Untangling a jazz legend’s mysterious Tacoma ties

One of Slim Gaillard’s album covers. He just might have been the most most interesting man in the world, and he had a Tacoma connection in the 1970s.
One of Slim Gaillard’s album covers. He just might have been the most most interesting man in the world, and he had a Tacoma connection in the 1970s.

Growing up in the 1950s, I had a favorite record album. On one side was the manic “Bongo Cito,” a boiling stewpot of Latin beats, Spanish and be-bop.

On the other side was a cover of the produce love song, “When Banana Skins Are Falling, I’ll Come Sliding Back To You.” Jazzy puns were sprinkled with hip nonsense. In each, language became musical instrument.

The artist was Slim Gaillard. He spoke six languages, English being the last he mastered. He even invented a jive language called Vout.

Slim composed and covered many songs in different genres. His biggest jazz hit was “Cement Mixer (Putti-Putti).” He also wrote the children’s song “Down By The Station,” with its little pufferbellies all in a row.

He understood the joy of language, writing lyrics in English, Yiddish, Greek and Arabic.

Slim had a Tacoma connection, which I’ll come back to later. His life story is unbelievable, in part because he needlessly embellished it.

He was born in Cuba around 1911 and was abandoned at age 12 on Crete.

He ran liquor in Detroit … in a hearse.

He regularly competed on “Major Bowes Amateur Hour.”

His first hit was “Flat Foot Floogie,” which was included in the 1939 World’s Fair time capsule.

He recorded with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

He astonished audiences by playing piano palms up.

Jack Kerouac visited him in the classic novel “On the Road.”

By the late 1950s, Slim Gaillard’s music was going out of style. He still performed at Billie Berg’s in Hollywood, but he started acting in movies and television. He became more known as Marvin Gaye’s father-in-law than Voutville’s founder.

Then in the 1970s, he nearly dropped out of sight, showing up only in occasional TV roles.

Slim told family and friends he was “living on an orchard outside Tacoma.” He went missing for a decade.

I’ve been digging Tacoma and Slim a long time, so I had to dig to find out about that relationship. Black History Month seems as good a time as any to share what I learned from several people I spoke with.

His son Mark, a long-time Los Angeles resident, remembered that Slim lived in an RV. Mark also told me his father stayed busy “fixing TVs at the side of the road.”

Ted Groves attended Lincoln High School in the early ‘70s and worked at a gas station nearby where he repaired Slim’s RV a few times. Slim, who was trained as a mechanic, watched over him and talked the hours away. Ted told me he cherished those talks, though he knew nothing of Slim’s fame.

Seattle musician Jay Thomas filled in much of the late ‘70s for me. Slim hung out at Roy Parnell’s jazz club in Pioneer Square. Roy sold the club to Jay’s dad Marv. Slim lived in a motel owned by Marv near SeaTac. By day, he repaired appliances on Highway 99; at night he worked Parnell’s as an opening act.

In 1982, Gillespie came to Parnell’s and convinced Slim to try Europe. Slim moved to London. Jay joined him. Slim lived out his last decade in Europe, happy with his reclaimed fame, and died in London in 1991.

I suspect Slim lived both here and near SeaTac, working as repairman and musician in return for a place to stay. Social Security puts his last U.S. address in Tacoma’s 98408 Zip Code.

Was there an orchard?

Jay thinks “living on an orchard outside Tacoma” sounded better than “repairing appliances out of a SeaTac motel room.”

Mark thinks there was an orchard and it symbolized the opposite of Hollywood. Slim told Mark: “Trees don’t talk back.”

I like to think the orchard image was the most poetic way this man who loved language could explain a reset.

Real people like Ted and appliance customers appreciated Slim for who he was, not what he’d been. That’s a great story about Slim and about Grit City.

The disappearance did not hurt his legacy. The BBC televised a long documentary in 1989. Last summer, his autograph sold on eBay for more than $660.

And I will never get rid of that earworm, “Pufferbellies.”

Chuck Kleeberg, a Tacoma resident for most of the last 40 years, is retired from public service. He's one of six News Tribune reader columnists for 2018 and early 2019. This is his final column. Reach him at chuckkleeberg@gmail.com