By Susan Sliwicki
Much like Rodney Dangerfield, poor Bumble Bee Slim can’t get no respect — at least among many collectors of early blues recordings. Say his name and you can expect some eye rolling at the very least, akin to what would happen if a modern music connoisseur tried to argue that 1990s im-popsters Milli Vanilli had untapped talent and artistic depth beyond lip synching, rocking braided hairdos and doing the “running man” dance move.
Unlike Milli Vanilli, Bumble Bee Slim had musical talent, particularly during his early recording career at Paramount, said John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records.
“I never collected Bumble Bee Slim until I heard ‘Rough Rugged Road,’” he admitted. “It’s a great record. Most people really don’t like him, because a lot of pure blues enthusiasts are like, ‘I don’t want to listen to Bumble Bee Slim.’”
Tefteller can relate, as he used to be in that camp. Since discovering Slim’s Paramount recordings, he’s occasionally conducted his own blues version of the old Folgers crystals taste test. Without telling blues enthusiasts who the artist is, he plays one of Slim’s six songs recorded on the Paramount label. The result?
Bumble Bee Slim Born: Amos Easton on May 7, 1905, in Brunswick, Ga.
Childhood: Was writing songs by age 10. Left home around 1920 to tour with a circus. Hoboed extensively as a singing guitarist across the U.S. in the 1920s at bars, halls, parties and juke joints.
Collaborations: Big Bill Broonzy, Cripple Clarence Lofton
Record Label Affiliations: Paramount, Vocalion, Bluebird, Decca, Fidelity, Marigold/Specialty, Pacific Jazz
Instruments: Guitar and piano
Died: 1968 in Los Angeles
“When you hear the Paramounts, they’re all, like, ‘Whoa! These are good. Where did this guy come from?’” Tefteller said.
And when he breaks that news that it’s Bumble Bee Slim? “They’ll acknowledge that it’s pretty good,” he said. So far, Tefteller owns two of the three records Slim (aka Amos Easton) recorded at Paramount’s Grafton, Wis., studios. Slim’s songs are “Yo Yo String Blues” / Stumblin’ Block Blues” (Paramount 13102); “No Woman, No Nickel” / “Chain Gang Bound” (Paramount 13109); and “Rough Rugged Road Blues” / “Honey Bee Blues” (Paramount 13132).
“They didn’t make bad records at Paramount,” Tefteller said. “If you went to Paramount to record — even if, later on in life, you were a mediocre artist — if you did something at Paramount, it’s something people want to sit up and take notice of.”
So why is Bumble Bee Slim — who’s been cited as one of the most popular and prolific blues singers of the 1930s and is credited for helping to develop the so-called Chicago Blues school of the 1930s — so maligned?
“When he left Paramount and went to Decca and Vocalion and other labels, they’re all generic and same-sounding blues records. Nothing really stands out,” Tefteller said. “The Vocalions and Deccas and the later ones are all pretty readily available for under $500. There’s more of them, and they were on more major labels that pressed more copies, and they’re not musically as wonderful as these earlier ones.”
To Tefteller’s knowledge, none of Bumble Bee Slim’s Paramount recordings have ever been sold at an auction open to the public.
“The Paramounts are insanely rare. The two that just turned up in Austin (Texas), they’re hammered to the point where they’re barely playable, so they don’t have a lot of value in that condition. And then, there’s a few copies of them in any condition,” Tefteller said. “If a really nice Paramount turned up of any of the three, it’d be $3,000 or more.”