Pimps and Players

Fillmore Slim has lived a life of picking, pimping, and prison -- now he just wants to play the blues

Cruising through the Tenderloin in a Cadillac, Fillmore Slim asks his friend, Bobbie Webb, to slow the car to a glacial pace. As he rolls down his window, he whispers, "Watch this, we're going to have some fun."

"Hey girl, it's Fillmore Slim from the movie American Pimp," he yells to a streetwalking beauty, who looks up and cracks a smile. "C'mon girl, you know who I am. Come on over and talk to me, and we'll see if we can get you in American Pimp 2."

Although Slim ultimately fails to pique the interest of this particular professional, he is not worried. His pimping days are behind him: Now, Slim (aka Clarence Sims) is much more interested in his budding blues career. At the tender age of 66, the guitarist recently played several prestigious blues festivals in Europe, released his first record in over 10 years, and recorded "shout-outs" on Snoop Dogg's latest CD -- all in the wake of his scene-stealing turn in the 1999 documentary American Pimp. Life is good for Fillmore Slim, but it hasn't always been.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Slim learned about the blues firsthand. "I done lived the blues," says Slim in a fast yet blurry drawl during an interview in a Tenderloin diner. "The blues is about picking cotton, working in the fields, living on the streets, and you know I did all these things." Slim's appreciation for the musical form came directly from his family. "My grandmother had this old hand-crank gramophone, and I use to crank it up and sing along with songs like "Lawdy Miss Clawdy' by Lloyd Price. I learned that song and sung that song for years and years. I came all the way to California singing that song."

After settling in Los Angeles in 1955, Slim began honing his skills as a guitarist, playing solo on the street as well as with his band Eddy N & the Blues Slayers. Although he was making inroads in the L.A. scene, he found the pace of the city "too fast." When the opportunity arrived to join a tour of the South with Joe Tex, Harmonica Slim, and Little Willie John, he jumped at the chance -- despite having to split with his girlfriend, the soon-to-be-famous blues belter Etta James. As chance would have it, Fillmore Slim would learn more about making money than making music on this fateful tour.

"We played a smoky blues dive in Midland, Texas," Slim remembers. "I noticed this little girl who kept coming in, then going out. Finally, she came up to me and said, "I like you. I want you to have this money.'" Being unaware of the seedy side of life, Slim was confused. "I asked her how she got all that money. She finally told me she was a hooker. I asked her what a hooker did, and she broke it on down for me." It wasn't long before Slim and his new girl were heading back to California to make a little scratch.

Disenchanted with L.A., Slim relocated with the girl to San Francisco. He began holding court in Fillmore District clubs like the Trees Pool Hall and the old Fillmore Theater, quickly scoring gigs opening for B.B. King and Dinah Washington. "My sister warned me not to go down to Fillmore Street at that time," says Slim. "But everything was happening on Fillmore Street, so, of course, I had to go."

By 1959, Fillmore Street was definitely happening for Slim. Both his pimping and his playing were in high demand. His first single, "You've Got the Nerve of a Brass Monkey," sold fairly well and received some national radio airplay; its success led to further releases, under both his own name and others like Charles Sims, Ron Silva, Slim & the Twilites, and Tailbone Slim. But even with a blizzard of 45s coming out, Slim was perennially broke. "I was so happy in those days just to have a record out that I forgot all about getting paid," says Slim. "They had me stuck on the fame and the girls."

But Slim knew another way to get the Cadillac he so desperately wanted. Throughout the '60s and early '70s he cashed in on the sexual revolution by pimping out a stable of girls (as he recounts in great detail in American Pimp), making enough money to live quite comfortably. But, like so many bluesmen before him, Slim eventually fell on hard times.

In 1979 the law caught up with Slim, and he was sentenced to five years in a federal penitentiary in Texarkana, Texas. But he used the time productively, improving his chops. "The first thing I did when I went in was ask if I could play the organ in the prison church," he says. Slim stayed out of trouble and was released early for good behavior.

Unfortunately, his transition back into society wasn't easy. Slim returned to jail several times during the Reagan years; when he was outside, he lived in a halfway house in Oakland. But the San Francisco folk hero still had many friends, including the owner of Eli's Mile High Club, Troyce Key.

In 1987, Key put out Slim's Born to Sing the Blues album on his label, Eli's Mile High Records. In order to support the release, Slim put together a band and separated himself from "the life." Years of relentless gigging followed, with Slim finally signing a record deal with New York-based Fedora Records in 1999. The resultant CD, Other Side of the Road, came out last year. The 10 songs -- eight of them originals -- showcase Slim's electric West Coast blues style and his B.B. King-inspired guitar playing. With the addition of horns and a decidedly urbane edge, Other Side of the Road honors older artists like T-Bone Walker (with whom Slim played) as well as forging new ground in the tradition of the late Johnny "Guitar" Watson.

The release of Other Side of the Road also furthered Slim's European reputation, leading to recent slots at the Zurich Blues Festival and the Blues Estafette in Utrecht, Holland. "I love it over there," Slim says. "They really appreciate the blues in Europe and they treat me like I'm Ray Charles."

Ironically, the American interest in Slim was minimal until the release of American Pimp. "Since the movie came out, they've been calling for me," says an excited Slim, referring to the clamoring of booking agents, record labels, and members of the hip hop community. Even with the increased exposure, Slim expects he won't make a lot of money with his blues career. And he doesn't care. "The money I make now means much more to me than the money I made then," says Slim. "I'm just blessed I'm still here and I'm thankful every day I get to play my music."

Does Slim long for his former pastime? "I still do miss the game sometimes, but I'm also glad I'm still here to talk about it. These days the game is dangerous. I'm glad I'm still OG -- paid my dues and lived through the days. But now I'm doing something that society accepts me for." Besides, Slim has 15 children to provide for. "My youngest son is 7 years old," he says. "I teach them that music can be your salvation. I'm like a mentor to them now. I never had time to do music back in the day and I'm glad I have the time to do music now. I'm thankful that I can teach my children about the virtues of living a clean lifestyle."

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