Slim Gaillard had one of the more remarkable lives of the 20th century: when he wasn’t inventing words or writing songs about cement mixers he was jamming with Charlie Parker, running bootlegged whiskey in a hearse, or wowing Jack Kerouac in On the Road.
Sometimes you find a biography that seems to brush past so many cultural and historical touchstones that you cannot help but be impressed. A while ago I wrote about William Playfair, who stormed the Bastille, nearly destroyed the French revolutionary economy through forgery, and invented the pie chart. Today I want to tell you about another person whose touch on history was wide-ranging: Slim Gaillard.
His origins are shrouded in mystery: he was either born in Cuba, Alabama, or Detroit. Supposedly abandoned by his father in Greece when he was 12 years old, he worked his way around the Mediterranean for the next few years, picking up languages as he went. (Slim speak in English, Greek, Arabic, Armenian, Spanish and German.)
He eventually ended up in the United States. Gaillard drove a hearse full of whiskey for the Sugar House Gang, a mob of Jewish bootleggers during Prohibition. He found his niche performing novelty jazz tunes that used his own invented “language” of nonsense words called Vout-o-Reenee – he was a real hepcat. My favourite of his songs is “Yip Roc Heresy”:
I’ve heard it said that he got in trouble with the authorities for this song because they thought it might be blasphemous – but the lyrics are actually mostly in Arabic and talk about food (“heresy” being “harissa,” for example). He was a consummate performer, showing off by playing the piano with his hands upside down in this clip:
And at the end of that video he plays one of his more famous songs, “Cement Mixer (Puti Puti).” It is easily my favourite song about cement. (Hopefully there aren’t any Feeder fans reading this…)
Gaillard performed with jazz luminaries such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and one of his performances was notable enough to appear in Jack Kerouac’s famous Beat novel On the Road:
Slim sits down at the piano and hits two notes, two C’s, then two more, then one, then two, and suddenly the big burly bass-player wakes up from a reverie and realizes Slim is playing ‘C-Jam Blues’ and he slugs in his big forefinger on the string and the big booming beat begins and everybody starts rocking and Slim looks just as sad as ever, and they blow jazz for half an hour, and then Slim goes mad and grabs the bongos and plays tremendous rapid Cubana beats and yells crazy things in Spanish, in Arabic, in Peruvian dialect, in Egyptian, in every language he knows, and he knows innumerable languages. Finally the set is over; each set takes two hours. Slim Gaillard goes and stands against a post, looking sadly over everybody’s head as people come to talk to him. A bourbon is slipped into his hand. ‘Bourbon-orooni — thank-you-ovauti …’ Nobody knows where Slim Gaillard is. […] Now Dean approached him, he approached his God; he thought Slim was God; he shuffled and bowed in front of him and asked him to join us. ‘Right-orooni,’ says Slim; he’ll join anybody but won’t guarantee to be there with you in spirit. Dean got a table, bought drinks, and sat stiffly in front of Slim. Slim dreamed over his head. Every time Slim said, ‘Orooni,’ Dean said ‘Yes!’ I sat there with these two madmen. Nothing happened.On the Road
Gaillard rounded out his career appearing on TV and in films, including the epic miniseries Roots: The Next Generations. (Slim himself claimed to have cameoed in Planet of the Apes, Mission Impossible, and Charlie’s Angels, but I couldn’t find any substantive evidence for those.) He died in 1991, 28 years to the day before I started this website.
I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.