~Every week from the vaults… a vinyl rarity which crackles, grinds, moves, grooves, hurts, or just awfully tickles…
Smasher of the week #16-17
Brulee (Stu) “Slim” Gaillard aka as “McVouty” and “Mr. Dark Gable” is an important link between the Swing of the ’30s and the Bebop and Rhythm & Blues during/after the Second World War. Slim is an innovator blessed with a pleasant tenor voice who plays multiple instruments (guitar, piano, sax, vibraphone, trumpet, organ, percussion) and who writes funny songs, performing them solo or in a small combo. He punctuates his lyrics and jives with Yiddish and Arabic, Spanish and Greek words. His songs do well on the radio, they are real sing-alongs. He freely twists, adjusts and scats his slang, playing with the words, pace and melody, devising a kind of proto-rapping. He even creates his own language called “Vout”. His hip vocal art and style are pointing towards what will soon be called Bebop, when instrumentalists such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker begin to improvise freely on a melody with rapid changes of chords and notes.
following songs do give an impression of the works and repertoire of Slim.…
Gaillard & Bebop
Gaillard, singer and comedian, turns into a cult figure whose whole life remains shrouded in mystery. He is larger than life. He doesn’t hesitate to add to the mystery himself: the musician does realize an enigmatic image can generate attention and set him apart from the competition. He is a smart actor and entertainer on and off stage. Slim is the Salvador Dali of Jazz , a surrealist and Dadaist. Through his language and performance he creates a world of his own in which he and his listeners can briefly forget the authorities, poverty, racism and all the evil outside. Nobody fully understands his lyrics, but it doesn’t matter. Slim makes people forget their worries. Some law-abiding white radio stations refuse to give his songs airplay: not everyone appreciates this kind of absurd, witty black entertainment. Some treat him with the same disdain and distrust as they display towards his more “intellectual” bebop brothers.
The British filmmaker and producer Anthony Wall sketches a portrait of this fascinating artist in no fewer than 4 episodes as part of the famous BBC Arena Art documentary series in the late ’80’s . Gaillard has by then settled down in London. His life story reaches mythical proportions in this docu film, appropriately called “Slim Gaillard’s Civilization” (“a fantastical documentary of sorts”), leaving even the viewer anno 2019 in limbo whether we are dealing with an early version of docudrama or docufiction or something in between: perfectly in line with Slim’s life !! Check his biographic details on the internet today and you can conclude his epic story lives on undiminished …
Slim The Story
Those with a completely unreserved mind towards Slim the storyteller will undoubtedly believe that he was born in Santa Clara, Cuba around 1915-1916. That his father, Theophilus Rothschild, is of German / Jewish-Greek descent and (remotely) acquainted with the illustrious banker’s family. That his mother Maria (Mary) Gaillard is a Spanish-Cuban lady. That his dad is a cook and/or captain on a cruise ship, who accidentally leaves him behind in Crete at the age of 12: that as a young boy he manages to survive in the Mediterranean for several years as a cabin-boy and handyman. That out of desperation he decides to take a return trip to Cuba on another cruise ship when he realizes his father ain’t coming back. That he is shocked to learn the boat sets course to the East Coast of America instead of Cuba, after which he ends up in Detroit. That he never sees his parents again. That he teaches himself English and finds shelter in the home of an Armenian family, cleaning shoes, becoming a boxer, and doing the odd job for the mob, “the Purple Gang”, but somehow succeeds in reshaping his life through music. That he is a musical autodidact and fluent in multiple languages. That he has to put his musical career on hold because of WWII: that he joins an all-black squadron and serves as a pilot in the South Pacific, but is discharged after sustaining injuries, followed by a depression. That after his musical career in the ’60s – ’70s he successfully runs a hotel or restaurant enabling him to retire as the owner of an ochard near Seattle. And that he only reluctantly comes out of this self chosen retirement to make a come-back for European audiences once they are (re)discovering him and his music….
Those among us who are a bit more skeptical might suspect Slim is born in America, in Alabama, in Florida or -who knows- in Detroit around January 1916, perhaps as a child out of a mixed marriage, maybe from one Mary Gaillard with Theo Rothchild? And that his dad runs off before or shortly after his birth and/or his mother dies at a young age? That Slim does somehow grow up in a musical environment in Detroit, going to school (Detroit Cass Tech High School ??) where he learns to play a vibraphone and piano for the first time. That he learns tap dancing and is competing in amateur singing contests. That he is living in a poor, multicultural neighborhood with Armenians, Greeks, Lebanese, Latinos and Jews and picks up the street slang owing to his great sense for languages. That he is a very clever survivor in the tough and dangerous hood. That he gets a job as a baby sitter, cleaner and shoe polisher at Armenian shopkeepers who give him food and occasionally provide shelter. That as a reasonably trained and intelligent musician he wants to try his luck in New York in the mid 1930’s, already having familiarized himself with the music of pianist / entertainer Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong and the orchestras of Duke Ellington and especially Cab Calloway, the showman pur sang.
That he flirts with Judaism and Jewish names because they are associated with success and money, education and status, allowing him to construct a fantasy world which sharply contrasts with the real, daily society and racial discrimation he is facing. That he is extremely motivated and serious to make it in the music bizznizz and on purpose opts for the imago of an eccentric, sophisticated bohemian and bon vivant, a Rothschild, clinging to it till the end of his life. And that he gets a bit stuck in his own alter ego and his Vout language … and ends up broke, fleeing family troubles and debtors, finding refuge in London …
One of the most memorable moments in the 1989 BBC documentary is in episode IV when Slim visits his daughter, Janis Hunter Gaye. Yes, correct, Janis Gaye, the second wife of Marvin Gaye, and the mere 17-year-old (!) muse of the charismatic singer during the recording of his iconic album “Let’s Get It On” in 1973!! Jan(is) dethrones Anna Gordy, the wife of Marvin, as prima donna during those recording sessions. After a bitter and years’ long fight, Anna finally agrees to a divorce in 1976. Marvin marries his muse Jan in 1977 to divorce again in 1981, after an extremely tumultuous relationship in which the singer turns paranoid, pretty violent and extremely self-destructive due to a nasty drug addition. Marvin Gaye is eventually fatally shot by his own father in 1984, leaving behind Janis with two children, Nona, then 9 and Frankie Jr., then 7 years. The Gaye family has been in turmoil ever since: up to today various family members, siblings and descendants are fighting each other in court for money, money, money!
During Slim’s visit to Janis in 1989, no mention at all is made of this drama, the filmed family gathering is meant to project the image of the jolly Slim as proud patrias familias and father-in-law of superstar Marvin Gaye. In addition to Janis we also see her half-brother Mark Gaillard, his wife and 2 children and another half-brother, Michael. It is remarkable that in this happy family picture the mother(s) is (are) absent. With Slim being the star and center of the docu, Janis apparently feels compelled to only ask about her grandparents, giving him the chance to again make his tribute to Theophilus Rothschild and Maria Gaillard.
Little or nothing is known about Slim’s wive (s), but let me try to solve part of the puzzle. Daughter Janis stems from a short-lived (?) relationship of Slim with a certain Barbara Hunter, a white woman whom he impregnates in LA in 1955. In 2015 Janis publishes her memoirs about her life with Marvin Gaye, in which she briefly mentions her terrible childhood. She is put into foster homes because her hippie mother gets hooked onto drugs in the 1960s and is no longer willing to or can no longer take care of her. Her father Slim is long gone by that time. Janis is allowed to visit her mom during the weekends after she turns 14: her mom is hanging around in the LA music scene and flirts with Ed Townsend, the Motown producer and co-author of “Let’s Get It On”, which is partly recorded in LA. Janis, who has been idolizing Marvin since her early childhood, is introduced to Gaye through her mother and Townsend in 1973 and the rest belongs to history…
What is also implied in Janis’ book is that she receives little support from Slim: at the time of his visit in 1989, Janis is having her own serious drug problems and is caught in a downward spiral in which she drags her daughter Nona along. Only in the 2nd half of the 90s does Janis gradually get her act together. Slim has passed away (1991) in the meantime and probably has not left behind any money, money, money for his daughter. Janis and Nona are saved by none other than Rick James, the master funkateer and notorious loose cannon, who arranges and finances their re-hab. I have no idea what meanwhile has exactly happened to Janis’ mother Barbara.
Slim’s Other Wives
It is also striking that not all Slim’s children are present at the party in 1989. For example, we miss Casonna (Cassie) Gaillard (1951-2013), a daughter born in 1951, from Slim’s marriage to Nettie (surname unknown). In a jetset and gossip magazine from 1953 (Jet) we actually can find a reference to her: Slim apparently threatens to sue the Daily Mirror in New York ‘cos he is accused of having amorous ties with a red-haired Broadway dancer. He strongly denies the accusations, stressing his happy 16-year (!) marriage with Nettie and a 15-month-old daughter. Is Slim perhaps stretching the truth about the state of his marriage? A month later, in Sept 1953, the same publication Jet reports that Slim’s wife Nettie “accidentally” has shot herself in the arm after grabbing a loaded gun in the toilet. A marriage under stress? She is treated in the Knickerbocker hospital and receives a fine for illegal possession of weapons. Nettie is never heard of again after the mid ’50’s….
The existence of Nettie is corraborated by the fact that she is listed as a co-songwriter on some of Slim’s well-known early songs. Moreover, Dizzy Gillespie in one of his interviews recalling the 40’s paints an eventful Christmas in 1945 during which he is threatened with a knife by Slim’s “then wife” who mistakenly believes that the trumpet player is being condenscending towards her husband right before a show. Does the Nettie of the mid-1950’s perhaps stand her ground even more when her husband begins to try to live the life of an independent, kosmopolitan bon-vivant and star?
Whether Mark Gaillard, the eldest son, is also a product of the marriage between Slim and Nettie is not clear, I have not been able to track his date of birth. Barbara Hunter can’t be his mom: in her book Janis claims to be Barbara’s only child. What’s certain is that he is growing up in LA and begins to dream of a career in music as a young boy in the 60’s. In the few written interviews available on the internet Mark is neither very talkative about his childhood nor about his mother, but full of respect for his father’s musical achievements. Between the lines one can read Mark only really gets to know his dad when he is ~22 years old, probably in the mid-1970s. Mark, himself trying to make it as a blues singer, prefers to keep his father’s musical legacy and legend intact. He even seems to fully forgive Slim for not having been around while he was a kid: Mark links his father’s urge for adventure and lack of parental skills to the latter’s exotic upbringing and the dramatic moment Slim was abandoned by Theophilus in Crete in the 1920’s….
Then there are Michael Hamlin and Michael Gaillard, it’s not fully certain if these are two different people. The Michael from the family party in BBC documentary is born in 1965, his biological mother is believed to be Anita Rumsey. It looks like Michael is given up for adoption to a certain Maryann Bray, who marries Edgar Hamlin. According to some obituaries available on the internet Michael Hamlin dies unexpectedly in November 2018. Nothing can be found about Anita Rumsey. Is there perhaps some family link with Howard Rumsey, the bassist / entrepreneur and owner of the famous Lighthouse café in Hermosa Beach in California, where Slim still sporadically performed in the 60s? No idea, just wild speculation. Of the other Michael Gaillard (and his mother) who are included in Michael Hamlin’s obituary, no trace whatsoever …
Let’s get back to Slim’s musical achievements. The highlight of Slim’s musical fame is between 1940 – 1947. He scores his first hit in 1938 with “Flat Foot Floogie” together with the talented bass player Lewis Stewart as the duo “Slim and Slam”. Big band leader Benny Goodman buys the rights to the song for US $250, and further popularizes the tune among a white audience in the summer of 1938. Slim appears on TV and stars in the 1941 movie “Hellzapoppin”. Check out his performance together with the other musicians and great (break) !) dancers in the following clip…
Around 1940 Gaillard is one of the first musicians to switch to the electric guitar under the influence of pioneers such as Eddie Durham and Charlie Christian. He is a gifted guitarist and adequate pianist: part of his standard act is to play the piano keys with the outside of his hand/fingers. He usually performs in small groups and in a format (guitar, drum, bass) that will later be copied by Rock & Roll bands.
He is often dismissed as a banal novelty act by jazz critics, not just back in the days but even now. But the icons of Jazz do not shy away from performing with him. It is Slim who introduces the beboppers and other jazz greats to a wider (white) audience. Those jazz cats regularly play with him in the ’40’s, including upcoming artists such as Ben Webster. Yet these jazz musicians never stand still and like to move forward into new directions or in other cases succumb to alcohol and drugs and exit the scene. Slim can’t count on their services for long. His energetic bass player Tiny Bam Brown also quits for unknown reasons, Gaillard is suddenly back on his own again.
Scrambling to build a new line-up, Gaillard is just in time to jump onto the exuberant, sax driven R&B train that’s taking the charts by storm in the late 1940s with artists such as Louis Jordan, Roy Milton and Wynonie Harris. He rewrites and re-arranges some of his older tunes to modernize his sound and creates new ones with similar absurd titles mixed with his slang following his old recipe. The R&B, however, transforms into rougher Rock and Roll and Slim’s Vout songs and shows come across outdated: his approach is becoming too polished and predictable. Slim is trapped in his own formula. He tries his luck in Hollywood, in the movies. His private problems are piling up at the same time. Slim still makes a few solo appearances on TV in the ’60-70’s, playing his biggest hits. The public expects him to throw in a few of his Voutie jokes, to which he always dutifully complies. It does not bring him any new record contract.
Owing to his connections in LA and Hollywood, Slim does still score a few small roles in tv soaps before falling almost completely off the radar. Around the end of the 1960s, he suddenly finds himself near Seatac, Seattle airport. Is it to flee his new fatherhood (of newborn son Michael) again? Or to avoid the LA drug scene or financial troubles? Who knows ….Depending on who you want to believe, he either owns an orchard, or lives in a motorhome or can be found in a cheap motel near an orchard: some say he is earning his money sitting down Highway 99 as a repairer of TVs, and occasionally in the evening as a pianist at Roy Parnell’s Jazz club at Pioneer Square in Seattle.
In the 2nd half of the 70s his son Mark and old friend Dizzy do manage to get into touch with him. Gillespie helps him out of his isolation (misery??) in the early 1980s. Together with Mark the famous Dizzy arranges concerts in LA and Newport, which lead to invitations from Europe. The warm reception by the European public does convince Slim to make London his new home. It also offers him the chance to burn his American bridges (and to avoid family and money problems?) and revive his mythology. The bon vivant and cosmopolitan Slim Rothschild is back in bizznizz…
The BBC documentary in 1989 is the crowning moment of his comeback. A few years earlier Gaillard does already make a cameo appearance (“Selling Out”) in the movie “Absolute Beginners.” Slim is even believed to have married Angela Mary Gorman in 1985, yet, like all his women, little is known about her. The enigmatic entertainer dies after a short illness due to cancer in 1991. Shortly before his death, he leaves a final footprint for the young as well as his die-hard fans. He joins the “Dream Warriors, jazzy hip hoppers from Canada, doing his last Vouty trick in the funky “Very Easy to Assemble, But Hard to Take Apart” .
Appropriately, Slim, whether or not the son of a ship’s captain or ship’s cook, gets buried at Newport Beach in the vicinity of his favorite Laguna Beach in California, to which he has dedicated his “Laguna Oroonie”. Gaillard overlooks his beloved sea from the Pacific View Memorial Park in Corona del Mar. His tombstone says “Please do not disturb “Vout” . “
Okay, hope this blog post has not disturbed Slim! Let me conclude by saying he has inspired many musicians with his music, absurdism and R&R attitude. Think of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, B.B. King, Jack Kerouac, Frank Zappa and punkers like Iggy Pop and Henry Rollins. It may not have brought him any money, money, money, but McVout o Rooney’s songs and legend will live on forever…