What little recognition Carvel Lee Ausborn enjoys today is due to the fact that he hosted a show called « Pickin’ and singin’ hillbilly » on WELO, Tupelo, Mississipi, starting in June 1944. Originally a 15 minutes Saturday show, it increased to 30 minutes and finally to one hour, five days a week. It preceded WELO’s Saturday afternoon Jamboree sponsored by the Black and White store, and on those who got up to sing on the show’s amateur spot was none other than Elvis Presley. The musical influence that Mississipi Slim had over a pre-pubescent Elvis wasn’t that great, but for awhile in 1945 and 1946, Slim epitomized all the glamor of the music business for ten or eleven-year old Elvis. The customized guitar, the easy patter…how alluring it must have seemed to an impressionable kid from the poor end of town. Elvis probably hung around Slim until the Presleys left town at the end of 1948.
By all accounts, Slim (born in Smithville, MS., ca. 1923) was a quiet, easy-going fellow who sang country songs, but liked to call himself an actor and paid as much attention to « giving a show » as to singing. He was a Jimmie Rodgers disciple, and a cousin of the Opry comedian Rod Brasfield. In 1948, he went to WSIX in Nashville with Goober & his Kentuckians. He got onto Opry once or twice.
« Beer drinkin’ blues » (Tennessee 745) was his second record. He had already been (doubtless by his presence on WSIX) noticed by Bill Beasley (co-owner of Tennessee/Republic records in Nashville), who invited him to cut « You’re gonna be sorry » (# 738), a well shuffling hillbilly bopper (1952). This song had been also recorded by Hank Williams’ opening act, Big Bill Lister (Capitol 1488, waxed March 1951) – but it seems a completely different song, and before that, written by Pete Pyle (see his profile elsewhere in this site) and Ed Crowe.
“You’re gonna be sorry“
“Beer drinkin’ blues”download
Ausborn would have several other good bopping sides : « I’m a long gone doggie » (# 794) and « Tired of your lies » (# 827) from 1954. In the latter song, the interplay between the bass string licks on the electric guitar and the steel guitar is particularly impressive. This is the most animated Slim ever became on record, and it hints at some of the energy Elvis might have responded to.
“I’m a long gone doggie“download
“Tired of your lies“download
“I know you can’t be true“download
“Queen for a day“download
Sometime in the mid-1950s (circa 1955), Ausborn came into the Sun studio in Memphis. He announced that he was the man who had taught Elvis Presley to play guitar, and proceded to leave on tape fifteen demo songs. Sam Phillips was away at the time, so the singer left a temporary address in Memphis, and a message at the end of the tape.. »This is Lee Ausborn of Tupelo, Mississipi. These songs were written by Trice Garner and Lee Ausborn. »
During the message, the sound of machinery of some kind can be heard in the background. It is tempting to think that this was a harvester plying up and down outside Slim’s home in Mississipi, and the « tinny » sound of the demos might bear this out. On the other hand, the tape used was standard-issue bulk supply of professional plastic-based Audiotape, implying that these were just rushed, unbalanced 706 Union demos. These demos are either badly miked or perhaps recorded at home and subsequently copied in the studio. Either way Slim’s voice sounds harder and harder pitched. Most of the songs are unexceptional, although « Coffin nails », « I found somebody new » are worthy of release while « Nicotine fits » and « Try doing right » found their way on later compilations. Whether Sam Phillips ever heard the tape is anybody’s guess. « Try doing right » in particular has rather more energy than the Tennessee records, and it’s easy to see how Sun could have turned this song into an interesting record either in an uptempo style or as a Rockabilly item. Slim’s lyrics are in the best tradition of country laments about cheating partners, but they contain a humorous and lighthearted approach that fits the song out of the ordinary.
“Try doing right“download
The whereabouts of Slim for the next couple of years are something of a mystery, but around 1957 he developped a tumor on his arm, and was unable to play the guitar ; he returned to Tupelo, where he did light work (painting and decorating), playing only local shows. He died of a heart attack in 1973.
Sources: biographical details from « Sun, The country years », book written by Colin Escott, Martin Hawkins and Hank Davis. Survey of Mississipi Slim’s Tennessee records from « A shot in the dark » booklet. Label scans and music courtesy from Allan Turner, or 78rpm world site.