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Brother from Another Planet

Against your better senses, you may actually enjoy Harlem Slim's old-timey shtick.

Leave it to some white guy from Houston to adopt the moniker Harlem Slim -- and title his first CD Delta Blues and Piedmont Ragtime -- and make it kinda work.

By choosing to represent the Mississippi Delta and southern Atlantic coastal Piedmont regions, not to mention New York City's historically rich black neighborhood, the man who identifies himself only as Harlem Slim implies that -- mentally, at least -- he is from somewhere else. Anywhere but Houston.

Maybe he is. Just ask anyone who has witnessed one of Slim's frequent local gigs (at folk clubs, blues bars, coffeehouses and various other venues). On stage, the eccentric solo performer named Slim is strikingly different from just about anyone else playing on the scene.

Not only is Slim primarily an acoustic guitarist, but he's one who specializes in replicating certain old-timey sounds on vintage instruments. He's a freak for various models of the National Reso-Phonic guitar, that eerie-sounding metal-bodied instrument (often referred to as the Dobro) that originated in the 1930s. An avid collector, Slim fingerpicks three versions of the National in performance, alternating among two single-cone resonator types (one made of brass, another of steel) and one triple-cone brass-bodied unit. For certain numbers, especially the Piedmont-style material, he also utilizes a wooden flat-top replica of a Depression-era Gibson guitar.

Manipulating such instruments with a rare level of technical proficiency, Slim plays and sings traditional country blues and ditties that can be traced to icons such as Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell and Bukka White; he also intersperses a few original instrumental compositions written in similar veins.

"What I play is primarily from my memories of having listened [on record] to a variety of these styles in my youth," the 45-year-old musician says. "I'm carrying on a tradition. And this is part of the evolution of it. I'm playing the music true to form, with all the impact of the technique and the style and the intent of the original authors."

While some might legitimately question Slim's authority to speak for the intentions of long-gone bluesmen he has never met, few can quibble over his stylistic technique. Same goes for the overwhelming sense of earnestness he projects, in performance as well as in casual conversation, about his musical calling. "When I perform this music, it is altogether a hundred percent heartfelt and sincere," he says, without a blink or hint of irony. "I believe myself to be overcome by the spirit of that perennial Delta bluesman."

In addition to his guitar skills, Slim can vocalize in an intense baritone growl. He vehemently spits out politically incorrect (but historically authentic) blues lyrics such as "Gonna beat my woman, man, till I get satisfied." While there's a gravelly undertone to all his singing, Slim can also deliver a clipped falsetto cry to accent the end of a line. "Some of the Delta material is absolutely tormented and impassioned, a guttural cry," he says. "Again, I become a man transformed when I'm presenting it."

Whatever the explanation for his performance style, transcendental or not, one thing is certain: The guy is somehow making it work. In the 18 months or so since he walked away from a longtime career in sales and started booking himself into local venues, Slim has carved a unique niche in the marketplace. Aside from his self-released debut album (he has wrapped production on a second CD), Slim has promoted himself and his musical cause with an impressive variety of marketing tools: a slick Web site, ads placed in nationally distributed blues magazines, T-shirts, endorsements (for National Reso-Phonic and other products) and countless gigs.

"I've been pleasantly surprised in the short span of time whereby I've taken the marketing and sales savvy that I developed in my past life, and my love for this music, and have systematically developed it, starting from square one with nothing," he says. "I don't consider Harlem Slim to be a particularly original and creative individual, in terms of pioneering any new musical styles. I view Harlem Slim as an individual whose desire is to see that something that is very important is not forgotten."

Since both his first and forthcoming CDs, like his stage show, rely so heavily on an established canon of material widely known to fans of the genre (such as Johnson's seminal "Cross Road Blues" or McTell's frequently recorded "Statesboro Blues"), one has to wonder how this lone musician, who seemingly emerged from nowhere, pulls it all off. The answer lies somewhere behind the carefully crafted persona, a place few fans have ever been.

For instance, when asked to reveal his true identity, the performer and guitar instructor responds with a contrived, melodramatic utterance: "I would like to state emphatically that the spirit of the perennial Delta bluesman has risen from the depths of hell and is manifest in flesh as Harlem Slim. I am the man that is Harlem Slim." Such a ludicrous posture is consistent with the personal information (or, rather, lack thereof) available on his Web site, CD liner notes, print ads and such.

Repeatedly pressed to give his actual birth name, he remains evasive, finally reciting an obviously well rehearsed third-person explanation that "Harlem Slim has renounced detachment to his former slave name and freed himself from the bondage of the conventions of an oppressive society." Then he adds with a grin: "Checks are payable to Harlem Slim."

But over the course of a two-hour interview, this would-be trickster eventually pulls back the curtain a time or two to reveal the man pulling the levers.

Talking about his past life, he says, "The other guy was a professional one-call closer selling vinyl siding for 20 years. Here in Houston, for the last ten years." He goes on to acknowledge that fairly recent changes in home equity lending laws (making it easier to withdraw from home improvement contracts) drove him out of a once profitable but not-so-honorable job. "Prior to that," he says, "half of the people I sold would try and wiggle out. But I could go back and play second-generation pressure tactics."

However, when consumer-friendly legislation rendered the vinyl siding scam a more difficult way to make a buck, the former commission-only predator decided to pursue something he'd always dreamed about: playing (and selling) the old-style music he'd been obsessed with since his teens. The result was a personal rebirth of sorts, and the genesis of one Harlem Slim.

"This other fellow," he says of himself, "took those skills and all that experience and decided, 'Well, I'm tired of going through my life supporting my survival by a livelihood that I really have little respect for, and that I don't particularly enjoy.' And said, 'It's time for Harlem Slim to go to work.' "

Asked where he gets off calling himself Harlem Slim, the performer first offers a potentially misleading explanation: "I'm born and raised in New York, lived there most of my life." Okay, but while Harlem means New York, New York doesn't necessarily mean Harlem, right? Conceding that point, the erstwhile salesman, who is in fact physically slim, adds another tenuous defense: "I learned how to play the Piedmont style directly from an individual who learned how to play it from Reverend Gary Davis, who lived in Harlem."

But a more likely explanation eventually comes to the surface, not surprisingly based in this one-man wonder's instinct for pitching a product. "The other guy's name does not really sound like the type of guy who you would be enticed to go out to hear play and sing the Delta blues," he says. "So, hence Harlem Slim was born, with all the accessory marketing tactics that employ the elements of mystery, danger, romance and, ultimately, triumph over tribulation."

While evidence suggests, and Slim begrudgingly confirms, that the "other guy" is actually named Gary, his surname remains unknown to this writer -- though a quick check of assumed business names at the Harris County Clerk's office reveals that the name Harlem Slim is owned by one Gary George Pisa-Relli. Whoever Harlem Slim is, he's now unapologetically trying to cash in on his musical talent and sales experience. "I determined that this would be my sole livelihood one year and a half ago," he says. "And I determined to handle Harlem Slim not much differently than if I were opening a little convenience store on the corner, like opening up your own small business."

That strategy extends to convincing supporters to provide capital up front to offset expenses for two recording projects. "I've asked enthusiasts if they're able to and willing to help out by making an advance-order purchase of ten CDs each, at the retail price," he says. "I've been able to cover 100 percent of the replication of the initial pressing by way of creative financing with group participation." When queried how he has gained such trust from former strangers, he says, "These people are doing this for no reason other than the fact that they love this music enough to want to enable me to continue pursuing my path."

With the upcoming release of Delta Thug, this strange fellow with all those old-style guitars is sure to continue capitalizing on what he calls "the mystique marketing tact." Salesman that he is, he's also certain to develop new leads for potential fans to sample his wares. Just remember: No matter where he makes his home address, don't call him Houston Slim.


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