Switzerland & Midwest Connections: SUNNYLAND SLIM: A Conversation with Swiss-American Musician Sam Burckhardt
Welcome to the History Blog featuring the connections between Switzerland and the Midwest. I am Joerg Oberschmied, Deputy Consul General in Chicago. My interest in history started at an early age and continues to this day. The views expressed are solely mine and I hope you enjoy these journeys through time.
Sam Burckhardt grew up in in Basel, where he had drum and Saxophone lessons with Chester Gill. From 1982 until the death of Sunnyland Slim in 1995, he was a member of Sunnyland’s band and produced the album Chicago Jump with him. In 1994 Burckhardt helped form the band Mighty Blue Kings. From 1996 to 1998, he toured Europe and the United States with the ten-piece band The Big Swing. In 1999 he formed his Sam Burckhardt Nonet and performed in Chicago at prestigious clubs such as the Green Mill. Together with Zora Young, Burckhardt recorded the CD Sunnyland in 2009, dedicated to the memory of Sunnyland Slim. Burckhardt won the Swiss Blues Award in 2008. Sunnyland Slim (1907–1995), born Albert Luandrew, was an influential U.S. blues pianist and singer. In the late 1920s, Sunnyland Slim moved to Memphis to make a living as a pianist. On Beale Street, he played with Little Brother Montgomery and Ma Rainey, and others. He later moved to Chicago, where he performed with among others, Muddy Waters. Even in his old age, Sunnyland Slim continued to play at concerts in Chicago, providing performance opportunities for young and old talent alike. He was a recipient of a 1988 National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the United States government’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. In 1991 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
Joerg Oberschmied (JO): Sam, how did you meet Sunnyland Slim?
Sam Burckhardt (SB): In the mid-seventies, he was playing near Basel and there were very few people there. I went up to him and asked if he was going to play. We started a conversation and I told him I had played with Eddie Boyd. He replied that was his partner and he asked what I played. At the time I played the drums and there happened to be a set of drums in the club. Sunnyland said “let’s get busy” and so we ended up playing two nights in a row. At the end of the second night, he addressed the audience and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, give the drummer a nice round of applause. Seems like he’s got into my life.” At the time, I had no idea I would end up in Chicago and play with him for 13 years. Before that, I went to University and studied cultural anthropology; spend a ytar in Africa, then returned to Switzerland. Sunnyland played in Europe a lot at that point and I would see him occasionally. Then, in 1981 I saw him in Zurich and he said to come see him in Chicago. So I came to Chicago planning to stay for a couple of weeks and ended up staying two and a half months playing with Sunnyland and lots of other great musicians. Upon returning to Switzerland, I asked my parents if it would be ok if I would return to Chicago. My mother wanted me to finish my studies first, my father only asked if I was sure and so I landed at O’Hare in the summer of 1982 where Sunnyland picked me up from the airport.
(JO): Sunnyland was born Albert Luandrew in 1907 in Mississippi. He called his great-grandfather ‘the old monster’. What is the story there?
(SB): Yes, this is interesting. I recall him referring to the ‘old monster’ and the way he said it. I was never sure if he said ‘the old master’ or ‘the old monster’. I knew his great-grandfather was a white slave owner who had a child (his grandfather) with a black woman. Then it dawned on me that he called him the ‘old monster’ because his grandfather was likely the product of a rape. His grandfather was this larger than life figure to Sunnyland. He was a very enterprising person becoming a freed slave after emancipation, owning a farm and becoming rather well off. After white people around him cut off access to his land, he had to give up the farm. So he started over again and built a new farm and ended up owning, with a friend, a Ford model T car before World War I. As a result, Sunnyland did not come from dire poverty like we think most blues musicians come from. At age 8 he lost his mother and his stepmother was abuse to him. At age 9 he ran away for the first time and at age 13 he ran away from home for good. He learned to play the piano by copying piano keys onto a shoebox so he could practice how to play the piano. His first job was playing in a movie house during intermission.
(JO): Who was Little Brother Montgomery?
(SB): Little Brother Montgomery was a musician from Louisiana whose family had a roadhouse were many famous musicians like Louis Armstrong, played. Sunnyland heard him play one night and asked if he could sing a song and he had such a great voice that “the women fell out”. When Little Brother Montgomery took a break, Sunnyland asked if he could play the piano and upon hearing him, Little Brother said to Sunnyland, “why didn’t you tell me you played? I would have taken a break earlier”. And so a lifetime friendship between the two began.
(JO): There is a story surrounding the song “Lowdown Sunnyland Train” which stayed with him all his life.
(SB): Yes, there was a train in the south called ‘the Sunnyland’. With unprotected track crossings back then, accidents were frequent. Sunnyland told the story where a black family and a white family were killed at the same crossing within a week of each other. He witnessed the second accident and said that these accidents gave him a tender heart.
(JO): How did he end up with the nickname ‘Sunnyland Slim’?
(SB): Sunnyland wrote a song about the train and he became known for this song. And since he was over six feet tall, the ‘Slim’ was a natural addition.
(JO): By 1947 he made his way to Chicago to make his first recording with Chess Brothers.
(SB): He came to Chicago fairly early. There was a generation of blues musicians who came to Chicago before the war, people like Big Maceo, Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy. Sunnyland’s first trip took place in 1938 but he didn’t stay. He returned for good after the war and Big Bill Broonzy, who was an established artist in Chicago, became his mentor, using him on certain gigs as an accompanist. Leonard Chess asked Sunnyland to cut a record, but his preferred guitarist Lonnie Johnson was unavailable. Sunnyland’s wife suggested Muddy Waters, who at the time made a living delivering Venetian Blinds. Sunnyland got in his car, picked up Big Crawford and ‘Fat Man’ Alfred Wallace and drove to Muddy’s job. Sunnyland told the foreman that Muddy’s mother died and they were picking him up for the funeral. They hit the studio recording four sides, and Leonard Chess asked if Muddy could sing. When Sunnyland replied Muddy could sing like a bird, Chess recorded another four sides with Muddy. That’s how Muddy Waters got his career started.
(JO): Sunnyland had an incident later on where his arm got injured.
(SB): In the late seventies, he was stabbed in his left arm leaving him handicapped playing fluid baselines. This made him rely more on his band but his playing remained vivid, the essence of the essence was there.
(JO): What are some of your best memories of Sunnyland?
(SB): I lived with him for a year and a half, in the beginning I played without getting paid, thinking some day he will recognize my playing as good enough and pay me. My friend Richard told me not to wait and just ask him. One day I took all my courage and said to Sunnyland that I had to get paid or find a job. He just said “Ok”, and from then on I got paid my share. He was 50 years my senior, he was my mentor and my friend. He used to call me every day we did not work together, always around six o’clock. After he passed away, I would come home around six and feel extremely blue, realizing that that call was missing. I have many great memories of him. I am very grateful to have met him and played in his band. For a European kid like me, he was a great star.
(JO): Sam, thank you very much for this invigorating and interesting conversation about the lif of Sunnyland Slim and all the best to you.