Featured Interview – Fillmore Slim

IMAGEThere’s a good reason why other bluesmen stop what they’re doing and stand dead in their tracks and keep their eyes on his every move each time Fillmore Slim takes the stage, eagerly soaking up every detail as the legendary singer, songwriter and guitarist launches into his act.

A tall, lean, man and flashy performer, he’s definitely one of a kind – a stylish dresser and self-professor whose vocal delivery and guitar stylings are rooted in the past, but his often humorous, occasionally self-depreciating delivery has a timeless appeal.

Jovial, pleasant and now in his mid-80s, his recording legacy isn’t anywhere near that of his peers – only nine albums at last count. And among some circles, he’s far better known for his other, former trade — as one of the most visible and notorious pimps in the U.S. and the subject of a major movie documentary.

“I wear a Scorpio around my neck,” he insists. “I tell women: ‘I’m gonna sting ya ‘cause its tail is up!”

Despite that boast, make no mistake about it: Fillmore Slim is definitely the Mack Daddy of the blues, too.

Born Clarence Sims in Baton Rouge, La. — he says on Nov. 7, 1934, while other sources list the date a month earlier, he never could have imagined the twists and turns his life has taken since his childhood, when he grew up toiling in the cotton fields and doing other back-breaking labor. His interest in music began early, and has served as a positive bookend to his career in the world’s oldest profession since reverting to his original path more than three decades ago.

As Blues Blast discovered firsthand during a recent interview, Slim’s truly a larger-than-life character who makes great music and tells great stories, too.

Based in San Francisco since the mid-‘50s, Slim grew up in the blues thanks to his grandmother, who played popular music loud and proud in the family home.

“She had this ol’ hand-crank Gramophone,” he says. “I used to crank it up and sing along with songs like ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ by Lloyd Price.”

That tune made such an impression on young Clarence that it forever changed his life, and it played a major role in altering the path of American music, too. Price recorded it for Los Angeles-based Specialty Records in 1952 under the supervision of Cosimo Matassa, one of the most important figures ever on the New Orleans music scene. Produced and by Dave Bartholomew and featuring his band along with Fats Domino on keys, it became the R&B song of the year for both Billboard and Cashbox, and it’s credited with introducing the Big Easy sound to the world.

“I learned that song and sung that song for years and years,” Slim says. “I came all the way from Louisiana to California singin’ that song.”

And he wasn’t alone. Despite his humble beginnings, young Clarence grew up in an area that was truly a treasure for two reasons: its rich soil and the fact that his region of South Louisiana was a hotbed for musical talent emanating from New Orleans to the east and Crowley, where legendary producer Jay Miller launched the careers of Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lightnin’ Slim, Lonesome Sundown and others – and Baton Rouge was smack dab in the middle.

imageAll of the stars of that era graced the Baton Rogue stages, providing a welcome escape for Fillmore, who started taking piano lessons at a young age. But his interest turned immediately to the six-string when he saw Guitar Slim for the first time.

Best known for the song “Things I Used to Do” and one of the most extravagant entertainers on the chittlin circuit in that era, Guitar Slim was a stylish dresser who wore bright-colored suits and often dyed his hair to match. His influences included Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and T-Bone Walker, who subsequently taught Fillmore some tricks, too.

Guitar Slim was a genuine trendsetter. Seventy-five years before it became a common practice because of the use of electronics, he frequently dazzled his audiences by leaping from the stage and playing in their midst, trailed by a 350-foot cord and an attendant to keep it from tangling.

At age seven or eight, Fillmore was captivated, and elements of what he saw that day exist within his act when he takes the stage today. By his early teens, he was playing “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” for tips on Baton Rouge street corners with dreams of something much, much bigger. He finally moved to Los Angeles in 1955 and settled in with his sister while planning eventual move to the Bay Area, where many Southerners had relocated and where things were booming.

Like the great migration that brought the blues from the Delta to Chicago in the late ‘40s, the Bay Area – and Oakland in particular – has its own major post-War influx of Southern blacks and the blues in the ‘50s, too. Still in search of an education, Slim enrolled in Lowell High School, the oldest high school west of the Mississippi and one of the city’s best, gaining entry because his brother-in-law, a mathematician, had previously served as his tutor.

He busked on the streets for a while before forming the band Eddy N and the Blues Slayers. But he was billed as Filmore Slim two years later when he made his recording debut for the Dooto imprint. Amazingly, his first 45 – the jump blues “You Got the Nerve of a Brass Monkey” – proved such a hit locally that it eventually got some national airplay, too.

“I was overwhelmed when they put that out there on the radio,” he says today. “I couldn’t think of anything else. All I wanted to do was record. Ernie K-Doe came out with a song, ‘Mother-in-Law,’ and I came out with a song called ‘Family Man.’ I had the famous group, The Blossoms – (which included future Grammy-winning singer/actress Darlene Love) – in the background.”

In those early years, Slim changed his identity almost as often as he changed his suit. He enjoyed a relationship with a young Etta James and recorded under various guises, including Rhon Silva, Big Mack, The Soul President, Charles Sims, Slim & the Twilites and Tailbone Slim. And he split his time between L.A. and the Gulf Coast, where he toured with Joe Tex, Harmonica Slim and Little Willie John as well as Sly & the Family Stone and Ike and Tina Turner.

Through it all, however, he was living a hand-to-mouth existence and broke more often than not – something that literally changed overnight one evening in Midland, Tex., where he was in the midst of a two-week gig.

From the stage, he kept noticing an attractive woman in the crowd. It’s a story he’s told frequently. She was repeatedly coming in and out of the bar. “Finally, she came up to me and said: ‘I like you!’” Slim recalls. “’I want you to have this money.’”

It was a fistful – and immediately caught Slim’s attention.

image“I asked her: ‘How’d you get all that?’” he says, “and she told me she was a hooker.”

Still a country boy at heart, Slim had no idea what she was saying. “I asked her what a hooker did,” he says, “and she broke it down for me.”

When he headed back to L.A., she came with him, gradually indoctrinating him into The Game and weaning him away from the stage. But Slim wasn’t comfortable with the superfast Southern California lifestyle, and they eventually settled in San Francisco, where life was a lot more comfortable.

It was the era of the great post-War migration of Southerners – when people of color in particular were relocating to the North and West in search of better lives and bringing the blues with them. Like Chicago, Oakland with its heavy industry was a prime location.

“When I came to the Bay Area, it was mostly Japanese down on Fillmore Street,” Slim recalls. The influx of the black community had already occurred across the bridge, but was only beginning in San Francisco proper.

Never lazy and constantly wanting to improve himself, he enrolled in Lowell High School, the oldest high school west of the Mississippi and one of the city’s best, gaining entry because his brother-in-law, a mathematician, had previously served him well as a tutor.

“I was workin’ in Trees Pool Hall — I was rackin’ balls and had a job in there,” he says. “They was callin’ me ‘Slim.’ So when I was walkin’ down the street, I looked up and seen the sign say ‘Fillmore Street.’ I said to myself: ‘I’m gonna call myself Fillmore Slim. I’ve been Fillmore Slim ever since.”

As a musician, he played the original Fillmore Theater as opening act for B.B. King, Dinah Washington and others, but the lure of fast money drew Slim away from music and into the skin game full time in the mid-‘60s – so much so, in fact, that he became known as both “The West Coast Godfather of the Game” and “The Pope of Pimping,” nicknames he came by honestly.

Never one to shy away from work, he became a fixture in the Tenderloin District, driving up and down the street in a tricked-out, brand-new Cadillac, wearing sunglasses, a wide-brimmed fedora, sharkskin suits, alligator shoes and diamond-encrusted jewelry. By his own estimation, his stable included up to 25 women at a single time and as many as 9,000 during his 25-year career in The Game.

He was living in a motel at the time and regularly conducting business on its pay phone – a practice that triggered a confrontation with Whoopi Goldberg, a native New Yorker who was one of his neighbors prior to her rise to stardom. She emerged from her room one day and wanted to make a call from the booth located a few feet from her door. As usual, Slim was using it as his office.

“We had a ‘misunderstanding,’” he recalls. “She was dressed like a militant (in battle fatigues), and the argument got a little heated. I had to straighten her out.”

Goldberg turned on her heel and went back to her room, leaving Slim thinking he’d soon have to “deal with her man.” He crouched on one knee behind the phone booth with a pistol in hand.

“I didn’t know who she was gonna get,” he says, “but I was gonna ‘talk’ to the gentleman.”

A few moments later, Slim says he was shocked when Whoopi returned alone with a rifle under her coat. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed that day and no one got shot, and the pair crossed paths at a grocery about 24 hours later.

image“I said: ‘How ya doin’?’” he recalls. “’You were gonna shoot me, weren’t you?’ She said: ‘Yeah…I was pretty mad.’

“But we shined that off and hugged each other. That was that!”

His relationship with Little Richard – a devote Christian – was dramatically different.

“Little Richard loved me – may he rest in peace,” he insists. “When Little Richard was playin’ in Las Vegas, I went to his villa. ‘Fillmore out there?’ he said. ‘He can come in. But I don’t want them bitches! Let them set! They can’t come in my place! (laughs)’

“I got a real big picture of Little Richard sittin’ at the piana right over my bed all dressed in white – a really big picture of Richard. I’ve had it for five or ten years. Me and Richard was really good friends.

“He was cool. Me and him and Charles Brown and Bonnie Raitt traveled together for a little while. That’s when she was bringin’ Charles Brown back.”

His notoriety as a playa was detailed in the 1999 Hughes Brothers documentary American Pimp, which included interviews with Slim and others and interspersed with clips from a few of the popular ‘60s and ‘70s blaxploitation movies, including Dolemite, The Mack and Willie Dynamite.

Slim’s career as a master of The Game came to a sudden halt at the dawning of the ‘80s, when he was picked up on federal charges – not for prostitution, but for attempting to buy forged passports for his ladies.

“They was mad at me,” he laughs today.

“All we can get you is five years for all the stuff you’ve done!” they told him, wanting to put him away for much more.

Incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana, Tex., Fillmore quickly figured out all the angles as he turned his life around. He spent his time honing his guitar skills and playing the prison church organ.

“I kept my mind straight,” he insists. “The preacher said: ‘Oh, you’re a musician! Get on this Hammond organ.’

“I jumped straight on it so I could do easy time. I played it every Sunday in church, tryin’ to get some good points – and it worked. I was drivin’ the warden’s Cadillac in and out of the gate of the penitentiary. And I played in different bands in there.

“When I got transferred to Stafford, Ariz., I got to play out (away from prison) for all the staff and all that in Mesa. We played for the Toastmasters. They’d dress us up all fancy, not in our prison uniforms.

“I had it good. After a while, I joined the Toastmasters, too. I did whatever I could to occupy myself to get me out – I was ready!

“I did some things,” he says, reflecting back on his past. “Durin’ them times, it was them times. I been there and done that, ya know. And I straightened my life up and started playin’ music again.”

He gives big props to San Francisco legend Troyce Key for helping him once he got back on the streets. A recording artist in his own right, Key owned Eli’s Mile High Club, one of the most popular showrooms in the Bay Area. Founded by Eli Thornton in 1974, it served as the crown jewel in the local blues scene, and frequently was so crowded that it often had to turn folks away at the door – something that happened to the Rolling Stones when they tried to stop in while on tour.

Key admired Fillmore’s guitar skills, booked him regularly and eventually provided the financial backing for Slim’s first LP, Born to Sing the Blues. The disc was illustrated and annotated by artist/guitarist Franck Goldwasser, the French transplant who’s been a fixture on the West Coast blues scene both under his own name and as Paris Slim for decades. He’s worked with Fillmore frequently through the years.

A collection of primarily West Coast- and B.B. King-inspired tunes, the album was released in 1987 on Key’s own Mile High label and included eight Slim originals and covers of Guitar Slim’s “Things I Used to Do” and Roy Brown’s “Hard Luck Blues.”

image“I recorded it as Clarence ‘Guitar’ Sims,” Fillmore says. “The reason I called myself that was because of Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, who was my friend. He taught me a few things when we were both up in Alaska.”

Two more Sims releases, It’s Going to Be My Time After a While – billed as Fillmore Sims, and Walkin’ on Dangerous Ground – under his birth name – followed on the Video Uptown label before he shifted gears and joined New York-based Fedora Records. It was a major move, considering that he was joining several established blues artists – including Homesick James, Robert Bilbo Walker and Hosea Leavy, whose most famous song, “Parchman Prison Farm,” is a blues standard – on its roster.

When Slim toured Europe for the first time, all three of those artists were on the bill along with Tail Dragger Jones, who’d recently revived his own career after serving a long prison stretch himself. “Homesick was the big star on that one,” Fillmore says. “I was small on the show. But once they saw how I got over, they had me closin’.”

He’s been across The Pond several times since, spending as much as three months abroad in a single tour, crisscrossing the continent, frequently serving as a festival headliner. “After three months though,” he says, “I was homesick. I wanted to come home and spend the money (laughs)!

“I played there with Little Johnny Taylor – the one who did ‘Part Time Love’ – and Guitar Shorty, too. I had no idea that he was Jimi Hendrix’s brother-in-law.”

Slim’s first Fedora release, 2000’s Other Side of the Road, marked a turning point. Not only did it mark the first, permanent use of his stage name, but – because the label’s broad distribution — it also served as the worldwide debut of the playing style that fans have come to know him for today: Deep-in-the-pocket music delivered slow and steady with horn or harp accompaniment.

Funky Mama’s House followed in 2003 and was chockful of autobiographical themes and funky progressions and lyrical boasts common to Southern soul-blues culture and the music fans know him for today. A year later, Fillmore began a lengthy relationship with Bay Area-based Mountain Top Productions after an introduction from Goldwasser.

“Mountain Top put out some good stuff on me,” Slim says. His catalog there includes The Game, The Legend of Fillmore Slim and The Blues Playa’s Ball as well as a re-issue of Born to Sing the Blues, which included four additional tracks and concluded with a seven-minute interview.

A 2008 West Coast Blues Hall of Fame inductee and a 2011 winner of the Lowell Fulson “Jus’ Blues” Award, Fillmore’s latest album – the self-produced Son of the Seven Sisters – is unquestionably his best yet and includes “music for the young and old…take your pick,” he insists.

It was produced by Kid Andersen at Greaseland Studios with a lineup that includes Grammy-winning keyboard player Jim Pugh, East Coast horn veteran Sax Gordon, Bay Area multi-instrumentalist Bob Welsh and Kid’s band, the Nightcats, including 2020 Blues Music Awards harp player of the year Rick Estrin.

Rick’s been playing with Slim since he was 15 years old more than 50 years ago. Slim was still in The Game back then, but rehearsing an R&B band when Estrin came bopping down the street and quickly took an interest in what they were doing.

When Fillmore found out he played harmonica, he invited Estrin to join in. He was a member of Slim’s band for years prior to the Nightcats, has played on several of his albums, and there’s no question he picked up some of his hipster appeal and stage persona from Slim along the way.

Fillmore’s been spending time lately writing material for a follow-up album, which, he insists, is going to be a challenge to top. A smart operator in everything he’s ever done, he’s already released an autobiography. Entitled Blues Man Mack: How I Conquered the Stage and the Streets, it’s available as a 500-page hard copy or Kindle download.

And he hasn’t given up hope about a full-length major motion picture about his life story, something that’s been under discussion for about a decade. Snoop Dogg signed aboard to star in it for Universal Studios in 2011, but production was initially delayed because of his involvement in other projects.

imageFor a while, it moved to Warner Brothers, but that deal fell apart, too, after a major backer came down with cancer. Even so, Slim and Snoop continued to talk. They had $30 million in funding in 2018 were planning to have Nick Cannon appear as Fillmore in his youth and Snoop as an adult when talks fell apart once more.

Snoop is a great fit, Slim insists, noting that they bare a strong resemblance another despite being born three decades apart. “I was on the blues cruise a couple of years ago,” he adds. “We got off the boat in Cabo San Lucas in Mexico – the only place we actually got off the boat to play – and, man…they mobbed me, man!

“I said: ‘What’s all this goin’ on?’ And they said: ‘Snoop Dogg’s on the boat! Snoop Dogg’s on the boat!

“They all waitin’ for Snoop!’ They thought I was Snoop! I said: ‘No, no, no! I know Snoop, and I ain’t him. I’m Fillmore.’

“When I got on the stage, I told all the women: ‘Look at me…I look better than Snoop! We got somethin’ in common, but let me clarify myself (laughs)!”

Despite all the ups and downs, he hasn’t given up on the venture, noting that it’ll be as good as or better than the Rudy Ray Moore biopic that debuted last year.

“I knew Rudy Ray when he was workin’ at the record store in L.A.,” he insists, “Dolphin’s of Hollywood – right there at Vernon and Central. Matter of fact, we did a thing together in New Orleans, me and Rudy Ray Moore. It was called ‘Tail Draggin’ Slim vs. ‘Dolemite.’ It was a great show.”

The father of 15 children — “that I’m claimin’,” he says – he’s also relishing in the latest accomplishments of one of his sons, Frank Stickemz.

Already an established name on the New York and Bay Area hip-hop scenes, Frank most recently was with Bobby Brown, but just moved on to join Tony! Toni! Toné! – the chart-topping soul/R&B group –replacing the departed Antron Haile in the lineup.

Fillmore’s grateful to the hip-hop and rap community — thankful for the windfall he’s received after Snoop, Stacy Adams, Fabulous and others sampled his material in their own tunes. “They’re keepin’ me alive,” he says, something that provides a welcome lifeline in troubled times for all performers.

Slim was looking forward to playing at the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Ark., — one of his personal favorites — as well as a festival in Clarksdale, Miss., and other dates in Oklahoma this summer when the entertainment world came to a halt.

But he’s not sitting still.

“The blues keeps me goin’,” Fillmore insists. “My song writin’, my travelin’ and my music keeps me energetic. I’m 85. I’ll be 86 in November. I’m good!”

Always the promoter, as this interview was taking place, he was also finalizing plans to launch his own brand of face mask – called Fillmore Slim’s Smile Mask — to protect his fans against coronavirus.

“We all gonna get through this,” he says. “I’m gonna get through this and play the blues and make records and make people happy. I love everybody. Peace and love!”

Check out Slim’s music, his book – and pick up one of his designer face masks, too – by visiting his website: www.reverbnation.com/fillmoreslim

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