Slim Gaillard was a jazz Renaissance man who doubled as its court jester. He played, to one degree or another, nearly all of the most common instruments of jazz, including guitar, piano, organ, drums, vibraphone, and various saxophones; he also composed music and tap-danced. As Bob Home wrote in Downbeat, “His mellow baritone would have more than sufficed for a career as a ballad singer, had his sense of humor not intervened.” It is for his humor that he is most widely remembered and loved. It is immortalized in masterpieces such as “Flat Foot Floogie,” “Yproc Heresy,” “Chicken Rhythm,” “Serenade To A Poodle,” Potato Chips, Dunkin’ Bagels, and “Laughin’ in Rhythm,”all of which are saturated with a dadaist sense of absurdity. Like early dada music, Gaillard sang and composed songs in his own private language—Vout. “Slim Gaillard was a surrealist,”Bruce Crowther wrote in The Jazz Singers, “who, had he been in almost any other branch of the arts, would have been hailed as a great innovator.” This master musician, who early on worked as a professional cook and merchant seaman, turned to acting later in life, appearing in numerous television shows and movies.
Bulee “Slim” Gaillard was, according to most sources, born in Detroit, Michigan. He sometimes claimed to have been born in Cuba, during a stopover on the island by his merchant marine father. More certain is that Gaillard was raised in Detroit where he attended school and studied music for the first time. His first instrument was the vibraphone; piano and guitar eventually became his main instruments, although he was
more or less accomplished on others, including congas, bongos, and different saxophones. In the late 1940s he put his accumulated instrumental talents to work on a song modestly titled “Genius,” an early one-man-band recording, on which through the magic of overdubbing, Gaillard played every instrument—piano, organ, guitar, bass, drums, tenor sax, trombone, and vibes—sang, and capped the effort off with a burst of tap-dancing.
In fact, Gaillard got his start in music as a tap dancing guitar player. He was a regular on the amateur shows that abounded on radio in the early 1930s, including one of the most popular and influential, the Major Bowes Amateur Hour. “I would do a show this week, and two weeks later they’d give me a different name,” Gaillard told Cadence’s Doug Long. “Then I would go on sometimes and I would play harmonica this time and I’d do tap dancing the next time I’d go on. I’d play guitar, then I’d play the bongos or whatever. Every time I’d go on there I’d do something different. But still, the same guy with a different name each time, see? Because, like, it was radio—they couldn’t see you.”
Foremost among the musicians whose work influenced Gaillard was pianist/composer Fats Waller. “I admired him before I got to play professionally much,” Gaillard told Long. “I was actually just studying music, but I admired his work and he was one of my big influences in playing the piano and so forth—his singing and his playing.” Hearing guitarist Charlie Christian was also a revelation for Gaillard and led him around 1937 to buy his first electric guitar. Gaillard eventually got to jam with his guitar idol at New York’s Leland Hotel.
It was around 1937 at another jam session, at Jocks, a Harlem after-hours club, that Gaillard met his first and probably most important musical collaborator, Leroy Stewart. Stewart was a bassist who had just finished a course of studies at the Boston Conservatory of Music and was playing around the Boston club circuit. The two hit it off from the start and Gaillard invited Stewart to appear with him on one of the amateur shows. The conservatory-trained Stewart was little inclined to accept the offer—until he found out it was the famous Major Bowes show,“because it was a PROFESSIONAL amateur show!
Martin Block, a New York disk jockey, heard the duo on the show and approached them with an offer to become their manager. At the time, Gaillard was a mere 23 years old and Stewart only 21; they knew next to nothing about the intricacies of the music business. They accepted and never regretted the decision. From the first, Block wanted to give Stewart a nickname that matched Gaillard’s. After some brainstorming, they settled on “Slam,” from the way a bassist often slams.
Slim and Slam’s first hit was a nonsense ditty entitled “Flat Foot Floogie.” It shot to the top of the Hit Parade where it stayed for eight weeks. Years later, both Slim and Slam admitted that their biggest hit almost had a different name, one that could have affected its commercial appeal. “The song was called before we recorded it ‘Flat Foot Floosie.’ Now you happen to know what a floosie would be—a street walker,” Stewart told Cadence. “We got together with someone down at the station who said they wanted to record us, and when we started to record the number, we said ’flat foot floosie.’ Then somebody got smart and said ‘no, I don’t think you’d better use that word, because it wouldn’t be quite kosher. It might be commercial but it wouldn’t be good for the recording. So we had to do some fast thinking, and the closest thing to that would be ‘the flat foot floogie with the floy floy’.” The song was first recorded for Decca but never released; Block accepted a better offer for the duo to cut it for Columbia-Vocalion.
“Flat Foot Floogie” was such a big hit in its time that it was put in a time capsule buried on the occasion of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. “I get a royalty from the State of New York every year for that underground floy-floy,”
Gaillard told Home in 1968, “and I intend to be around when they open the capsule.” Gaillard was not only a talented musician, he also had a gift for languages. He spoke eight foreign languages: Arabic, Syrian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Armenian, Portuguese, Spanish and fluent Greek. He learned Greek first, of necessity, when his sailor father left him for an extended period on the island of Crete when Slim was in his teens.
But Gaillard did not merely learn languages, he invented them. “He created a new language which only the hip could understand (and even they were not always too sure),” wrote Crowther. “This language, known as Vout, allowed him to compose, often instantaneously, weird, yet curiously logical fantasy tales which were superbly rhythmic.” Vout permeated Gaillard’s singing and speech. He used it to introduce “Flat Foot Floogie:” “Flaginzy at flagat, flaginzy ooh flagoo-jigee.” At Duke Ellington’s and Billy Strayhorn’s request he contributed a single bar in Vout—“switcheroony”—to the song “Satin Doll.” Vout reached an apogee of artistic perfection in the sublime “Yproc Heresy,” a mellow ballad sung entirely in Vout. He even published a Vout dictionary, and described one of the definitions to Long: “Like, voutie-o-roony-mo means super extra happy and good. It means everything is voutie, like roony-o, you know.”
Slim and Slam, considered by many the high point of Gaillard’s career, lasted until 1941 when he was drafted into the army. Slam went on to play with Lester Young and Art Tatum. The duo would not perform together again until the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1970. Slim returned Stateside in 1945, at the height of bebop. By then he represented an older form of jive jazz that some fans and musicians already found a little old-fashioned. But while playing a Los Angeles club called Billy Berg’s, Gaillard found himself sharing the bill with the Dizzy Gillespie Sextet, a group that included bebop potentate, saxophonist Charlie Parker. West Coast audiences didn’t care for the music Parker and Gillespie were making. But when Gaillard organized a recording session in December 1945, he invited them to take part. The result was “Slim’s Jam,” which he later claimed was the first recording on which Parker ever spoke. Gaillard would later play frequently with Parker and his various bands at New York’s Birdland.
In March of 1946, Gaillard was involved in the kind of controversy that would repeat itself often over the coming decades. He and Harry “The Hipster” Gibson had a hit record with their song“Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine.” The lyrics were chock full of Gaillard whimsy, but there was other subject matter that straight audiences found unpleasant: “She’s never, ever been so happy since she left old Ireland/Till someone prowled her pantry—man—and tampered with her can! (Wham!)/She stays up nights making all the rounds/They say she’s lost about fifty-seven pounds,/Mr. Murphy claims she’s getting awful thin,/And all she says is ’Gimme some skin!’ (Mop!)” A Los Angeles radio station objected to what it saw as the glorification of drugs and banned all of Gaillard and Gibson’s music from its airwaves. A station exec quoted in Time explained “Be-bop … tends to make degenerates out of our young listeners.” The ban predictably resulted in packed houses for the duo and an invitation to Gaillard to appear on Bing Crosby’s radio show.
Gaillard recorded some good albums for the Verve label in the middle 1950s. But with the rise of rock ‘n roll in the early Sixties, Gaillard retired from performing and recording. He was coaxed back to playing in clubs by singer Marion Vee around 1966. The two performed together for a couple of years, incorporating new novelty items into the act, such as taking a business card from a member of the audience and spontaneously creating a jazz commercial. The bit was so successful that they were asked to produce some genuine commercials for Los Angeles radio.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Gaillard devoted himself more to his second career, acting. After he was approached at a club in Hollywood by an agent who thought he would look good on the screen, Gaillard auditioned for a part in the TV series Then Came Bronson, and to his surprise won it—he wasn’t completely new to the screen, however; in the 1930s he had appeared as a musician in movies such as Hellzapoppin’, but he had never acted before. Before long he was appearing regularly in television shows like Marcus Welby, Medical Center, Roots — The Second Generation, Medical Center, and Love, American Style. In the 1980s he had a role in the film Absolute Beginners, which starred David Bowie.
For many years Gaillard lived in California on a farm where he raised cherries, apples and pears. In the 1980s he settled in London, England. He led his last recording session at the age of 66 there in 1982. The Penguin Guide to Jazz on Compact Disc wrote of the records Gaillard cut for the Hep Records label, “His energy is extraordinary and his mind constantly, laterally inventive.” His last appearance in the recording studio took place in 1990 when he performed on the Dream Warriors’ single “Easy to Put Together, But Hard To Take Apart.”