His real name was Albert Luandrew and he was born in Vance, Mississippi, on September 5, 1907. He left home at an early age, to escape his stepmother and a lifetime of rural toil, and became a musician. His first job as a piano player was at a movie-theater in a small Mississippi town, where he entertained the audience while the reels were being changed.
He soon found his way North and played with such artists as Ma Rainey, Blind Boy Fuller, and Robert Johnson. Sunnyland met Little Brother Montgomery, a fellow pianist and singer, in the 1920s, and the two became life-long friends. Although he came to Chicago in the thirties, he did not settle here permanently until the early1940s. He became instrumental in creating the Post-War Chicago Blues sound and was the first Blues artist to record for the Chess Brothers’ first label, Aristocrat.
Slim brought to this session a young guitarist by the name of Muddy Waters. The rest is history. The list of people Sunnyland played with reads like a Who’s Who of the Blues: Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, Jimmy Rogers, Snooky Prior, Hubert Sumlin, as well as others who also became famous, such as Von Freeman and Terry Clark, and later Red Holloway. Sunnyland recorded prolifically throughout his long career. He had been involved with smaller labels, such as the famous J.O.B., in which he played a vital role.
Around 1973, he decided to become more engaged in the control of his recordings and started Airway Records, and SweetArt Publishing Company, on which he issued four record albums and three forty-fives. A last album, featuring his gospel tunes, was never realized. I met Sunnyland, who was fifty years my senior, on April 22, 1975, in Grenzach (Germany) near Basel, Switzerland. I ended-up playing with him that night and the following night (see Airway Records 4757 Live In Europe – 1975), and we became fast friends. We stayed in touch, and in July 1982 I came to Chicago to join his band. We played together for thirteen years, until his death on March 17, 1995. With his wife Geraldine’s permission I continued the label. As of the beginning of 2012, Airway Records’ catalog features ten CDs.
*Sam Burckhardt and Sunnyland Slim, 1991, on Sunnyland’s back porch. Photo by Marc PoKempner