Saturday, October 1, 2011

October 1: Guitar Slim, "The Things That I Used To Do"

Artist: Guitar Slim
Song: "The Things That I Used To Do"
Album: The Things That I Used To Do (single)
Year: 1954

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Much in the same manner that the evolution of a particular genre can be documented over the decades, the way in which the styles of playing certain instruments can be mapped along similar lines.  In a majority of situations, these two progressions go hand-in-hand, and there is perhaps no more clear a lineage than that between popular music and the development of styles in electric guitar playing.  Throughout the 1940's and 1950's, a number of performers were attempting to discover new sounds and approaches to the instrument, and there were few performers who revolutionized the sound and image behind the electric guitar as much as the man named Guitar Slim.  Born Eddie Jones in Greenwood, Mississippi, it was both in his tone, as well as the persona that he brought to the stage that catapulted him to the forefront of the guitar world in the mid-1950's, and to this day, there are few guitar players that don't take some of their style from the sound he developed.  Whether it was his actual technique and tone, or the well-documented "larger than life" persona with which he performed, one can easily argue that it was Guitar Slim that completely developed the image of the modern guitarist, and along with this, he recorded some of the most iconic songs in history.  Though one can find a number of heavily covered tunes in his catalog, there may be no more vital a song he recorded than Guitar Slim's 1954 single, "The Things That I Used To Do."

While the instrumentation found on "The Things That I Used To Do" may seem somewhat simple, it is in the tone and technique where the importance of Guitar Slim can be found.  The moment the song begins, there is a rough, almost aggressive distortion on his guitar, and though his was not the first time such distortion was used, there are few earlier singles that have as much swagger.  It is the way that the guitar seems to reverberate across the entire track that makes it so unique, as the song is almost a bit angry in this aspect.  However, there is no question that this is as deep a blues number as one can find anywhere, as Guitar Slim delivers one of the most powerful, yet soulful performances ever captured on tape.  At every turn, his playing is nothing short of captivating, and one can easily sense his on-stage persona through this single.  Whether he is deploying a devastatingly beautiful and moving solo or dropping the perfect fill in between the rest of the instruments, there is no question this is one of the finest guitar performances in music history.  Yet it is the way that the sliding horns blend so perfectly into the mix that sets "The Things That I Used To Do" far apart from being "just" a blues song, and one can cite the song as a vital turning point in the blending of blues and r&b music.  The rhythm section seems to be working in a completely different time signature, and it is the way that all of the sounds and tempos blend together that push "The Things That I Used To Do" to a level that remains unmatched to this day.

Yet it is the fact that along with this stunning guitar performance, Guitar Slim also delivers one of the greatest vocalist in history that sets "The Things That I Used To Do" into a category all its own.  Easily matching the vocal styles of the finest bluesmen in history, Guitar Slim again separates himself from the pack in the attitude an grit one can hear within his voice.  While there is certainly a smooth sound to his singing, it is the rougher edge that he brings in the tone that makes "The Things That I Used To Do" such a fantastic performance.  It is this balance between strength of technique and understanding of texture that is the key to the vocals on this track, and it is easy to imagine how live performances of this track would have blown the roof off of any venue at the time.  This in many ways is the true spirit of blues music, as it is all about the emotions being conveyed in the music and singing, as Guitar Slim sticks to a more basic, yet balanced lyrical approach on this song.  "The Things That I Used To Do" is in many ways as "standard" a blues lyric as one can find, as Slim sings of his lost love, and frustrations that led them to their current situation.  While this idea has been explored in countless ways over the decades, it is the emotion within the voice of Guitar Slim that pushes "The Things That I Used To Do" far beyond other such songs, and there is no question that the recording easily stands alongside the greatest blues singles in history.

Truth be told, almost from the instant that "The Things That I Used To Do" was released as a single, it was a massive hit all across the board.  The track quickly shot up the charts, staying in a prominent position for the better part of a year; a feat that was almost unheard of in the mid-1950's.  The success of the song led to Guitar Slim becoming one of the most in-demand artists all across the country, and it was the performances that this yielded that cemented his legend as one of the most exciting and energetic live acts in all of music history.  Adding even more to the level of respect that "The Things That I Used To Do" commands, when Guitar Slim entered the studio to record the track, he was paired with a relatively unknown young performer as his producer.  The producer in question also played a large role in the arrangement found on the single, and his work on this track would be one of the most important moments in the rise of a young man named Ray Charles.  Once one is aware of Charles' presence on the song, the way that "The Things That I Used To Do" so perfectly balances the blues and r&b sound becomes somewhat more understandable, and the now-iconic "rise and fall" of the arrangement can be largely attributed to his work.  Yet there is no question that the focus of the song is the absolutely brilliant guitar and vocal performance from Guitar Slim, and on every level, there are few songs that stand as influential or truly mesmerizing as his magnificent 1954 single, "The Things That I Used To Do."

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