It’s central to this music and his way of life, Watermelon Slim has learned a lot from failure.
Now, William P. (Bill) Homans, III, has found his success life, too. His 2019 album Church of the Blues hit No. 1 on the Living Blues Charts, top five on the Roots Music Report and debuted in the top ten in Billboard.
Watermelon Slim & The Workers garnered 17 Blues Music Award nominations in four years including a record-tying six in both 2007 and 2008. Only bluesmen like B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray have landed six in a year and Slim is the only blues artist in history with twelve in two consecutive years.
“I’ve had a little bit of success in a life marked mostly by failures,” said Slim as he sat in the friendly confines of Blues Berry Café in downtown Clarksdale just a week before Thanksgiving. “I’m thankful. I call myself a minor league professional bluesman.”
He moved to Clarksdale years ago as an established musician. Blues are his forte. But he’s quick to point out his music often has a positive twist on a life truth. Slim called it an “up.”
A fixture at local blues clubs and a regular at Clarksdale’s many blues festivals, Slim said he has found his place in life.
“I love a wide variety of music and grew up listening to classical music and church music, and I’m a child of the 60s and did the rock and roll thing,” he explained. “But nothing satisfies the heart like the blues.”
Born into the home of a prominent Boston attorney, divorce followed and his mother moved to North Carolina, where a maid sang blues riffs while she cleaned house and Slim and his siblings.
“I was about five years old and Beulah Huggins sang these songs. I later found out they were John Lee Hooker tunes,” said Slim. “My mother and grandparents used to get me to sing those lines to them.”
Getting that positive feedback on stage is the fuel for every entertainer. Slim learned early to enjoy those moments.
He got his first harmonica – a Marine Band Harmonica in the key of C – at the age of eight in Clearwater, Fla., for a whole 75-cents.
And a star was born.
“Whatever I have put my hand to, I have worked very hard to do it well,” said Slim. “It hasn’t always worked out, but that’s life.”
He also pointed out that is the irony of a true bluesman. There are many famous and fabulously rich Country, Rock & Roll and R&B stars – not so much with bluesmen.
Slim attended Middlebury College in Vermont on a fencing scholarship. His first paying gig was a night on stage at a local club playing harmonica. But college didn’t work out, it was the 60s, he enlisted in the Army and soon found himself in Vietnam.
“I served faithfully and was honorably discharged,” said Slim. “But I saw things that weren’t right.”
He was oversprayed with Agent Orange while on patrol, he lost buddies and he came down with some kind of jungle disease that put him in the hospital.
“I bought a $5 guitar and learned to play,” said Slim. “I used a Zippo lighter as a slide.”
Back in the states, his grandmother bought him a $400, 1938 National steel guitar as a homecoming gift. It was stolen within a year. He bought a second one and it has been stolen three times.
“It always came back to me,” said Slim. “The first two times I found out who did it and got it back. The third time it was stolen, I thought it was gone. I got a letter from a guilt-ridden thief – who I had been praying down curses on – and he told me where I could pick it up.”
Slim smiled when he explained that divine justice and patient humility are a cornerstone of the hope found in blues music.
He worked the docks of the Northeast as a healthy young man and even got into a little trouble.
He moved to Oklahoma, bought land with his nest egg and became a truck farmer.
Cantaloupes, okra, beans, peas and, yes, watermelon were all raised on the Homans’ place.
“Drought, flood, bugs, falling prices and rising costs; I saw it all,” said Slim. “But I always made money on watermelons.”
It was during a record heatwave in July 1980 that William Homans found his stage name.
“It was 113-degrees and I had stopped to eat a watermelon and rehydrate,” said Slim. “I sat there in the blazing sun with a slice of watermelon in one hand and a D harmonica in the other.
“It was my Damascus Road experience,” said Slim. “I never looked back.”
He had always played weekend gigs, but the focus now was music.
Truck driving, a stint earning a Bachelor and Master’s degree in history and education, painting, working at a sawmill and driving a forklift followed, but the target was his music.
Watermelon Slim’s music is now rooted in the Mississippi Delta. He plays his dobro guitar lap-style, left-handed and backwards, with a slide. While for decades typically an acoustic performer, he turned to playing electric guitar.
He has played with a long list of blues performers: Robert Cray, Charlie Musselwhite, Bob Margolin, Curtis Salgado, Bonnie Raitt, Super Chickan, Hubert Sumlin, Bob Stroger and Big George Brock.
He played three songs on harmonica with John Lee Hooker in Boston in 1970 at age 21.
“John Lee was the Number One influence in my music,” states Slim. “Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters are tied for second.”
Watermelon Slim has played in 27 countries and every state in America.
“I’ve lived a fuller life than most people could in two,” said Slim. “If I go now, I’ve got a good education, I’ve lived on three continents and I’ve played music with a bunch of immortal blues players.
“I’ve fought in a war, been mugged in Clarksdale, been married and divorced, raised a family and even met Nelson Mandela,” he added. “I’ve seen an awful lot and I’ve done an awful lot. If my number comes up tomorrow, I’d go out on top.”
And when you listen to his music, watch him play and see him smile, you know his words and his blues are true.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story and additional photos can be found in this month's edition of Coahoma Living Magazine. Copies can be picked up a the Clarksdale Press Register office at 128 East Second Street.