Like many African Americans of his generation, John “Peter” Chatman – better known as Memphis Slim – was forged by the fires of racism and poverty, only to emerge as one of the world’s greatest blues pianists.
An extraordinarily prolific artist who created over 500 recordings during his lifetime, Chatman used his soulful voice and booming piano to bring an imposing air of authority to his unique brand of music and was instrumental in bridging the gap between traditional and urban blues.
Born in Memphis in 1915, Chatman was exposed to the blues at a very young age by his family, whose members were some of the earliest blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta. His father Peter Chatman led a group called the Washboard Band, which featured the influential blues pianist Roosevelt Sykes. Inspired by Sykes, the young Chatman began to teach himself the piano and was soon touring in juke joints and dancehalls throughout the Southeast. According to Chatman, these excursions allowed him to gain the experiences that would soon go into his voluminous collection of songs.
In 1939, Chatman, like many great blues musicians before and after him, moved to Chicago to join the vibrant local music scene. He quickly found himself in company with some of the city’s most well-respected blues musicians, most notably guitarist Big Bill Broonzy and harmonica player “Sonny Boy” Williamson. As homage to his father, Chatman soon began recording with Okeh Records under the name Peter Chatman before moving to the legendary Bluebird Records in 1940. With a suggestion from Bluebird producer Lester Melrose, Chatman began performing under the name Memphis Slim.
At Bluebird, Memphis Slim released his first hit single “Beer Drinkin’ Woman” and was a regular session musician for the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson and Jazz Gillum. Many of his performances were with Big Bill Broonzy, who had recruited him to fill in for his recently-deceased piano player.
Under Broonzy’s guidance, Slim was encouraged to develop his own style and to stop emulating his early idol Roosevelt Sykes. And develop his own style he did. Characterized by a dynamic beat and incessant bass, Memphis Slim would punish the keys and sing with his thunderous voice, using the skills that he had picked up while playing at boisterous clubs earlier in his career.
After several years of serving as Broonzy's priceless accompanist, Memphis Slim began his own band following the end of WWII. The band, called the House Rockers, reflected the national craze for jump-blues and included saxophone, bass, drums, and, of course, piano. With his band in tow, Memphis Slim moved to Lee Egalnick's Miracle label in 1946 and began cutting some of his most influential and enduring recordings. While songs such as "Rockin' the House," "Messin' Around," and "Angel Child" all became hits for Slim, others like "Nobody Loves Me" (more popularly known under the title "Everyday I Have the Blues") became blues standards and huge hits for later artists like B.B. King.
Another dynamic shift in Slim's sound came with the addition of Matt "Guitar" Murphy, a guitarist who had previously played with Howlin' Wolf. The addition of Murphy in 1952 added a balancing counterpoint to Slim's thunderous vocals and a new dimension to the band's sound. Throughout the 1950s, Memphis Slim also collaborated often with bassist Willie Dixon, another prolific blues musician of the day.
With the introduction of rock ‘n’ roll, the American audience’s interest in traditional blues began to wane. In response, Slim and Dixon left America and began performing internationally. While in Europe, Memphis Slim found a receptive and reverential audience that was in stark contrast to the discrimination and lack of regular work that he was faced with back home.
In the early 1960s, Slim became one of the first artists to sign on when German promoters, together with Willie Dixon, proposed the European blues concert that would later become known as the American Folk Blues Festival.
The festival was hugely influential to the young, white musicians who would soon make up the British Invasion. For the first time, artists like Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger were given the opportunity to see their idols in person. Along with Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon, iconic blues musicians like Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and T-Bone Walker would also perform at the festivals before returning to a harsher reality back home.
For the first time, artists like Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger were given the opportunity to see their idols in person.
In 1962, Memphis Slim decided to settle permanently in Paris, a city that had captured his heart and imagination during his European tours. “Back home I’d either be sitting around or hustling, but here I work all I want, eat tons of great food, and keep on having fun,” he told a reporter during this period. While in Paris, he married Christine Freys, the daughter of a Parisian night club owner, and continued to attract large crowds at the major European blues festivals. Slim also ran his own blues club in Paris, which he called the Memphis Melodies Club. Considered a national treasure, Memphis Slim was a regular on European television, acted in several French films, and even scored the French drama À nous deux France in 1970.
Although he would still travel to the United States on infrequent occasions, Slim was full-heartedly Parisian. “I don’t think anything I’ve done would have been possible here if I had stayed here,” he said during a 1976 trip to America.
© 2015 Center for Southern Folklore Archives, Photo By Judy Peiser
During the twilight of his life, Memphis Slim was bestowed with a myriad of prestigious awards, including the titles of Commander of Arts and Letters from the French government and Good Will Ambassador-at-Large from the U.S. Senate. Memphis Slim remained in Paris until his death on February 4, 1988 and was eulogized as blues royalty. A month later, Slim was brought home to Memphis and buried next to his father in Galilee Memorial Gardens Cemetery. The mayor proclaimed the day Memphis Slim Tribute Day and flags were flown at half staff throughout the city.
Today, Memphis Slim’s childhood home, which was once a popular meeting spot for musicians in his South Memphis neighborhood, has been converted into the Memphis Slim Collaboratory. The Collaboratory is located across the street from the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and provides a place for musicians to gather and create music together. The consummate collaborator, John “Memphis Slim” Chatman would undoubtedly approve.