Cult Classic: Lightnin’ Slim-High and Low Down.

When Lightnin’ Slim recorded his 1971 album High and Low Down, it only took three days to record the album. There’s a good reason for this. Lightnin’ Slim could only get three days holiday from the lock factory he was working in, in Pontiac, Michigan. However, for three days in Muscle Shoals, he was back doing what he was born to do, play the blues. 

Accompanied by the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and what became The Muscle Shoal Horns, the sixty-one year old Lightnin’ Slim recorded his comeback album. His career had stalled and hd was reduced to the 9 to 5 grind of working in a lock factory. That’s until Swamp Dogg decided to rejuvenate his career. 

By the early seventies, it was apparent Swamp Dogg had the Midas touch. Previously, he’d rejuvenated the career of several artists and the songwriter, musicians and producer had established a reputation as one of the most talented producers of  his generation. This made Swamp Dogg the perfect producer to rejuvenate the career of Louisiana Slim, the Godfather of the gutbucket blues. 

He was born  in St. Louis, Missouri, and  lived on a farm until he was thirteen, when his family moved to Baton Rouge. By then, Lightnin’ Slim had been taught to play guitar by his elder brother, Layfield. This led to Lightnin’ Slim playing in bars in the Louisiana area. It wasn’t until 1954 that Lightnin’ Slim made his recording debut.

In  1954, Lightnin’ Slim released Bad Luck Blues for Jay D. Miller’s Excello Records. This was the label Lightnin’ Slim called home for the next twelve years. Essentially, he was with Excello Records for the majority of his career. That’s where he released his 1960 debut album Rooster Blues. Five years later, in 1965, Lightnin’ Slim released his sophomore album Bell Ringer. Then a year later, Lightnin’ Slim left Excello Records and his career stalled.

For the next four years, Lightnin’ Slim dropped out of music. When he was discovered by Fred Reif in 1970, Lightnin’ Slim was down on his luck. Lightnin’ Slim was renting a room from Slim Harpo’s sister and working in a foundry in Pontiac, Michigan. This wasn’t good for his hands and he was in constant pain when he made his comeback.

This comeback took place at the University of Chicago Folk Festival in 1971. Accompanying Lightnin’ Slim was Lazy Lester, who Lightnin’ Slim had collaborated with in the past. The comeback concert lead to Lightnin’ Slim resigning to Excello Records. So, Lightnin’ Slim took three days off from his job in the foundry and headed to Muscle Shoals, where he recorded an album with  a crack band of musicians and producer Swamp Dogg.

For High and Low Down, Lightnin’ Slim penned four songs, Bad Luck Blues, G.I. Blues, That’s All Right and Voodoo Blues. Lightnin’ Slim covered three Willie Dixon songs, My Babe, Oh Baby and Crazy ‘Bout You Baby. He covered Chuck Berry’s Things I Used To Do and Jerry West’s Rooster Blues. The other track was the Swamp Dogg penned Good Morning Heartaches. These ten tracks became High and Low, which was recorded in Muscle Shoals.

In the studios in Muscle Shoals, the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and what became the Muscle Shoal Horns accompanied Lightnin’ Slim. His rhythm section included bassist Bob Wary, drummer Fred Proudly and guitarist Jesse Carr. Tippy Armstrong played harmonica and Clayton Ivy piano and organ. The horn section included Charles Rose, Mike Stough, Sonny Royal and Stacy Goss. Lightnin’ Slim played guitar and sang lead vocals, while Swamp Dogg produced what became High and Low Down. It was released in 1971.

On the release of High and Low Down, the album opinions were divided about the album. Maybe they didn’t understand that Swamp Dogg was reinventing Lightnin’ Slim. He was a delta blues singer, and the delta blues was no longer as popular and  unless Lightnin’ Slim’s music evolved, it risked becoming irrelevant.

Ironically, Lightnin’ Slim’s makeover wasn’t a commercial success. The reinvention of Lightnin’ Slim hadn’t worked and after that, he returned to work in the foundry and died three years later. This makes High and Low Down a poignant swan-song.

Opening High and Low Down is Rooster Blues, which literally bursts into life. Accompanied by stabs of blazing horns, the tightest of rhythm sections and a  blistering guitar solo, Lightnin’ Slim unleashes a vocal full of innuendo. Then some honky tonk piano is thrown into the mix. Soon, the band unleash a glorious bluesy arrangement. A melange of horns, rhythm section, driving piano and guitars accompany Lightnin’ Slim. This seems to spur him on, before the track reaches a glorious crescendo.

Slow, moody and bluesy describes Things I Used To Do. A melancholy piano is joined by a shuffling rhythm section and reverberating guitar. Lightnin’ Slim’s vocal is despondent and full of misery. Heartbroken, he pleads “please don’t go.” Stabs of braying horns, shimmering guitar and a piano masterclass from Clayton Ivy provide the the perfect backdrop to Lightnin’ Slim’s heartbroken vocal.

Bad Luck Blues sees Lightnin’ Slim return to the first song he ever recorded. It’s given a makeover. The rhythm section provide a moody, broody, pulsating backdrop as Clayton Ivy’s piano is panned left and the guitar panned right. Smack bang in the middle is Lightnin’ Slim’s lived-in, worldweary vocal. With a sense of resignation he sings “if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no love at all.” At just the right time, washes of Hammond organ are unleashed. This is perfect accompaniment to Lightnin’ Slim. He sounds as if he’s lived the lyrics, and somehow managed to survive them, but only just.

My Babe is a rocking bluesy track that many people will be familiar with. It was written by Willie Dixon. The band are determined to make the song swing. They unleash the blazing horns, a driving rhythm section and crystalline guitars. This should be the perfect backdrop for Lightnin’ Slim. He throws himself into the song. He tries to mix power and sass, and make the song swing. However, is voice isn’t as  strong as it once was. There’s a fragility there. The result is a good version of a familiar track. Ten years before and Lightnin’ Slim would’ve strutted his way through the track.

G. I. Blues is one of three tracks Lightnin’ Slim wrote, and as it begins, Lightnin’ Slim briefly returns to his delta blues’ roots. That’s until his band plug in and provide a steady heartbeat. Soon, chiming,searing and blistering guitars accompany Lightnin’ Slim’s despairing vocal. The cause of his despair is his partner who’s got the “G.I. Blues.” With a voice full of longing, his parting shot is I’m going to pray to Uncle Sam, give me some place in this army please.” 

From the get-go, Lightnin’ Slim’s band unleash some moody, bluesy licks on Oh Baby. Providing the heartbeat are the rhythm section, while the horns bray and blaze. What’s different is the guitar. It’s fuzzy, wah-wahing its way across the arrangement. Some critics felt its inclusion was a mistake and it continues to divide opinion. Lightnin’ Slim delivers a sassy, needy vocal. This is what was needed on My Babe. Here, Lightnin’ Slim is singing within himself  on one of his best efforts and spurs the band on, as a horn and guitar solos play important parts in the track’s success.

That’s All Right was written by Lightnin’ Slim. Slow, moody and bluesy, describes this track, and Lightnin’ Slim’s vocal. He’s accompanied by a grinding rhythm section, rocky guitars and a harmonica solo from Tippy Armstrong. Later, a Hammond organ is dropped in as Swamp Dogg helps Lightnin’ Slim to give this familiar track a blues rock makeover.

The band build the drama as Crazy ‘Bout You Baby reveals its secrets. The rhythm section, growling horns and crystalline guitars set the scene for Lightnin’ Slim’s vocal. It’s frustrated, angry and heartbroken. Bursts of drums, stabs of horns and searing guitars match the anger and frustration in Lightnin’ Slim’s vocal. Just like other tracks, he gives vocal and guitar masterclasses. It’s as of he’s realised his future depended on the success of High and Low Down, so was playing and singing as if his future depended upon this album.

Good Morning Heartaches was the only track on High and Low Down that Swamp Dogg wrote. Having briefly drawn inspiration from the delta blues, a glorious slice of electric blues unfolds. A grinding rhythm section, searing guitars and harmonica join grizzled horns in driving the arrangement along. With the band in the groove, Lightnin’ Slim feeds of their energy. Sadness and despair fill his vocal, before the harmonica answers his call. Everything just falls into place and Lightnin’ Slim and his band create what’s the highlight of High and Low Down. 

Voodoo Blues written by Lightnin’ Slim closes High and Low Down. The tempo is slow, with a despondent Lightnin’ Slim accompanied by piano, crystalline, chiming guitars and the rhythm section. His soul-baring vocal is full of emotion and heartbreak. Later,  Jesse Carr and Lightnin’ Slim unleash some of the best guitar licks on the album. They take centre-stage,while the rhythm section mark time and one can only marvel at their playing which seems a fitting way to close High and Low Down.

While Lightnin’ Slim’s comeback album High and Low Down wasn’t a commercial success, it was proof that he still was one the most talented blues players in America. Sadly, Lady Luck hadn’t smiled upon him. He wasn’t even making a living playing the blues. Instead, he’d been working in a foundry since leaving Excello Records. This was hot, hard and dangerous work and affected Lightnin’ Slim’s health. His hands ached, which was a disaster for a guitarist. So when he was rediscovered by Fred Reif it must have been the answer to his prayers.

Accompanied by Lazy Lester, Lightnin’ Slim made his comeback at the University of  Chicago Folk Festival. This lead to Lightnin’ Slim resigning to Excello Records. They brought in one of the hottest producers of the time, Swamp Dogg. He brought onboard some of the best musicians in Muscle Shoals. Accompanied by the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and what became the Muscle Shoal Horns, the sixty-one year old Lightnin’ Slim recorded his comeback album High and Low Down where Swamp Dogg reinvented Lightnin’ Slim.

High and Low Down was a fusion of delta and electric blues with jazz and rock. It saw Lightnin’ Slim follow in the footsteps of B.B. King. Lightnin’ Slim was able to showcase his lived-in, worldweary voice and his unmistakable guitar playing. Before the release of High and Low Down, great things were expected of the album. B.B. King who wrote the original sleeve-notes, sang High and Low Down’s praises. He was speaking as musician, music lover and former DJ. Sadly, he was wrong. High and Low Down sank without trace. Worse was to come for Lightnin’ Slim.

After the commercial failure of High and Low Down, Lightnin’ Slim continued to make a comeback. He continued playing live and toured America and Europe for the next three years. Then in 1974, aged just sixty-one Lightnin’ Slim died of stomach cancer. That day, one the five greatest blues musicians died. Lightnin’ Slim is up there with blues greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. Sadly, Lightnin’ Slim didn’t enjoy the commercial success they did. 

Despite his lack of success Lightnin’ Slim recorded some of the best blues music of the fifties and sixties at Excello Records. His back-catalogue is a musical treasure trove awaiting discovery. Part of that treasure trove is Lightnin’ Slim’s 1971 album High and Low Down, which is a hidden gem from the Godfather of the gutbucket blues.

Cult Classic: Lightnin’ Slim-High and Low Down.

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