Originally written December 17, 1962
Memphis Slim in Paris: From my files.
Paris in 1962 is a long way from Memphis Tennessee and 1918, the year of John Len Chatam’s birth. It would be many years later that he changed his name to Memphis Slim. Paris, France is even more distant from the music, an earthy, bitter blues that Memphis Slim, long an exile from America, plays before adoring, often uncomprehending people of all ages in this city still coming to terms with itself from the effects of World War II.
Memphis Slim is a great musician who fled to Europe because he felt unappreciated in the United States. Audiences in America did not give him his rightful due as a man or as a musician. Memphis Slim works regularly in small clubs in Paris. The night I saw him he was working in what the French call a cave, where, when entering, you have to stoop your head to make sure you do not crack your skull as you go down the steps to the cellar below.
Once down the steps, and once a person is inside, the room opens up enough to be comfortable, though cramped. There in the half-light by a battered piano sat Memphis Slim playing with a Polaroid camera, a drink at his side, speaking a little French when anyone approached him. He watched everything cautiously in the range of what he could see, and, to my way of thinking, his bitter, blues-infused eyes.
Memphis Slim sometimes used Peter Chatam, his father’s name, also musician who sang, and played piano and guitar. For a blues singer, Memphis Slim had a moderately successful career in America before moving to Paris. I did not know what Memphis Slim looked like twenty years ago. The night I saw him he was a tall, almost beefy black man with a grey streak an inch wide down the middle of his tight knit hair.
A French jazz combo sounding a little like Zoot Sims and Al Cohen played while a young couple danced the Lindy. People talked loudly through the music. Laughter rang through the air. The French can drink now, laugh, and have fun. World War II is behind them. Reverence and silence will come after the jazz trio finished its set and walks off the stand. It is then that Memphis Slim and his trio emerge from the darkness to take their turn. The half moon arches of the cave seem to take on an eerie light. Memphis Slim puts away his camera and makes himself comfortable at the piano. He strikes a chord, runs a trill, and adjusts the mike in front of him. Watching him, one knows he can play and one knows, too, that his audience can appreciate the music coming from the piano. Then he sings. And it is easy to know his audience cannot appreciate what he sings because they cannot understand the words. But they feel the weight of his emotions. They know he is bitter and possibly angry. That is part of the blues. They know that, without saying anything. That for them the music he makes is timeless and earthy.