America may be the home of the blues, but for Memphis Slim the grass was greener overseas.
The veteran blues pianist and singer, who makes a rare local appearance tonight at McCabe's in Santa Monica, was a popular performer in the United States until he shifted his base of operations to Paris 25 years ago.
"I think everybody has a place and I decided to stay in Europe because I found out this was the place for me," said Slim, 70, by phone from Austin, Tex. "I didn't have that rat race. I didn't have to go to an agency and ask for a job, and they'd get the magazine like Cash Box and say, 'Gee whiz, you're not even in the Top 100.' I'm just a free-lancing musician and the agencies call me from all over Europe."
Slim said it wasn't the cosmopolitan bustle of the big cities that initially attracted him to the Continental life.
"When I first came to France, I played the smaller towns and I would stay in people's homes," he said. "Sometimes, there'd be 35 or 40 people and they'd all give maybe 100 francs apiece. We'd just play and drink, go to bed and the next morning they'd bring my breakfast.
"It was something exciting that I had never encountered before. If I had played Paris first, I would probably still have been here in America because all big, metropolitan cities are the same thing."
Born Peter Chatman, Slim was part of a vast family that included members of the influential Mississippi Shieks group and Delta blues pioneer Charley Patton. He got his start playing Memphis clubs with a style that closely resembled that of Roosevelt Sykes.
Slim soon established his own sound and spent several years working with the influential guitarist Big Bill Broonzy in Chicago during the early '40s. He formed his House Rockers band in mid-decade.
His popularity was spurred in the late '40s when his song "Nobody Loves Me" (better known as "Every Day I Have the Blues") was recorded by many artists, including B. B. King and Count Basie. Memphis Slim and the House Rockers also provided musical accompaniment for lectures on blues and jazz by a University of Chicago professor named S. I. Hayakawa.
As a senator from California 30 years later, Hayakawa would sponsor a U.S. Senate resolution designating Slim an official U.S. good-will ambassador-at-large.
Slim worked regularly through the '50s until moving to France. Together with bassist-songwriter Willie Dixon, he helped organize the American Folk Blues Festivals that exposed premier American blues artists throughout Europe during the '60s. He has also recorded extensively for European labels.
He began appearing in the United States again a few years ago, and his witty stage patter and rolling piano is usually augmented only by a jazz-oriented drummer.
"I have my own thing and my bass player is my left hand," he said. "I use a drummer because it's no big deal to find a drummer to follow you. I'm not playing my records because I don't know what I'm going to play. My program is the audience. I feel the audience out and what they like best is the kind of groove I try to stay in because I'm a storyteller."
One of the few early blues artists to retain copyright control over his songs, Slim has received some portion of the royalties due him. His return to performing in the United States prompted him to start a book that he promises will straighten out some things about the blues--including erroneous reports of his death three years ago.
"All my life, I've been positive," he said. "Nothing surprises me, musically speaking, because I knew what I wanted to do, I did what I wanted to do and I'm doing what I want to do. I can say one thing: I must be one of the few blues singers, if not the only one, that has no regrets about anything I ever encountered in my life."