Sunnyland Slim performs

Photographs of Sunnyland Slim by Josť Luis Villegas

(Click on the images to see larger versions.)

By John Orr

I only got to see Sunnyland Slim perform once, several years ago at Slim's in San Francisco.

When I first caught sight of Sunnyland Slim, he was sitting quietly on stage, looking as much like a cadaver as any human I've ever seen.

He was old, and crippled, and tired.

But, man, when he played his music, those old hands flew over the piano keys like honeybees at a pollen convention.

It was like he saved all his energy for the one thing that mattered: the music.


The following was originally prepared for publication in 1992.

I used to be a good boy, and I did just what my mother said

Mmmmmmmm, boy, I did just what my mother said

But I got with some fast fast women, and I really had too much fun

-- Sunnyland Slim

When this century's great black exodus took place, from the agrarian economy and racist horrors of the South to the industrialized and slightly more enlightened North, blues and gospel music made the trip too.

Most of the great blues singers started in Mississippi, but a few came from Alabama, Louisana and elsewhere, maybe stopping off in Memphis, then heading on to the big cities of New York, Detroit and Chicago.

It was in Chicago that the chemistry really started popping, transforming the country blues into the urban blues that became its own monster phenomena among black Americans, and the tap root of rock 'n' roll.

And when those young black singers got to Chicago after World War II, hungry and looking for work, they stopped at Sunnyland Slim's house.

From 1947 through 1954, the basement of Slim's house was where Lester Davenport, Johnny Jones, Floyd Jones, Otis Spann, Little Walter, Big Bill Broonzy, Eddie Boyd, Junior Wells, Earl Hooker, Jimmy Rogers, Willie Mabon and other great Chicago musicians went to drink, shoot pool or craps, sleep, eat and play music. (In modern days, Slim still sometimes plays host to a circle of musician friends, but not on the scale of the old days.)

``All the musicians, they just taken up with Sunnyland,'' Davenport told John Brisbin for Delmark Records. ``Because he wasn't prejudiced no kind of way. He wasn't jealous hearted of nobody, regardless of what you play or how you play. It was just open house for all the musicians.''

No stranger to the Bay Area, Sunnyland Slim was scheduled to play at the 1988 opening of Boz Scagg's Slim's nightclub in San Francisco, but, recalls sax player Samuel Burkhart, but wasn't able to attend, because of health problems.

He's slated to play at a festival in Long Beach in September, and may come up to the Bay Area at that time.

Born Albert Luandrew, Sunnyland Slim got his introduction to the Chicago scene from Broonzy, and returned the favor a little later for another fresh arrival from Mississippi, Muddy Waters. It was Slim who finagled the deal that got Waters into the Chess studios to record ``Can't Be Satisfied'' in 1947, which led to the Muddy Waters Band, which led to what became known as the Chicago sound.

And ``finagled'' is the right word. In those days, it wasn't just music that financed Slim's house -- ``If there be gamblin' or pool hustlin' somewhere in the city, you find him there if he no workin','' remembered Davenport of those hustle-to-survive days.

``I lied and got Muddy in there,'' Slim recalls, by phone from his Chicago home. ``No union! But he could play that guitar sound the way he played it, and Chess needed that. I got him in there, and he and (Willie) Dixon played those tunes.''

``If there's a noble definition of hustler, it would be Sunnyland Slim,'' says Burkhart, a Swiss born saxophone player who's performed with Slim the last 10 years. ``Maybe some of his activities in those days may have been a bit questionable, legally, but I think morally they were quite sound.

``He is a very independent character. That is probably why he started his own record label (not Delmark). ``He never made it as big as some of the others, such as Muddy Waters, but always was his own man.''

I''m gonna tell all you boys and girls, don't live your life too fast

Well, I'm gonna tell all you boys and girls, don't live your life too fast

'Cause when she dead and gone, that is all she wrote, dear John

-- Sunnyland Slim

Sunnyland Slim

Top photo: From left are Sunnyland Slim on piano, Samuel Burkhart on saxophone, Robert Stroger on bass, Steve Freund on guitar and Robert Covington on drums. Photos taken at Blues on Halsted, where Sunnyland Slim plays every Sunday night.

``I've got plates in my legs in four places,'' Sunnyland Slim explained in 1991 about his crutches. ``I'm old, been trying to take it easy. I play on Sundays, some weeks, a couple of nights.''

``He defies medical science as we know it,'' says sax player Samuel Burkhart. ``He broke his hip three years ago, which is usually a death sentence for someone in their 80s. But he is still very active, still plays gigs from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m.''

Sunnyland Slim gets a smooch from a fan

Sunnyland Slim smiles

Sunnyland Slim takes a breather