The Smithsonian Folkways recordings are nearly always noteworthy, and Memphis Slim’s The Folkways Years 1959-1973 is no exception. Ironically, Memphis Slim, the stage name of Peter Chatman, is something of a misnomer. Although Chatman began his career in and around the juke joints of that city, his real success only came when he moved to Chicago in 1939. Chatman initially played with Big Bill Broonzy, but soon began leading his own combos throughout the 1940s and ‘50s.
This album, however, captures Memphis Slim in a transition period. Granted, a few numbers showcase his work with other musicians, but mostly this is solo piano. In large measure, the recasting of Chatman from bandleader to authentic blues genius was the marketing device of Folkways producer Moe Asch, a ploy which garnered Chatman considerable success in Europe in the latter part of his career. In any setting, though, Chatman remains a strong singer and a talented pianist. He fingers a soulful slow blues, and he is an exciting boogie-woogie player, with a rhythmic rolling bass hand and an inventive right. If some of the frenetic excitement of the earlier group work is missing, we’re rewarded instead with clean, focused performances.
The standouts among the 21 selections include a demonic workout with Matt “Guitar” Murphy on “You Name It.” A slow, bluesy version of the racehorse saga “Stewball” is sung as a duet with Willie Dixon. Classic rockers will recognize the standard “Key to the Highway” from Derek and the Dominos’ Layla album, and blues enthusiasts will associate “Everyday I Have the Blues” with B.B. King, though this take is every bit as moving as any version King has ever cut. The familiar tune of “The Dirty Dozens” is well-played; it’s a shame that the bawdy lyrics were wiped clean from the track by an uptight producer.
There are several oddities as well. The sing-along with Pete Seeger on “Midnight Special” is plain awkward, the singers’ vocal styles comically incompatible. The final song, appropriately entitled “The Gimmick,” features Chatman on the Hammond organ. It is an instrument singularly unsuited to his talents. Memphis Slim’s playing is quick and crisp; the organ muddies things up something awful so that the listener feels as though he has been transported into a minor league baseball field on amateur organist night.
Nevertheless, overall this is a very fine CD. Memphis Slim deserves his place in the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame, and The Folkways Years should be considered an essential addition to any moderately ambitious collection of blues recordings.