Bulee ‘Slim’ Gaillard was an American jazz musician, singer and songwriter born on January 4, 1916. There remains some dispute regarding the place of his birth, with some sources asserting that he was born in Detroit. Gaillard himself claimed to have been born in Santa Clara, Cuba where he spent his childhood picking bananas and cutting sugar cane. In a BBC documentary done on his life, he wistfully reminisced that he never really had a childhood – that he only remembers working from his earliest memories.
His father, Theophilus Rothschild was of German-Jewish ethnicity, while his mother, Maria (Mary) Gaillard was Afro-Cuban. It’s interesting to me that he took his mother’s maiden name as his surname.
His father was a chief steward for a steamship line, and he would sometimes accompany him on ocean voyages – which is apparently how he inadvertently got left behind and subsequently stranded on the Isle of Crete at the age of 12, for almost 4 years.
So, think about this: A 12-year old youngster gets left by his father on the island of Crete – an ocean away from his home, at a place where a completely different language is spoken, and where they don’t even use the same alphabet. He never saw either of his parents again.
While on Crete, he picked-up a few words of Greek and initially made some money making shoes and hats. Remember, this is a 12-year old. At some point, he started working on boats serving eastern Mediterranean ports – mostly to Beirut and Syria, where he learned to speak Arabic. His native language was Spanish, but he also subsequently learned to speak German, Greek, Arabic, Armenian and finally English.
Sometime, probably in 1931, he re-crossed the Atlantic on a ship that he reportedly hoped would ultimately get him back to Cuba, but upon arrival in New York, he never got off, and ended up in Detroit, probably via the Welland Canal. When he got there, he had nothing, and apparently didn’t even speak English. But in his own words, “I learned how to survive. When I got to Detroit, I found that there were Greeks and Arabian people there, so naturally I was more at ease with them.”
In Detroit, he was taken in by an Armenian family who owned a store, where he watched over the family’s children. He apparently tried making some money at prize-fighting; drove a hearse with coffins filled with bootleg liquor for the Purple Gang during Prohibition; worked in a slaughterhouse; trained as a mortician; and allegedly became friends with Al Capone.
While driving the hearse for the Purple Gang, he became interested in American jazz, and realized that it could become a viable way to earn a decent income. He consequently began taking evening courses in music and began to teach himself on a number of musical instruments – becoming proficient on piano, guitar, tenor saxophone and vibraphone.
At about this time he entered vaudeville with an act in which he reportedly tap-danced while playing the guitar.
After meeting and receiving encouragement from Duke Ellington backstage in Detroit, he made his way to New York City, determined to make it in the music and entertainment business.
By 1936-37, he teamed with bassist, Leroy Eliot ‘Slam’ Stewart, who had a unique musical style of bowing his bass while humming the same notes an octave higher. The duo billed themselves as, ‘Slim and Slam,’ of course.
Remember, just eight years before, this young man was homeless in Detroit after being abandoned as a child in Crete for almost four years, and could not even speak English. The proficiency and rapidity with which he became fluent in the English language (with no perceptible accent) is really nothing less than astounding. He was not formally educated. When he lived in Cuba as a child, he worked as a laborer.
With this initial success came a long-running radio program and a chance to appear as part of a specialty swing number with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in the film, “Hellzapoppin,” in 1941. The segment below provides a good opportunity to see ‘Slim and Slam’ in their prime - along with probably the most exuberant and athletic swing dance sequence ever put on film.
Classic 'Slim and Slam' open this specialty sequence in the 1941 film, "Hellzapoppin.' But the real stars here are the dancers who were part of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers from the Savoy Ballroom. I'm fairly confident you will never see another swing dance sequence like this in your life.
Of all the dancers in this number, only one survives - Norma Miller, - who at 96 years old, was the dancer wearing the chef's hat in the video above. One of my ambitions in life is to meet this remarkable lady before either one of us dies.
As for the musicians in the sequence above, the vocalist, pianist and guitarist is obviously Slim Gaillard (a.k.a., McVouty); the bassist is Leroy "Slam" Stewart; the cornetist is Rex Stewart (from Duke Ellington's orchestra); and the drummer is Cee Pee Johnson (a regular at a number of Central Avenue jazz clubs in Los Angeles). I believe the clarinetist may be Jack McVea, but I'm not certain (note also that he's playing a metal clarinet). I do not know the identity of the trombonist.
In 1943, Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart were both drafted, with Gaillard going into the U.S. Army Air Force and serving as a pilot flying B-26 bombers in the Pacific.
After being discharged from military service in 1944, Gaillard teamed with bassist ‘Bam’ Brown as, what else – ‘Slim and Bam.’ During this period, another Gaillard novelty composition was written and recorded entitled, “Cement Mixer,” which became another popular hit, along with “Down By the Station,” which became a classic children’s song.
As the 1940’s wore on, he continued with his hip, eccentric, actually surreal style of entertaining, and like many jazz musicians of the period, he transitioned into the bebop idiom, playing with the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
I characterize his style as surreal because of his very off-beat sense of humor and playing which nonetheless was still indicative of an extraordinary talent.
For example, the recording of his song “Yep Roc Heresy,” was banned by one radio station as degenerate – even though it was simply a recitation of the menu from an Armenian restaurant. Slim always seemed to have the last laugh. He is also the only musician I’ve ever seen who could credibly play the piano with the backs of his hands, or play the guitar with his left hand fretting from the top of the neck.
The performance below from The Steve Allen Playhouse which aired on March 4, 1963 provides a good example of Slim Gaillard’s classic comedic talents as a jazz and popular musician.
Classic Slim Gaillard - a very talented multi-instrumentalist and outstanding jazz musician. The only musician I ever saw who could credibly play a piano with the backs of his hands. The sequence where he plays alternatively with the front and backs of his hands, elbows and right shoe is nothing short of amazing. Not only does he not miss a beat, he hits all the right notes - and makes it look so easy in the process. It's not.
You've also gotta love the way he fit the program sponsors (and Westinghouse Broadcasting) into his lyrics. A savvy entertainer indeed.
From The Steve Allen Playhouse that originally aired on March 4, 1963.
From the latter part of the 1940’s through the 1950’s, he took up semi-residency at Billy Berg’s Swing Club on Hollywood Boulevard, appeared at Birdland and Downbeat in New York City, and toured with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic. Jack Kerouac even recounted his encounter with Slim Gaillard at a San Francisco club in his classic beat novel, “On the Road.”
In the 1960’s and ‘70’s, Gaillard turned to acting and began guest appearing in television shows such as Mission Impossible; Charlie’s Angels; Marcus Welby, M.D.; and Medical Center, and in the mini-series, Roots: The Next Generation, as Sam Wesley.
He was apparently pretty smart with a buck too, and with his show business earnings, for a period of time ran a motel in San Diego, owned an apple orchard outside of Tacoma, Washington, and owned some real estate in Florida.
Slim Gaillard was also Marvin Gaye’s father-in-law. His daughter Janis married Marvin Gaye, and she gave birth to Marvin Gaye’s only child – fashion model, singer and actress, Nona Marvisa Gaye.
In 1982, he returned to music at the suggestion of Dizzy Gillespie, and toured Europe extensively, making London his home from 1983 on. He died from cancer on February 26, 1991 at the age of 75.
So, why have I spent so much time in telling you about this man? And what does he have to do with being a flâneur in 21st century America?
I personally believe there is something to be learned in his approach to life.
In his own words, he never looked back. He kept moving forward – even though he wanted to look back, and it was painful for him not to do so. And this is what most of us do. We look back, and we fret at why things didn't go the way we wanted them to. And we don't move forward. We stay stuck.
But look at what he accomplished in his life by not looking back - or by fretting over the present. Here was a 12-year old child who was essentially abandoned in a foreign country, halfway around the globe from his own home, never to see his parents or his home again.
I cannot even begin to fathom the trauma and despair and sadness this young man experienced so early in his young life. Yet he did not allow the circumstances of this life to crush him. He coped and persevered, and ultimately became remarkably successful. I personally believe he had a guiding Hand. And perhaps that Hand is evidenced in one of his songs, “Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere” – an uncharacteristically somber song that he generally only sung by request, and when he did, tears would reportedly often flow from his eyes.
One of his longtime show business associates who worked with Gaillard from 1965 through 1972 was Mariah Adams, aka Marian Vee, who asserts that the song was in actuality a prayer that came to him from God.
None of us will ever know that for sure, except perhaps Slim. But when you research this man, it becomes evident that despite the incredible fears, sorrows and loneliness this life must have given him, he remained universally known for his genial disposition, off-the-wall sense of humor, intelligence and talent, and that he always had a smile for those around him. There was no self-pity here.
So you look at this talented, hip, surreal jazz musician at his peak by the late 1940's, and when you come to realize the circumstances of his life story, you can't help but marvel how he evolved into the entertainer he became.
In 1986, the BBC produced a remarkable four-part series on this man's life and music. Like Slim himself, the documentary is a bit surreal in parts, but it probably provides the most in-depth look at this man we will ever get.
He was clearly a free spirit, being guided I think, by something greater than himself. Always moving forward. Always reaching out to others with a smile and wit. Making those around him laugh. The qualities of a good flâneur, I think.
And despite the fact that few people today remember him, he led a most remarkable life. Certainly an instructive example for me. Maybe you too, once you get to know him.
© 2016 David Nogar All Rights Reserved
If you're so inclined, the 4-part, 4-hour BBC documentary entitled, "Slim Gaillard's Civilization," is currently available on YouTube, and you can access each of the episodes from the links below. There are also many, many other videos of Slim Gaillard performances available on YouTube for those interested in researching him further.
David Nogar worked in railroad operations for almost 50 years until retiring from the transportation business in early 2023.