, only smoother.
He was a regular at Babe’s and Ricky’s on 53rd and Central, which he calls “Mama Laura’s place” (for Laura May Gross). He called it, “the last real blues club on Central Avenue.”
“That is where all the blues players came, black and white, to get the real deal,” he said. “It was like a portal because I met everyone through there.”
South Side Slim has a knack for connecting with people and it has opened doors for him. It’s because of this ability that his fortune as an artist has been trending upward over the past couple of years.
In 2013, South Side Slim’s friend, Willie McNeil, recommended him to audition to play in Paul McCartney’s music video for Early Days, a single from McCartney’s album New. Slim was ultimately hired, along with other Los Angeles-based artists Roy Gaines, Dale Atkins, Motown Maurice, Lil’ Poochie, Misha Lindes and Al Williams.
Williams, who is a founder of the Jazz Safari, Birdland West and Long Beach Jazz Festival, hired South Side Slim to perform at the 2014 Long Beach Bayou Festival.
This past April, Harris performed at the KJazz Indie Blues Showcase with Gary Wagman at Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach.
South Side Slim even published his memoir, called, Sweetback Blues: The Twelve Bar Tale of South Side Slim, with the help of local blues enthusiast Kari Fretham. Written in seven stanzas in a 12-bar musical structure, the book recalls his childhood, his introduction to drugs, both as a consumer and a seller, brushes with love, death and homelessness.
In addition to the narrative nonfiction, Fretham produced the documentary film, Hot Love on Me So Strong: The Blues of South L.A.
“South Side Slim impressed me the first time I heard him with the emotional authenticity of his original lyrics, his confident, yet humble, stage presence and his stellar guitar playing,” Fretham said. “I was delighted when he invited me to accompany him to the treasure trove of blues juke joints in South Los Angeles. The result of the documentary on his namesake’s blues culture makes it possible for anyone to experience the heartfelt blues for which South Side Slim dedicates his life.”
South Side Slim brought Fretham to the blues scene and introduced her to everyone. He had a lot of input on the film and much of Slims’ music is included in it. After his story came out, Slim started gaining recognition and gigs.
Born in Mer Rouge, Louisiana and reared in Oakland, California during the 1960s and ‘70s, South Side Slim’s early musical tastes didn’t include the blues. His musical palate ranged from rock to soul music, and from classical music to jazz.
“I was digging Jeff Beck, John Coltrane, Jon Luc Ponte and Parliament Funkadelic,” South Side Slim said. “It still wasn’t blues yet.
“Then, I heard Jimmy Hendrix and it just freaked me out, Hendrix inspired me because he was a great guitar player and he was outspoken.”
South Side Slim got his first guitar when he turned 18, as a gift from his father. Sheer love for music and determination to learn is how he mastered the instrument. He played the chords he found in music books for beginners, and queried musicians in his neighborhood. But never had a teacher or formal lessons yet, after learning a lot of bits and pieces on guitar, he realized he had talent.
After a while, Slim was able to play the music of his favorite artists. In his memoir, he noted that family and friends didn’t initially take him seriously when he spoke of becoming a serious artist.
South Side Slim came to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s to pursue his dreams in music. He frequented the blues spots in town playing his guitar. But by 1990, he had gotten completely turned around, with no job or placed to go. His father, who owned a trucking company, helped Slim complete trucking school and hired him to work at his company. Slim, one day experiencing a moment of self-doubt, asked his father if trucking was for him. His father told him no.
“I told him, ‘Just leave me alone, dad. Let me stay here and just let me practice and I won’t bother anyone,’” Slim said.
He practiced five hours a day and sought the mentorship of local blues musicians. He credits his perseverance to his faith as a Christian.
“No one was looking for me; no one gave a damn about me,” Slim said. “I practiced and was able to let the spirit come and do that work with my life. My inspiration was the fact God gave me a gift and I loved music. I was never able to get that [gift] nourished. It was all these years later before I came around. I was 40 by the time I started getting recognition.
“It was hard, but it was kind of the best time. You would think it was depressing, but no, I wasn’t really homeless. I was living on my dad’s property which was basically mine and I loved it.
“My biggest inspiration was belief in myself and that the spirit had a different reason for me to be there,” he said. “I didn’t consider myself as this great guitar player. I had an idea that was nourished by my belief and hope that eventually I end up in the right places and here I am.”
South Side Slim will perform June 26 at the Seabird Lounge in Long Beach.