It was at a free concert on London’s South Bank; one of the many events put on by the soon-to-be-abolished Greater London Council. The open air event was held in Jubilee Gardens, where the London Eye is situated today. I’d shown up with friends to cheer on the likes of Billy Bragg and Eddy Grant, but it was an amazing old feller in a beret and a wild beard grooving away on piano that caught the imagination. I don’t think he was even on the main stage, just somewhere off in a sideshow tent.
Slim Gaillard was in his 70s by this time, and was clearly not only a fantastic jazz piano player but a great entertainer – here he was teaching an audience of tribal London teens how to speak a language called ‘vouteroonie’. The man was hilarious, and had everyone singing crazy doggerel songs like Dunkin’ Bagels, Avocado Seed Soup Symphony and the Flat Foot Floogie with the Floy Floy. His slanguage rooted in early jazz and swing. What he was doing sharing the bill with the cream of London’ radical chic I had no idea.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Slim Gaillard was one of the original skat jazz pioneers, and had made records with the finest names in the genre. Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Jordan, Fats Waller… the list is endless.
He’d started out as part of a popular duo Slim and Slam back in the 30s. Their hits – including such gems as “Cement Mixer (Putti Putti)” and the hipster anthem, The Groove Juice Special – were full of made-up language, doggerel and nonsense syllables. Gaillard, it turned out, knew eight languages and worked in elements from all kinds of cultures. A lot of scat was call and response black gospel style with a sweeping structure that had a touch of yiddish cantorial songs about it.
Slim Gaillard – whose father was German-Jewish, a cook on cruise ships – was aware how yiddish was a kind of in-group slang amongst some of the musicians and club-owners he came across. Dropping the odd yiddish word or phrase into the mix was fast becoming part of the language of jazz, and Slim was a master Yiddishist, with songs like Matzo Balls and Dunkin’ Bagels.
Slim’s way with words convinced some folks that he was putting hidden messages in his music.
Take his song Yep Roc Heresay. Radio bosses were convinced that his song had coded references to crime and drugs. It turned out that the lyrics Slim used in this case were partly taken from an Armenian dinner menu.
The story goes that Louis Armstrong invented scat when he dropped his sheet music during a one-take recording and just made up the sounds on the spot. Slim was one of its great exponents. Slim’s lyrics were all over the place and full of words that were taken from the languages he picked up as a kid around the mediterrean. He would sing about anything, even a Cement Mixer, sometimes making up songs on the spot.
Slim even appeared in one of Hollywoods more adventurous film productions of the time, Hellzapoppin’. The movie was a scripted version of an “anything goes” Broadway hit show that was part musical comedy, part “blackout” revue; with sight gags, crazy props, audience participation sequence,s dirty jokes and lots of gunfire to punctuate the scenes. The show was pretty loose and bawdy in its Broadway version, but Universal evended up watering down the whole thing. But Slim and Slam just seem to wander out onto the set and make up another one of their hep songs.
Being a little more familiar with Slim’s shtick these days it’s easy to see his influence on the likes of Chuck Berry (who took a lot of his stagecraft from Slim) and Little Richard, whose bawdy song Tutti Frutti had a classic bit of vouty in its cleaned up chorus. ‘On rooty’, anyone? A wop bop a loo bop a wop bang boom indeed.
The rest of his story is one fabulous musical journey that took him to so many different countries. Thanks to the wonders of YouTube I’ll let Slim himself tell you the rest of the story…
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