Slim Gaillard was a hipster of the highest order. His status was even immortalized by the king of him himself, Mr. Jack Kerouac. In On the Road Sal and Dean go to see Slim play in San Francisco and have a drink with him after his set. “Bourbon-orooni … thank-you-ovauti …” Oh yeah, Slim had his own language he called Vout. It was mostly gibberish be-bop jive, but there was a method to Slim’s madness, so much so that he wrote a dictionary to prove it!
According to legend, Gaillard had an adventurous childhood, though few of its details have been confirmed. While he was certainly born in 1916, one account has him birthed in Santa Clara, Cuba of a Greek father and an Afro-Cuban mother; another places Slim’s birth in Pensacola, Florida to a German father and an African-American mother. Either way, it is certain he had an abnormal childhood as he traveled on board a ship on which his father was steward, and Slim was mistakenly left behind in Crete when the ship sailed. While many a 12-year-old would have freaked, Slim seems to have kept his cool. He was there for six months before he was able to work his way back home, and during his odyssey he learned to speak seven languages, including Spanish, Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, and Armenian. Back in the states he went on to work as a professional boxer, mortician, and illegal booze delivery man for the infamous Purple Gang in Detroit.
Slim also began to sing in speakeasies at this time. His first instrument was the vibraphone, although he was also proficient on piano, congas, bongos, and saxophone. When he heard Charlie Christian play electric guitar, he went out and bought one and mastered it. He played the piano with the backs of his hands, palms up; the vibraphone with swizzle sticks; and the double bass below the bridge. He could play “Jingle Bells” on a snare drum, producing the pitches by sliding the fingers of one hand along the drumhead as he beat out the rhythm with the other hand. Slim had skills, and everyone knew it, and soon enough he was in New York performing as one half of a duo with bassist Slam Stewart. They had their own music with their own sound, and Slim could make a song on just about any topic sound great – from potato chips to matzoh balls to cement! Slim and Slam’s success led to along running radio series and an appearance in the film Hellzapoppin.
After his great jazz success Gaillard’s star continued to rise. He appeared in several shows in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Marcus Welby, M.D., Charlie’s Angels, Mission Impossible, Medical Center, Flip (The Flip Wilson Show), and Along Came Bronson. He also appeared in the 1970s TV series Roots: The Next Generations and reprised some of his old hits on the NBC primetime variety program, The Chuck Barris Rah Rah Show. By the early 1980s he was touring the European jazz festival circuit, playing with such musicians as Arnett Cobb, and performing on the BBC television series of George Melly and John Chilton. He also made an appearance in Absolute Beginners (1986) singing “Selling Out”.
In 1989, a film company set out to make an hour-long documentary, but it was lengthened to four hours instead. It was called “The World of Slim Gaillard”. He passed away in 1991, and remained the hippest of the hip cats until the day he died!