South Side SlimSweetback Blues: The Twelve Bar Tale of South Side Slim travels the harrowing streets and plumbs the artistic soul of a modern day soldier for the blues. Far from some pat redemption yarn of "poor boy makes good," the protagonist here is as unsettling as his folk predecessor, John the Conqueror: unruly saint and endearing trickster. Beautifully written in twelve bar structure, complete with introductory riffs and turnarounds, this narrative nonfiction echoes the very music it celebrates. The bluesman typically sings his seven-stanza story in first person; likewise, these seven chapters get personal in the distinctive voice of Los Angeles blues veteran, South Side Slim. Over one hundred hours of recorded interviews were transcribed, verified, and distilled into eighty-eight bars, vignettes, of page-turning drama.

Hailed "the formidable guitar modernist" by Living Blues magazine, Slim has recently toured in Italy, Britain, and Germany.

 


 

Lovin' the Blues South L.A. Style
By Kari Fretham

Kari Fretham Book Signing"I am giving my life to the blues." My declaration, made while hiking the Paseo Miramar fire trail above Malibu in the fall of 2001, not only surprised my friend, but frankly, it was news to me. Although not sure what this anointing would look like, I was eager to submit.

There were early signs on the farm in Minnesota that this raunchy, heartfelt music would take over my life. Few memories predate the conviction that my Creator, finished with everything inside, tossed a coin for the final skin decision. Heads black. Tails white. Tails it was, so into the Scandinavian north I landed.

One generation from Sweden, Mom insisted that top volume Mahalia Jackson wake us Sunday mornings, and when Amosandra was born on the Amos 'n' Andy radio show within a year of my own birth, she arrived via Montgomery Ward mail order to rarely leave my side.

I noticed blues for the first time as a distinct sound in the mid-eighties when B.B. King seduced me in a Napa Valley art gallery. His electronic wooing laid a love on me so strong that I had trouble choosing any music other than the blues ever after. My pronouncement in the Santa Monica Mountains sent me on a mission. I ferreted out clubs, attended festivals, danced my heart out. But something was amiss. Even though my booty was generally shaking, my soul was rarely stirred.

Eschewing more nights filled with tired covers the likes of Mustang Sally, I decided to head south, to the Delta, to find real blues. Although festivals excited me, the thought of finding out of the way clubs, and maybe even a juke joint or two, brought me to near palpitations. Maps of Mississippi adorned my bedroom door. I rented obscure videos, obsessed over books and articles. I was going to the South, to plantation slave quarters and burial grounds, to gas stations at highway crossroads that would feed my hunger with catfish and helpings of Robert Johnson’s mystique. I would search out the very nooks and crannies that made the blues the blues. In the South, where it all began, I would feel the vibe of real blues for sure. I was right. Going south was the direction to go. However, it didn't have to be two thousand miles by jet. I could get there driving my car down five miles of freeway.

Los Angeles' south side, blues holy ground in my back yard, didn't open for me until I was a mere three weeks from my Southern pilgrimage.

It started with a weekly listing pointing me to Babe and Ricky's in Leimert Park, the artsy afro-centric neighborhood, for a Monday night blues jam. I stayed until closing – hearing solid blues and eating good soul food.

As I exited the club, I noticed South Side Slim and told him I liked how he played during the jam. After selling me a CD, we exchanged numbers. The next morning he called, and we shared a few thoughts about the blues. After hanging up, I was struck with a profound sense that I should call back and invite him for lunch later in the week.

Slim remembers the night as well. "In late June 2003, I come back from a little tour up in San Francisco. Bein' it was a Monday night, I head over to Babe and Ricky's."
"Tony calls me up, and I do my thing. After I get done playin', I'm on my way out."
"This white guy's out there smokin' a cigarette. 'Hey, dude.'
'Hey man. What's happenin?'
'I really liked your playin'.' We're walkin' along.
He goes, 'Can I buy you a beer before you go?'
"At the time there was this bar, Cheerios, right next to the club. So we're drinkin' beer and shootin' the shit."
"Fixin' to leave, we walk out, sayin' good-bye."
"Right then this woman comes walkin' up and tells me how she liked my playin'. I sell her a CD. Tryin' to see how far I can go, I ask for her number. She surprises me when she gives it to me".
"The next mornin' when I take a break from practicin', I call her."
"We talk a little, and then she goes, 'Ok, thanks for calling.' We hang up, and I'm thinkin' how I'll never be talkin' to her again."
"The next thing I know she calls me back and invites me to come to her place in Venice for lunch. I don't know what I was thinkin', but durin' that call I end up tellin' her how I want someone to write down my story someday."
"On my way over that Friday, I'm thinkin' how I'm goin' to be totally businesslike. We spend a wonderful afternoon. She tells me about this trip she is gettin' ready to go on to the South, to learn more about the blues."
"She's all excited and shows me these tapes. She asks me if I want to watch them with her."
"I go, 'Sure.' I'm thinkin', 'Wow. She's really serious about this.' "
"She puts a tape in, and we start watchin'. I look at her, and she's all into these guys with no teeth playin' their music."
"I figure, if she's that serious, she just might have enough guts to go with me to the places on the south side where I would be hangin' if I wasn't at her house. I knew everybody, so I figured it would be cool. I mention it, and she's all for it."
"We go to this one juke joint, Bell's Garage, first and hang out, and then we go over to Joe's, what we call The Barnyard, another juke joint, and I play some."

When Slim pushed aside the chain link gate and walked us into a junkyard that summer night, up ahead flames were cresting the edges of a rusted barrel. We made our way past used building supplies and sinks and shower doors from gutted bathrooms. Drums, bass and guitar were laying down the groove for a slow blues. Slim took me to one of the mismatched office chairs in a shed of sorts. As I sat there facing a stage of pallets covered with stained carpet listening to this old blues guy growling his heart out, I knew I would not be leaving anytime soon. My hunger for bona fide blues was being satisfied - just like that.

"Writin' a book was the main thing, according to Slim. I always wished I could have someone to tell my story to and decipher it in the proper way. At first I was tellin' her because I wanted her to recognize my intellectual capacity, to recognize I was serious about my aspirations."

"So it was amazin' that she actually took authorship. The kind of person that could absorb the situation. And let me be exactly who I was. Acceptance, man. Eventually she pulled me into the conversations because she understood what I was tryin' to explain."

From then on, a week did not go by when I was not immersed in South Los Angeles, soaking up the sounds and conversations in juke joints, bars and clubs, bungalow garages and trucking yards. And throughout those years, I painstakingly recorded Slim's story: pretending with a broom in the Oakland of the Black Panthers, pursuing recognition amid shootings and selling in Hollywood, and finally sitting down and playing, homeless and alone, in a South Central Los Angeles trucking yard.

I transcribed the tapes and externally verified accuracy. Keeping the first person blues storyteller voice, I distilled Slim's adventures down into eighty-eight vignettes – four to introduce the groove followed by seven twelve-bar stanza chapters -- echoing the music that Sweetback Blues: The Twelve Bar Tale of South Side Slim celebrates.

So Kari,
You danced the dervish, You opened your heart,
You joyed in the juke, Gave your life to blues,
You sang the sweetback, You searched for deep soul,
You told the tale's truth. South L.A. gave it to you.

© Kari Fretham July 2011