Illustration by Gary Price
Bulee “Slim” Gaillard was born on January 4, 1916 in Detroit, Michigan—according to some sources. Other sources (including Gaillard himself) indicate that he was born in Santa Clara, Cuba—or in Burnt Corn, Alabama. They also suggest different birth dates for Gaillard—and different names, including “Buller Gillard” and even “Theophilus Rothchild.” Gaillard’s parents seem to have been Maria Gaillard and Theophilus Rothchild, and his heritage an Afro-Cuban/German-Jewish mix.
Gaillard is reported to have spent his childhood in Cuba cutting sugar cane and picking bananas. Central to his life’s story is that he accompanied his father on a world voyage and was stranded on the Greek island of Crete at age 12. As the story goes, he spent four years traveling the Mediterranean learning rudimentary Greek and Arabic until he was able to get passage on a ship sailing back to North America. The ship was supposed to make a stop in Cuba; instead, it sailed for the mainland. Gaillard, apparently unable to speak English, wound up in Detroit looking for a job at the Ford Motor Company.
Being a naturally quick study, he worked his way through several odd jobs and mastered English (and guitar and piano) before getting into show business. By the mid-1930s he partnered with bassist Leroy “Slam” Stewart to write and record the song that made him famous: “Flat Foot Floogie.”
The record—which melds zany comedy with excellent musicianship—was the first of Slim Gaillard’s many exercises in lyrical absurdism. Songs like “Matzoh Balls,” “African Jive,” and “Chicken Rhythm” transcended mere novelty. Even when singing pop standards, he was a master improviser whose stream-of-consciousness vocals ranged far from the original lyrics. Gaillard could navigate in six or seven languages, and invented his own, “Vout.” Despite his comic approach (or perhaps because of it) he was respected enough by the jazz community to open at Birdland for Charlie Parker, Flip Phillips, and Coleman Hawkins.
Gaillard continued to work as a musician into the 1980s, mainly on the European festival circuit. He relocated to England in 1983, and played with George Melly and John Chilton’s Feetwarmers, appearing on their BBC television series. Slim Gaillard—musician, vocalist, and master of Vout-o-reenee—died on February 26, 1991. —Andy Senior
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