It’s time to talk about Otis Verries Hicks.
You may know him better as Lightnin’ Slim, whose laconic vocal and guitar style helped to define the haunting, laid-back rhythms of Louisiana swamp blues in the 1950s. It’s often served with a side of snaky harmonica.
If you know him at all, that is. He’s one of the legions of fine blues players who tends to be largely unknown outside of certain regions, or outside the interests of mainstream blues fans.
Although there is some difference of opinion, Slim seems to have been born Good Pine, La., and moved to Baton Rouge at thirteen. Taught guitar by his older brother Layfield, Slim was playing in bars in Baton Rouge by the late 1940s.
I have to confess that even though I have some of his music in my collection, I hadn’t listened to it for years. And then, while I was listening to some music recently on the radio, as I wrote about a while back — on The Rhythm Revival with the musically precocious and loquacious Rev. Billy C. Wirtz — I heard some Lightnin’ Slim.
So, I dug back into his music. I found a bunch on my streaming service — Amazon Prime Music (no, I don’t get anything for mentioning it!). Slim has a substantial catalogue of his unique music. And it makes it clear that he was one of the best bluesmen of his time — mainly the 1950s, and mainly on the Nashville-based Excello label which specialized in this special, Louisiana-flavored blues.
Slim’s deep rich vocals and hypnotic guitar rhythms are earthy and sinuous, with a sense of urgency driving it all along. He often performed with a harp-playing partner, and one of the most frequent was Moses “Whispering” Smith, another Louisiana-style bluesman.
Slim basically had two careers, one in the 1940s and ’50s, and another in the 1970s, after he was rediscovered in Pontiac, Mich. In the 1950s, he had a number of regional hits, and his “Rooster Blues,” hit the national R&B charts in 1959.
In the ’70s, Slim performed on European tours, in the United Kingdom and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. He last toured the UK in 1973 with the American Blues Legends package.
If you have never heard him, this might be a good time to grab some of his fine blues. If you have, take a refresher course.
In July 1974, Slim died of stomach cancer in Detroit, Mich. He was 61.
Lightnin’ Slim and Whispering Smith in a 1972 performance: