The following piece — a capsule appreciation of Memphis Slim's 1951 side "No Mail Blues" — appeared in the 11th annual Southern music edition of The Oxford American, which is available from their website.
Memphis Slim – “No Mail Blues”
by RJ Wheaton
for The Oxford American
Memphis Slim died in Paris in 1988. He had lived in France for more than 20 years. Touring, recording. An autumnal career as “Ambassador-at-Large of Good Will” for the United States. We hear him now as a blues pianist, exemplar of a rarified style. Boogie-woogie, barrelhouse. The licks whirling and tumbling around the beat and scattered across his warmed iron voice.
If you only listen to the right hand you’ll miss what you need to know.
He was born John Chatman in 1915. He took his father’s name -- Peter -- and spent his youth across the south, learning his craft from geniuses of light like Roosevelt Sykes and Speckled Red. A gig at the Midway Cafe on Beale and Fourth. Barrelhouses and juke joints. Rural work camps, a world of violence and caprice. The industrialization of the south: indentured laborers throwing up levees and laying down railroad tracks; building roads and hauling rock from the earth. Chain gangs. Prisoners turned prison guards. Toughs, card sharks, dudes -- villains black and white -- licensed to terrorize workers. Virtuosos of malice and intimidation in a system taut with power and hate.
Life was cheap; work was endless. “Burn out, burn up. Fall out, fall dead,” Memphis Slim told Alan Lomax in 1947. “If you were a good worker, you could kill anybody down there, so long as he’s colored. You could kill anybody -- you could go anywhere.”
And then the Saturday nights. Hundreds of men, over-worked and under-paid. Gambling joints, barrelhouses, honky-tonks. Imagine the noise. Avalanches of voices, glass on glass on wood, feet on floorboards and pounded dust. The itinerant musicians, Memphis Slim among them, trying to hold the room together. You’d better play loud.
A decade in Chicago. He has recorded for OKeh, for Bluebird. He has recorded “Every Day I Have the Blues” for Miracle. It is originally titled “Nobody Loves Me” and will live in the blues repertoire for decades. He has recorded for Hy-Tone and for King. He has recorded “Mother Earth” for Premium. In 1951 he records eight sides for Mercury Records. The publicity photographs from this period are debonair slick. Head cocked; suit and coy smile; the glowing squareface timepiece and silk pocketsquare. The streak of white down the middle of his hair that suggests distinction and trauma and chance and electricity.
Jump: blues pulled lean and taut across a surface of propulsive bass and turbulent horns. How to fill a dancehall with noise if you cannot afford -- or do not have room for -- a big band orchestra. A few years later, with the threat of social upheaval embedded, they would call this music rock & roll.
You’d better play loud.
No Mail Blues is one of those eight sides. Piano, drums, bass, two tenors. Wait before you hear the voice, stretched and laggard behind the beat. Wait before you hear the right hand, fleetfooted and fluid and unweathered above. Hear instead the left hand. Listen to it strong-arm the rhythm section. Held as if within a headlock. Oscar Larkin on drums enters as if percussion were an afterthought. As if rhythm were inevitable. The power of Slim’s left hand is such that it is carried through the verse only by sheer forward motion and by the buoyancy of the two tenor saxophones, Nelson Berry and Neil Green shepherding the song to the chorus before leaning into the microphone. “Lord it must have been / Black cat that crossed my trail.”
This music is urbane, cool, delicious; it stands at the beginning of rhythm and blues with a world of knowledge and force dammed up behind it. Bass and horns punch tunnels of air through the song; the drums slice it into locomotive packets. So much energy. Imagine the hands at the piano. Imagine the man at the piano. You try sitting still through this.
The piano solos break after each verse: a tectonic release of energy, Slim’s hands corralling an orchestra of voices. The third verse launches without piano, his voice skyflighted above the raw components of the song, Henry Taylor’s bass splintered and ricocheting amid the sax and drums, amid spinning shards of music running on inertia and heat as if fused to the air itself.
“I wonder what’s the matter, that I can’t get no mail”. Slim’s voice holds the moment and it knows all the answers. His hands own the center of this song and the air around you.
Nelson Berry and Neil Green lean into the microphone. Saturday night.