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The SLIM GAILLARD Profile by Mike Zwerin


The Man Who Was God
First Published International Herald Tribune, January 3rd, 1984 

Slim Gaillard had a lot of good stories to tell and he knew how to tell them. Now considered a legend, he was lean and tall with a salt and pepper Brillo beard and a constant gleam in his eye that made you wonder just how tall some of his stories were.

For example, you may have been skeptical when he said: "I invented the word 'groovy.'" But few would dispute his claim to be the father of the Voutie language, which goes something like this: "Voutie oroony macvoosie ohfoosimo." Never mind what it means, it's just manic nonsense - although "how 'bout some bourbonoroonie" is self explanatory. And for sure he wrote songs called "Yip Roc, Hereesy," inspired by an Armenian menu, "Motzah Balls," Avocado Seed Soup Symphony," "Flat Foot Floogie" ("with a floy-floy") and "Cement Mixer" ("puttie puttie").

You might have raised your eyebrows when he told you: "There are two pages about me in Jack Kerouac's 'On The Road,'" but there they are: "One night we went to see Slim Gaillard in a little Frisco nightclub. In Frisco great eager crowds of semi-intellectuals sat at his feet and listened to him on the piano, guitar and bongo drums...Now Dean approached him, he approached his God; he thought Slim Gaillard was God."

Many years ago, when Gaillard was a guest on the Bob Hope radio show, Hope asked his other guest, Marlene Dietrich: "What do you think of Slim Gaillard?" She answered: "Vout." That's a fact. He had it on tape. Although we just have to take his word for it that "Ronald Reagan used to come in with Jane Wyman when I was working at Billy Berg's in Hollywood; even Ronald Reagan was saying 'vout.'"

There is hard evidence that Gaillard once led a band called Henry Sausage and his Pork Chops ("we fry, man"). And that the sheet music to "Flat Foot Floogie" went into the 1939 New York World's Fair time capsule, along with "Rhapsody In Blue" and "Stars and Stripes Forever."

"Flat Foot Floogie" and "Cement Mixer" became hits in the late 1930s when Gaillard teamed up with the bassist Slam Stewart as Slim And Slam. They cut versions of them with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-1940s. They were historic dates that were an introduction to bebop for a lot of young musicians. They include some rare jive-talking by Bird. (Gaillard has come to be considered one of the forefathers of rap.) These tracks were out of the catalogue until Gaillard reissued them in London last year [November, 1983], as an album called "The Roots of Voutie." Gaillard explained that he had gone to London "for two weeks over a year ago and I'm still there." He had music publishing companies in London and Los Angeles, he owned fruit orchards near Tacoma in the state of Washington and real estate near Miami.

He flew around a lot between them. Not long before our interview, he had been on a flight to London when the pilot announced that everything was fine at 37,000 feet, except that due to a malfunctioning electrical system there would be no water during the flight. "I was a bomber pilot in World War II," Gaillard said, "and I'd studied hydraulic systems and electrical systems so I asked the stewardess if I could help. She brought the engineer down to speak to me and then I went back up with him."

Gaillard had been attached to the legendary black squadron in the Air Corps when the armed forces were still segregated during World War II. (Bassist Percy Heath was a fighter pilot.) Gaillard learned how airplanes work at Sheppard Field, Texas: "Part of our training down there was I practiced taking engines apart and putting them back together again day after day using minimum tools and minimum light. So I told the engineer: 'The problem can't be electrical because you've got steam coming out of the faucets but no water.' We looked at the schematic drawing together and I said: "Here's your first valve up here. You've got it closed. Open that up. Go back to the trailing end of the plane and shut those last two off. Now push all the breakers so everything is open up front. Wait about five minutes and then open up those last two valves again. But open them at the same time and fast.' And you know what? Heeeere comes the water."

He began playing music in the speakeasies: "Way before bebop. Way way far far before - many many many years far before bebop. Al Capone loved musicians. Maybe some of his other activities were undesirable, but he was always very nice to me." Years later musicians would talk more or less the same way about Morris Levy, who owned Birdland and Roulette Records in New York.

Born in Detroit, Gaillard moved to New York after hearing that theatrical agents in the Brill Building on Broadway were looking for professional amateurs. He went and passed the audition: "We played the vaudeville circuit and radio shows, like Major Bowes. Theaters had amateur nights once a week back in the '30s. They'd announce us: 'Here they come, all the hopefuls.' Well, we may have been hopeful but we weren't amateurs. "They paid $16 a show. I did one of those with Frank Sinatra. I got $16, he got $16. Every time I saw him after that I said: 'You got a raise yet?' I would be a tap dancer this week, next week I'd play guitar, boogie-woogie piano two weeks later. They'd change your name, they called me Bobo once. They'd time you, make sure you had your act down. Of course you had to be a little bad here and there, not too bad but kinda sorta. If you were too good, you'd lose the amateur image they were trying to present. 'Flat Foot Floogie' came from a riff I used to play on Major Bowes. When I got a check, advance against royalties, for $250, I thought it was a mistake. I thought it was supposed to be $2.50. Then Benny Goodman played it and soon everybody was singing it."

After being part of the original Jazz At The Philharmonic package, along with Billie Holiday and Coleman Hawkins, he went on a long series of one-nighters opening for Stan Kenton at the end of the 1950s. It was then that he decided to pack up touring, because: "I was eating one, missing ten. I'd start a hamburger today and finish it the day after tomorrow."

He was happy to be able to get a regular, leisurely, early breakfast - or late dinner, depending on what side of the day you live on - in a Hollywood restaurant where: "All the comics would come in after the shows and tell jokes they couldn't use in public. Danny Thomas, Milton Berle, Joey Bishop, Johnny Carson. One morning, an agent looked at me and said: 'You're just the type I need for a part.' I said: 'I'm a musician not an actor.'"

Gaillard, who had become a star attraction in Los Angeles clubs on his own, read for the part anyway. The director liked him, he got a part in a television series called "Along Came Bronson" - followed by character roles in "Marcus Welby," "Mission Impossible," "Charlie's Angels," Medical Center" and "Roots." ("I played good guys.") He'd already had roles in the movies "Helzapoppin," "Too Late Blues" (directed by John Cassavetes) and "Star-Spangled Rhythm." (People said he was a real-life character right out of "Alice In Wonderland.")

He bought his fruit orchard near Tacoma with his acting money. For several years during the 1960s, he managed a motel in San Diego. One way or another, he figured he was one lucky jazz musician to have weathered the rocky Age of Aquarius.

His daughter married the singer Marvin Gaye. (Gaillard claps his hands in the background on one track of Gaye's hit album "Sexual Healing.") "A few years ago," said Gaillard, "something told Marvin not to fly. He had a premonition. He got scared. He was about to cancel a big tour. 'I consider you like my own father,' he said to me: 'What should I do?' I told him 'I'm going to hypnotize you.' The tour went just fine. You see, I'm a hypnotist as well."

Early in 1982, Dizzy Gillespie passed through Tacoma and they hung out together. Gillespie told Gaillard he really ought to play music again. "No. I like it up here with my apples," Gaillard replied. "Anyway, I'm an actor not a musician."

Gillespie followed through with promoter George Wein's festival office in New York, and after a series of insistent transcontinental telephone calls, Gaillard weakened. He played the European festival circuit for a summer, started working clubs like the Patio Bar of the Meridien Hotel in Paris. And it didn't take long before: "I got that old music feeling again. Lot's of people had been wondering what I'd been up to lately. They say I'm an historic figure. You see? I don't say it. But I let them say it."

No matter who said what, it was a comeback. He sang his old hits and played guitar and piano (sometimes with the backs of his hands) at an international assortment of festivals, concert halls and clubs. His striking looks, smokey voice and surreal sense of humor made Gaillard a star once more. Until he was shot down by cancer in 1991.

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