Sometimes a song, a blues song, filled with venom, emerges into the world coiled, contained and poised to strike. A song which as the venom circulates round the listener’s bloodstream commands surrender even as they ready themselves for the next strike.
Songs like this from the 1940s and 1950s often had as big, or a bigger, effect on fellow artists as they did on the radio and jukebox audiences. Especially if the song had an arresting instrumental riff that every self respecting guitar player just knew, in their hands, stretched out, would really blow the roof off their hometown honky-tonk.
Played over and over by hundreds of artists such a song becomes part of the DNA of the blues and showcasing a distinctive take on it a rite of passage for the would be guitar slinger out to make a name for themselves.
Featured today on The Immortal Jukebox is just such a song, ‘The Things I Used To Do’, Guitar Slim’s Rhythm & Blues classic from 1953.
Now don’t you feel snake bit? From the opening notes you know this song will bore deep into you and that there will be no escape from its clutches. As the song proceeds at irresistible lava flow pace the stinging, swooping distorted guitar figure seems to slow time while the languorous booze fuelled vocal, stately piano and swirling brasses wreath you in a narcotic mind haze that envelops all your senses so that the end of the record always seems a jolt waking you up from a delicious dream you never wanted to end. So play it again and relive the dream!
Guitar Slim, born Eddie Jones in Greenwood Mississippi in late 1926, was inspired, like so many, as a guitar player by T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown. His own style developed initially in New Orleans saw him learning to use amp distortion to boost the impact of his Les Paul’s sharp trebly sound. He performed and sang with a gospel fervour that quickly won him a loyal audience in the blues clubs.
In addition he developed a show stopping stage act where the audience were treated to the sight of Slim decked out in a shimmering suit with hair dyed to match blasting out aggressive solos at high volume while sauntering through a club trailing a couple of hundred feet of guitar lead behind him. Once seen Guitar Slim was never forgotten! Listen to the great Buddy Guy explain the effect seeing Guitar Slim had on him!
‘The Things I Used To Do’ benefitted from the piano and arranging skills of a youthful Ray Charles who patiently coaxed Slim, over many takes, to deliver the recorded performance that has such a lovely spontaneous feel. Joining Slim in the J&M studio in New Orleans were Frank Mitchell on Trumpet, Gus Fontenette on Alto Sax, Charles Burbank and Joe Tillman played Tenor Sax with a rhythm section of Oscar Moore on Drums and Lloyd Lambert on Bass completing the lineup.
The record, issued by Art Rupe’s Specialty Records label, became a huge hit spending 14 weeks at No 1 on the R&B chart and easily selling over a million copies. The song became a Jukebox staple and almost an anthem across the South – especially in Texas and Louisiana.
Though Slim was never to have another record with the visceral, nothing can stop this being a hit impact of ‘Things’ his Specialty material features many wonderfully intense performances like, ‘Reap What You Sow’, ‘Story of My Life’ and, ‘Sufferin’ Mind’ demonstrating his brilliant guitar/vocal interplay.
Guitar Slim lived life with the accelerator pressed firmly to the floor seemingly scornful of the effect this would inevitably have on his health and career. Troubled by alcoholism Guitar Slim died in February 1959 aged only 32.
Yet, I’ll bet that in a blues club somewhere this week someone is bound to say, ‘Here’s one you might remember from the 1950s’ and launch into, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ certain that the audience whether or not they are scholars of the blues will fall under its unbreakable spell.
As a bonus treat I’m going to feature two superb versions of, ‘Things’ by two master blues guitarists – Buddy Guy and Albert Collins.
First up an imperious live outing from 1991 by Buddy who had listened closely to Guitar Slim in Louisiana before his arrival in Chicago in 1957. Once there Buddy impressed everybody with the power and intensity of his playing and soon those in the know were confidently proclaiming that the new heavyweight champion of Blues Guitar was none other than Buddy Guy.
Buddy has regularly featured, ‘Things’ in his set so that it often feels like he uses it as a touchstone of his youth and a battery charger to fire him up in performance. And, when Buddy fires we all get gloriously burned!
In conclusion here’s a lyrical, hypnotic version by Houston born Albert ‘Iceman’ Collins. Albert is one of those players who has a tone and touch that’s wholly individual and thus instantly recognisable.
It’s more than 60 years now since Guitar Slim cut, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ but from where I’m listening it still sounds newly minted and surprising every time it’s played. I think you call that a classic.
‘Sufferin’ Mind’ on Specialty Records and, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ on UK Ace Records are both fine Guitar Slim compilations well worth your attention.
I have picked out 2 from the hordes of covers of, ‘Things’ above. Something of the reach of the song is indicated by further versions I have enjoyed you might care to look out for:
The Fabulous Thunderbirds
Gary Clark and Jimmy Vaughan
Pee Wee Crayton
Stevie Ray Vaughan
And during Van Morrison’s epic 70th Birthday Cyprus Avenue concerts what should he segue into from a contemplative, ‘Enlightenment’ but …. The Things I Used To Do!