The Island Arts Foundation is proud to be bringing blues sensation Sarasota Slim to The 13th Annual Taste of the Beach. A skinny Florida boy, Slim has been playing the blues since he was just a kid, when he got a guitar at the age of 13 because “every teenager at that time – 1969 – had to have one.” Over the years, he has played with such blues legends as Johnny Winter, Freddie King, B.B. King, Lonnie Mack, Etta James, Lucky Peterson, Gregg Allman and Rock Bottom. I spoke with the affable Slim, also known as Gene Hardage, and he talked about his life playing the blues and how excited he is to be representing the Island Arts Foundation at this year’s Taste.
Sarasota Slim, a self-described “True Florida Cracker”, was born in Fort Walton Beach and grew up in Sarasota. He has been playing gigs all over the state since he was in his 20’s. “My early influences were Clapton, Hendrix, all the guitar-hero guys of that time,” he said, his unassuming Southern accent belying the magnitude of music the man has played in the 30-some years since he first picked up a guitar, “Then I discovered the blues through the music of the Allman Brothers, who were a very important part of life here in the early 70’s. I started understanding where they were getting it from.” Gene told us that he went to every blues concert that came through, and listened to public radio station WMNF. “They brought in some pretty eclectic things,” he said, “It was a great way of expanding your musical horizons.”
In his 20’s, Slim began playing with the late Rock Bottom, who was extremely popular in the Sarasota area at the time. “He was a harmonica player and a real blues nut!” said Slim. “At a certain point, we did a Scandinavian Tour – we went to Norway and Finland. I was supposed to go with them the following year, too, but then the Chernobyl accident happened and I decided to stay home. That’s when Sarasota Slim officially began – when I went from playing guitar in other peoples’ bands to starting my own.”
Including the folks mentioned earlier, Slim has played with “countless people” since striking out on his own, including former Allman Brothers keyboardist Tim Hedding, and “two of his bigger influences” Lucky Peterson and his dad, James. He has released six albums, four on the Italian label Appaloosa, and two on his own Possum Phono-Graphics label – Snook Fishin’ (1999) and Boney Fingers (2001). Slim likes to play original music, which helped him land the record deal with Appaloosa.
“I like doing a lot of my own stuff,” he told me. “It’s a real flattering moment when someone requests a tune without even realizing it’s one of yours – all their expectations of what its supposed to sound like (if it was a cover) aren’t there, and you know that they’re just enjoying what you’ve done.”
Slim is looking forward to bringing his music to Fort Myers Beach. He says that he’ll be doing his originals, along with some covers, too. “If you do nothing but your stuff, people will hate you because they won’t recognize it, and if you do nothing but covers, they’ll hate you because they’ll think you can’t play originals,” he explained, laughing. “I plan on doing a variety of styles, a ‘blues variety show’ of screaming electric, subtle ballads and my own unique way of playing slide guitar.” He says he rarely prepares a set list in advance, preferring instead to “look out at the audience and get a feel for what they want.”
Hardage says he’s especially looking forward to playing here because he suspects a lot of Islanders haven’t heard of him. “Up here in St. Pete, I’m a big fish in a little pond,” he said. “I always look forward to going to a new place where you have to prove yourself to people who don’t know you. Can you really make people happy? Converting new people – that’s what it’s all about!”
Slim did tell me that people could expect to hear “probably some obscure Wilson Pickett, maybe some Rick Derringer, and, of course, some Johnny Winter slide stuff.” As if we couldn’t figure it out from talking to him, a review from Vibe magazine lets us know without a doubt that we can expect more from this versatile musician than copycat blues. “Though known as a bluesman, Slim’s repertoire includes heaps of funk, R&B, swing and even a taste of calypso,” wrote Vibe music critic Bryan Powell after a show.
Slim told me how he came to be headlining one of the Island’s biggest parties.
“Carl (editor of the Sand Paper) and I have a mutual friend – Sean Carney,” said Gene. “We’ve surfed blues websites together on a number of occasions and when he found out he couldn’t play the Taste because he would be on tour in Europe, he said he had to recommend the gig to someone he knew wouldn’t screw it up and that’s when he called me.”
I caught up with Carney, who has played the Taste of the Beach for the last couple of years, enjoying a rare afternoon off in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Since winning the International Blues Competition in Memphis last year, Carney’s star has been on the rise, which explains why he won’t be here for this year’s event as he’s headed off to Europe. He told me how he wanted to make sure that the Island Arts Foundation had a suitable replacement, and that’s when he thought of Slim.
“There’s a growing number of musicians that I’ve become acquainted with in the blues network,” said Carney. “But Slim’s reputation as a smokin’ guitarist and versatile singer and musician precedes him. I’ve heard nothing but good things about him and during my travels through Florida, everyone speaks highly of him.”
Sean made sure that I told his fans here “not to worry! I’ll be returning to my second hometown of Fort Myers Beach for the IAF Christmas concert and for the Sand Paper’s 9th birthday party in February.”
Island Arts Foundation President Carl Conley said, “Slim might not be a national household name, but amongst his peers he’s highly respected. I could go on about him but the best thing I can tell readers to do is go on his website – http://www.sarasotaslim.com, particularly the “bragging rights” section, where you can see that he has shared the stage with many a heavyweight.”
Sarasota Slim will be performing at the 13th Annual Taste of the Beach on Saturday, June 8th. This year’s Taste, which is being held for the first time on the beach, promises to be the best ever and this southern gal can think of no better way to kick off the summer than enjoying some great food and working it off boogeying to belly-bustin’ blues!