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A Life in tune: The real Slim's heyday

He inspired country's first stars, but Dormont's Bryant says he was at his best as a member of the band

Sunday, August 11, 2002

By Rich Kienzle

On a hazy, oppressively hot morning, Slim Bryant stands tall as he greets a visitor at the door of the modest, tidy Dormont home where he's lived 53 of his 93 years. His handshake is firm, his smile wide. The Georgia baritone retains much of the resonance it had half a century ago, when he was a Pittsburgh institution. The Gibson L-5 guitar he used throughout his peak years sits in a corner of his dining room.

At age 93, radio and recording star Slim Bryant of Dormont is still giving guitar lessons and holding forth on country music's earliest days. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

Bryant and his band, the Wildcats, never became national stars, never enjoyed a slew of hit singles. They didn't even play the Grand Ole Opry ("I wasn't a member of the club," he quips). Nonetheless, from 1940 through the '50s, on radio and early local TV, Slim Bryant and his Wildcats were country music to many in this region.

His own contributions began in the early 1930s, when he and his then-boss, fiddler-bandleader Clayton McMichen, reworked a traditional ballad into the bluegrass standard "In the Pines." When Jimmie Rodgers, country's first superstar, recorded Bryant's "Mother, the Queen of My Heart" in 1932, Bryant accompanied him on guitar, making him one of the last living links to Rodgers.

This is a man who implicitly understood every career move, who doesn't just explain what happened, but how and why. His abiding sense of self gave him confidence to take stands when necessary. That hardiness remains unimpaired. As thunder rumbles in the distance, not even the day's steamy humidity fazes him. "I can't stand to be in air conditioning 24 hours a day," he says.

For three hours, interrupted only once by the phone -- a wrong number -- he holds forth on a performing career that began 71 years ago. Articulate, astute and well-spoken, he brings those days to life with stories rich in detail.

But while he lived and worked in the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" era, little about Thomas Hoyt Bryant fits stereotypes of early country performers.

A jazzman's soul

This first of six sons was born in Atlanta on Dec. 7, 1908. His dad was an electrician who played old-time fiddle. His mother, an amateur poet, sang, played guitar and piano. "I think that's where I got my songwriting ability," he says proudly. "She read, was crazy about puzzles and had a wonderful mind. She lived to be 104 years old."


 
 
Audio Samples

During a conversation at his home in Dormont, Slim Bryant talks about the origins of his group, Slim Bryant and the Wildcats.
(1.30MB MP3)

Slim Bryant says it was the talent of everyone in the group that made Slim Bryant and the Wildcats a local institution on radio, television and on stage.
(1.71 MB MP3)

Slim Bryant recalls some of the most famous songs he penned and performed during his musical career.
(671 KB MP3)

Slim Bryant and the Widlcats recorded "Eeny Meeny Dixie Deeny" right after World War II ended. Here is a 30-second sample.
(352 KB MP3)

This is a complete version of "Eeny Meeny Dixie Deeny".
(1.88 MB MP3)

Slim Bryant says the jazzier feel of "Prairie Mary" made it popular in Europe.
(1.83 MB MP3)

The roots of this versatility is evident in the non-traditional sound of "Please Don't Sell My Pappy No More Rum," a 1938 recording by Clayton McMichen's Georgia Wildcats, with Slim Bryant on guitar.
(1.2MB MP3)

Slim Bryant's brother Loppy Bryant sings the lead vocal in "Thunderstorm."
(1.71 MB MP3)

Slim Bryant and the Wildcats perform "The Gal With the Coal Black Hair."
(1.90 MB MP3)

Slim Bryant wrote "Mother, the Queen of My Heart" for singer Jimmie Rodgers. It is the most popular of his tunes, and still gets covered, most recently by Larry Cordle and the bluegrass band Lonesome Standard Time on a 2002 Sugar Hill compilation disc assembled for Mother's Day. Here's a sample.
(451 KB MP3)

Here is the same verse from "Mother, the Queen of My Heart" as it was originally recorded 70 years ago by Jimmie Rodgers with Slim Bryant on guitar. The song has been reissued by Bear Family records.
(430K MP3)

Slim Bryant prefers not to perform without the Wildcats, but still teaches guitar lessons and plays occasionally at music festivals.
(424 KB MP3)


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He grew up hearing important local country acts such as Fiddlin' John Carson and Gid Tanner's Skillet Lickers (with McMichen on fiddle) yet didn't decide to play guitar until entering the electrical trade after high school. Sixteen months studying with renowned Atlanta jazz banjoist-guitarist Perry Bechtel gave him a broad musical palette and a jazzman's soul.

His guitar heroes were jazz pioneer Eddie Lang and pop singer Nick Lucas. Of Lucas, he says, "I never heard anybody who could sing and then play a chorus. I copied his accompaniment because he was better than country music. I helped introduce this into country music." Others agree. In his book "Country Music U.S.A.," historian Bill Malone points out that Bryant "began playing single-string solos and 'sock' rhythm [a percussive closed-chord style] long before most guitarists."

In May 1931, Bryant abandoned electrical work to join Clayton McMichen's new band, the Melody Men. He spent the next six years with McMichen and his renamed Georgia Wildcats at radio stations in Kentucky, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh (a brief 1931 stint at KDKA), Chicago, Cleveland and New York. During their 1933 residency at Chicago's WLS "National Barn Dance" show, a teen-age Les Paul faithfully attended to hear Bryant's guitar playing.

The Georgia Wildcats' hip, swinging style, totally different from the Western Swing music of Texas, reflected McMichen's and Bryant's love of jazz. In 1934, younger brother Raymond "Loppy" Bryant became the Wildcats' bassist. But in 1937, when McMichen formed a 12-piece dance band in Louisville, both Bryants, guitarist Jack Dunigan and several others amicably parted ways.

"I liked the music," he says. "But I also liked to make money, and I didn't see any money to be made. McMichen was a wonderful man. You see him, you like him. I hate to say this because I owe him a lot -- he wasn't that good a businessman."

After hiring Louisville tenor banjoist Jerry Wallace, they returned to KDKA as Slim, Jack and the Gang. Gifted Apollo fiddler Kenny Newton joined the group in 1938. Borrowing the name Georgia Wildcats, the group left Pittsburgh and moved to Richmond. After a musicians' strike put them on hiatus, Loppy Bryant and his first wife, from Zelienople, visited Pittsburgh. When he made a courtesy call at KDKA, program director George Hyde invited the band back. They arrived on Aug. 10, 1940.

"I liked Pittsburgh," Bryant says with a smile. "I liked [KDKA's] 50,000 watts."

In June 1941, they joined the new "KDKA Farm Hour" Mondays through Fridays and played 11 songs between the day's news and farm reports and, always, a hymn at precisely 6:23 a.m. When Wallace joined the Marines during World War II, KDKA bandleader Maurice Spitalny suggested local accordionist Al Azzaro, whose robust sound beefed up the band even after Wallace's return. By then, they were simply the Wildcats.

"In Georgia, when I was about 7 or 8," he recalls, "we'd play hide and go seek. One girl had a saying: 'Eeny Meeny, Dixie Deeny, hit 'em a lick and Johnny queeny/ Time, time American time, eighteen hundred and ninety-nine.' That was time, and you better be hid. I changed it around, put music to it."

Toting audition discs, Bryant visited New York in the fall of 1946 seeking a recording deal. RCA producer Steve Sholes liked "Eeny's" catchy melody, but felt the band sounded like his newest act, Pee Wee King's Golden West Cowboys. Slim did better with upstart Majestic Records. In October, the Wildcats recorded 16 songs in New York for Majestic. Sholes, however, didn't forget that catchy song.

"Eeny Meeny Dixie Deeny" became a substantial hit, its success limited by Majestic's growing pains. While the label (which folded in 1948) couldn't press enough copies and lacked strong national distribution, RCA had no such problems. Sholes (who signed Elvis Presley in 1955) had vocalist Zeke Manners "cover" the song.

"Zeke outsold us two to one," Bryant explains wistfully. "I'll be in a store and somebody'll come up to me singin' it. Older people that remember us ..."

A country legacy

The Wildcats recorded 287 songs in New York for Thesaurus Library, which supplied subscribing radio stations with LP-like discs they could use as pre-recorded, self-contained 15-minute shows. Those programs mirrored the variety at the heart of their musical ethos: country and pop, Western and polkas, with a bit of gospel and jazz.

Bryant sang novelties; he and Newton played swinging instrumentals. Newton crooned country ballads. Loppy sang Jimmie Rodgers-style tunes. Azzaro's polkas were beloved, and Wallace now added fluent, pungent electric guitar. Everyone harmonized. "We had the town people listenin', not just the farmer," he explains. "It was not like some guy in Nashville and four backup guys. There were five guys and every one of them had to be good enough to be a soloist or we wouldn't be on there!"

 
 
Related article

Legendary Jimmie Rodgers embraced Bryant's 'Mother, Queen of My Heart'

   
 

On Jan. 11, 1949, the quintet participated in WDTV's inaugural broadcast from the old Syria Mosque. The next day, ad agency executive Vic Maitland, who handled Duquesne Beer's account, offered Bryant a five-day-a-week, 15-minute show. Noting WDTV didn't have a full studio, he declined.

When Maitland created the weekly "Duquesne Showtime" with rotating local hosts, Bryant agreed to host once a month. At a meeting, Bryant heard Maitland's assistant announce the Wildcats would open the show then defer to the evening's guest, folk singer Burl Ives.

"I said, 'That ain't the way it's gonna be!' He said, 'Well, that's the way we want it.' I closed up my briefcase and said, 'You can getcha another boy!' I walked out the door -- left them sittin' there." Maitland, who wasn't present, called to find out what happened. Bryant told him, adding, "You know damn well that I ain't gonna do that. This is gonna be our show or else we ain't gonna be on it!' "

Bryant got his way. The Wildcats shared "Showtime's" spotlight with their guests. "If you don't stand up for yourself, you're dead!" he asserts.

Their musical polish proved an asset. "When they brought Rosemary Clooney in, they didn't have to have another band," he says proudly. They graduated to "Slim Bryant and His Wildcats," a 15-minute Saturday night WDTV show. When Iron City took over sponsorship, the show expanded to a half-hour and moved to Friday nights, remaining there after WDTV became KDKA in 1955. Iron City even added a Thursday night show from WTRF for the Wheeling market.

"We never had any guests at all. Nancy Fingal, our girl singer, was a very talented girl. She was singin' Sinatra tunes, that kind of stuff. We didn't play that much of 'em except pop tunes that fit into the country tunes."

These were the Wildcats' peak years. An MGM recording contract yielded little success, but starting in June 1955, they occasionally appeared on the ABC network's "Jubilee U.S.A." and continued appearing onstage at local amusement parks and occasionally at East Coast and Midwestern fairs.

Live TV had its perils. "I had a song with about seven or eight verses. I wrote out a 'goof sheet' [cue card] and gave it to this stagehand. There was no such thing as a Teleprompter then. He was a little boozy and fell over on the floor. I struggled on. I remembered the song all right. But that's one of the funniest things that ever happened."

When Les Paul and Mary Ford visited a KDKA morning show, "they had me come down and I was in back of the curtain. They asked Les, 'You ever meet a guy by the name of Slim Bryant?' He said, 'He was my idol!' So they pulled the curtain back and there I was, and we finished out the program."

'A pretty good group'

Everything changed by 1958. Network programming vaporized local prime-time schedules, and the Wildcats' days on the "Farm Hour" ended. In 1962, while son Tom attended the University of Pittsburgh, Slim and Mary Jane, his wife of 28 years, opened Slim Bryant's Card and Gift Shop in Dormont. He started teaching guitar.

"I taught one of the councilmen's sons at my house, and people found out and they wanted to take lessons, so I built a studio in the card shop. I taught the whole time we were there."

The Wildcats scattered. Azzaro continued playing locally. Newton moved to California and Wallace left for Vegas. Loppy died of lung cancer in December 1968. "Never a day goes by that I don't miss him. He was my right arm," he sighs. Today, all are gone. "Al died, Nancy died and," he somberly raps the tabletop, "I'm still here."

He performed at a few music festivals, but the Bryants ran the card shop until 1980, when Mary Jane became ill with the same neurological disorder that claimed actor Dudley Moore this year. She died in 1987.

He still teaches two days a week and takes it seriously.

"I tell [students], 'I'll teach you to play the guitar; I'll teach you to read music. You can play whatever you want to. [But] I don't teach rock 'n' roll.' I don't teach but a few students."

Indifferent to today's studio-slick, rock-flavored country, he's had reservations about the music's direction for years. "I don't listen to it now," he declares. "They're givin' the people what they want, but I didn't like it and I still don't like it. No ..."

Of his own career, he says, "There's a few things you can look back and think you might have done differently. Otherwise, I don't think it's been too bad. A lot of people thought that what we played was too good for country music, but we stayed around a pretty good while playin' it. If we had just been a one-man show, we'd have been around six months or a year and that would've been it."

His goal, he concludes, was "to do the best job I could. I inspired the guys. They progressed and learned just like I did. We had a pretty good group."


Rich Kienzle is a nationally known country music journalist, critic and historian. He resides in Greensburg.

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