An individual exhibiting such uniqueness or individuality that he or she will cause a roomful of bar cronies to exclaim, "That's one interesting motherfucker!" Actual sexual relations with one's mother are not required.
When I was a kid I spent my summers in the backwoods of Montana where my Dad was building a log cabin. The process took him years; he first built out the large room that would become the living area but in the early stages served as a workshop. Eventually he got around to laying the foundation of the rest of the house by mixing and pouring a cement base. It was around this time he began incessantly singing what I thought was a very stupid song. It went like this:
Cement Mixer putti-putti
And some other bits I've long forgotten.
At the time I figured this was just some oddball child nursery rhyme of my Dad's generation. It is only very recently that I learned the song was the product of the eclectic performer/musician Slim Gaillard. Gaillard, primarily active during the middle of the 20th century, recorded with jazz giants Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, invented his own nonsensical language called "Vout-O-Reenee" and penned numerous songs often focused on everyday objects like restaurant menus, bagels and cement mixers.
And snack foods. What has quickly become my favorite song of his is entitled "Potato Chips" and I present it here. Take a listen.
I feel this tune serves as an excellent introduction to the appeal of Gaillard. Quickly noticed are the silly but fun lyrics that everyone can relate to. (Who hasn't made an entire lunch out of a bag of potato chips?) On top of that is some very credible jazz musicianship (though noticeably absent is Gaillard's distinctive guitar.)
But I don't feel that gets to the root of it. I personally find the song fascinating and can listen to it over and over. Why? I think part of it is the rhythmic flow Gaillard brings to the songs. (The lyrics are as much spoken as sung.) As is standard in jazz performance the notes of the songs don't line up in perfect meter---some are held back and others arrive early. (He rushes the first instance of "I don't want no lunch" so that the word "lunch" falls slightly ahead of the beat.) It gives everything a slightly off-kilter feel that keeps the listener subconsciously guessing. And then there's pure enthusiasm for the song and it's subject. You really believe that his "mouth just drips." But you can hear the chuckles coming through---Gaillard knows full well how silly the tune is.
Like many of the stars of the 30s and 40s, the exact details of Gaillard biography are hard to ascertain (and some of what is reported sounds too outlandish to be true.) Purportedly, he was born in Detroit but spent much of his childhood in Cuba (you do notice a Caribbean accent in videos of him speaking.) His father was a ship steward who occasionally took his son along and by one account, Slim was actually left on the Greek island of Crete at the age of 12. He made his way back to Detroit and fell into a series of eclectic jobs: mortician, boxer and even rum runner. But eventually he took up professional music, first gaining notoriety as part of the the musical duo "Slim and Slam" (featuring stand up bass player Slam Stewart.)
Gaillard's skills as a musician are clearly evident on the various recorded performances easily found on Youtube. Possessing giant hands, Gaillard had full reach of the notes of the piano and could knock out bebop runs with the best of them. He was also an accomplished guitarist who played with a bluesy style reminiscent of the first great jazz guitarist, Charlie Christian. But more than just playing these instruments, Gaillard performed on them. One of his parlor tricks was to play skilled piano parts with his hands upside down. (He also played the keyboard with his elbows, feet (as Jerry Lee Lewis would later) and in one case, a lemon.) Slim also employed a guitar playing technique later used by heavy metal virtuosos, playing scales via the untraditional form of placing his fretting hand above the neck of the guitar, as if pounding out letters on a typewriter.
But Gaillard's music abilities were always subservient to his performance personality, that of a smiling, goofball who was self-aware enough to avoid becoming a clown---kind of like a really fun uncle. He sang and wrote tunes such as "Cement Mixer" and "Potato Chips", but also "The Flat Foot Floogie", "Ya Ha Ha," "Matzo Balls", "Yep-Roc-Heresay" and many more. Check out this little number I've seen called either "Chicken Rhythm" or "The Dirty Rooster."
As with "Potato Chips," even Slim couldn't keep a straight face.
Many of his songs sound as if they were rough lyrics brought into the the studio and then expanded upon live, either with his tangential ruminations (Check out his version of " How High the Moon" which replaces most of the original lyrics with free verse on planetary movement, saxophones and potato salad) or his invented language, Vout-O-Reenee. In almost every public appearance, Gaillard peppered his conversation with excess syllables and phrases drawn from his personal vernacular. (He even penned a Vout-O-Reenee dictionary.)
In some ways Gaillard suffered from the curse of all comical musicians---the funny ends up distracting from the music. As I've gone through his oeuvre I've been greatly entertained but also find myself wondering "why hadn't I heard of this guy until now?" Part of the blame, I think, lies in Gaillard's presentation as a novelty act. This is despite the fact that, among musicians of a certain era, he was known as a skilled jazz improviser (on two instruments no less.) And he performed many shows later in his career at "serious" jazz festivals.
Gaillard's musical heyday really ended in the 50s. He dropped out of sight for a while (reportedly running a motel in my current habitat of San Diego) but in the late 60s and 70s Gaillard reappeared as an actor in popular television shows of the day including the groundbreaking TV mini-series Roots. From there Slim oozed back into music, having a successful second act in the jazz scene of Europe. (This spawned another great tune of his: "Everything's OK in the U.K.") A later appearance of Gaillard can be found on the late 80s music show " Night Music" where Slim knocks out "Flat Foot Floogie" and the jazz standard "Take the A Train." He remained musically active until close to his end, expiring from cancer in 1991 at the age of 75. He could not have foreseen the rise of the internet just around the corner or know that so many of his musical performances were about to become available to the masses. I think he'd like that.
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at firstname.lastname@example.org
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