I bartend downtown at a cool little dive called Becky’s, and like all bars, it’s got its cast of regulars that haunt the place. Diverse, fun, charming, and even a little weird, they help make the job feel less like a job and more like a sitcom. One of them is this older gentleman who goes by “Hollywood.” He typically says little, usually opting to read a book rather than converse with the other patrons, but when he does speak, it’s a low, gravelly voice.
One day he growled at me, “Kevin, you ought to write an article about me.”
“Oh yeah?” I replied, “Why’s that?”
He produced a folder full of old photographs of beautiful women, scenes of 1970s debauchery, and himself hanging out with blues legends like Robert Lockwood Jr.
“Okay man, I’ll write an article about you.”
This is that article.
Photography: Casey Rearick
Meet Hollywood Slim
Hollywood invited me and my friend Ian, who recorded audio for the interview while I took some video, to his small apartment on the near East side of downtown. It was almost out of a different time period. With the location and character we were interviewing, it felt more like a movie set than an interview for a magazine, which is appropriate because it turns out it was a movie set at one point—the Willem Dafoe flick Tomorrow You’re Gone was filmed in the building and Hollywood even makes a few cameos. Hollywood proceed to tell us all kinds of stories about other lesser-known Cleveland musicians like Little Willy, the harmonica player and singer who was shot and killed by his girlfriend, and Mr. Stress, another frontman who used to live above the Euclid Tavern and worked there as the house musician, either of which could have a separate article devoted to themselves.
He also told me how he rubbed shoulders and jammed with some heavy hitters in the blues world, including greats like Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Robert Lockwood Jr. “Sonny Boy actually had so much work here that he was renting a place in Cleveland,” he explains. “And then, when he left, Robert stayed.” Lockwood, taught by blues legend Robert Johnson and a legend in his own right, became a sort of mentor to the up-and-coming young musicians in Cleveland. Now, more certain than ever that this was going to be an interesting story, I asked Hollywood to start at the beginning.
Greg “Hollywood Slim” Lucic was born in Cleveland in 1950 to John and Margaret Mary Lucic in the St. Alexis Hospital on 49th and Broadway (now gone). “My father brought my mother over here from Ireland,” Hollywood explained. “He met her on R&R during World War II.” A reserve soldier, his father was sent to fight again in Korea at the outbreak of that conflict, and Hollywood went with his mother and older brother back to Ireland to wait out his father’s service.
They made the trip by ship. “I had just started to walk at 13 months, I think,” Hollywood recalls. “As soon as I got my little fat ass on the boat, I didn’t have no sea legs and my mother had to carry me across the Atlantic.”
After the Korean War ended and his father returned home safely, the family moved back to Cleveland where Hollywood’s younger brother, John, was born. Back in the states, his father became a treasury agent, which required him to testify in court against mobsters for tax violations. That must have been as dangerous as it sounds, because Hollywood remembers that it made his mother nervous because his father “was out of town all the time and carrying a gun.”
Learning the Blues
Hollywood first got into the blues as a teenager in the ‘60s through his older brother. “He would bring Rolling Stones records home and he’d start looking at who wrote the songs, and then he started bringing those [records] home. He’d see Jimmy Reed wrote that song and he’d buy a Jimmy Reed album, or he’d see Muddy Waters wrote that song and he’d buy a Muddy Waters album.”
“In those days, you go to like the Giant Tiger or the Uncle Bill’s, the old discount stores at the time,” Hollywood recalls, “and you’d go buy cutout albums for 99 cents and shit. Memphis Slim and all these terrific blues people, you know? But their records ain’t selling nowhere. It’s ‘race records’ in those days.” They weren’t lost on Hollywood, who affirms, “Some of the best blues albums I bought, I paid 99 cents for at Giant Tiger over on Pearl Road by Southview. Amazing. I still got some of those records.”
He played some of these records for me while we hung out. Watching him listen, his passion for the music was evident. A song would end and he’d mutter to himself, “Goddamn.” Then he’d look up and ask, grinning, “Ain’t that something?”
All three brothers were quickly hooked and itching to learn how to play. At 16, Hollywood says he “messed around with drums for a while.” He added, “I had a drumset, and I even worked a little bit messing around with a band for a while as a singer and drummer. But I didn’t like carrying that crap around.” A harmonica would prove better suited to him, and while earning a fine arts degree at the University of Akron, he sold the drums and made the harmonica his instrument of choice.
His first band, Pete Vinegar Rhythm and Blues Quintet, started playing clubs around the region. He says he brought his little brother, who would play guitar in a number of Hollywood’s groups, along with him. “I started taking him out to bars before he was out of high school. My mother used to not like that. She’d say, ‘Now, you watch out for your little brother,’” he grins, adding, “and later on down the line, it was the other way around. She’d say, ‘You watch out for your big brother.’”
Breaking Into the Scene
After gigging around a bit, Hollywood and his bandmates started running into and jamming with some real blues legends. Most notable among them would probably have to be Robert Lockwood Jr., who took a liking to Hollywood and his troop of young upstart blues enthusiasts and took them under his wing.
“Robert mentored a lot of people around town,” Hollywood explains, “He was kind of a grumpy old man, until he saw you were serious. Then he’d end up showing up at your gigs and stuff like that and sitting in. He used to love my brother because my brother plays like he does.” Hollywood says Lockwood was initially standoffish, but the two eventually became friends and collaborators.
I told Hollywood I can personally attest to Lockwood’s standoffishness. When I was a teenager, I saw Lockwood perform prior to his passing in 2006. I went up to talk to him after the show, and I can scarcely recall receiving a stronger “get the fuck away from me” look in my life (and I’ve gotten quite a few). Hollywood laughs at my story and says, “Like I say, he was kind of testy until you get to know him, you know? He always thought people were trying to take advantage of him. I’ve seen him put people in tears trying to take pictures of him. He’d say, ‘You gonna pay me for that?’”
Once Lockwood warmed up to Hollywood and his bandmates, he’d attend their gigs and invite them to play at his weekly jam night at Brother’s Lounge. “I’d see him in the front row at shows where we opened for someone like Koko Taylor,” Hollywood recalls. “My brother would bust out a lead and he’d go, ‘Shit, that little motherfucker plays my shit better than I do.’”
Lockwood is also responsible for one of Hollywood’s main gigs. Lockwood used to lead a house band at a blues hall called the Gaff Room that used to located on E. 55th, south of Kinsman (“It’s an open field now,” Hollywood laments), but had to leave for a Japanese tour. Hollywood and his brother took over the gig. “I was at my older brother’s wedding that day, and we had to leave the wedding reception, me and my brother, to race up here to Cleveland to do a couple sets when Robert was on break with our band and the band that was there. And then we got the job and we became the house band.”
Hollywood remembers the stint at the Gaff Room fondly. “We had a good run there,” he smiles, “Everyone always loved us in those places, you know? They used to take care of us. I’d try to go somewhere on break and go get some barbeque and the guy wouldn’t let me go. He’d make the bartender put the gun in his pants and take me wherever I was going to go. ‘You’re my responsibility when you’re down here.’ It was pretty strange, man.”
Hollywood and his band were real working class musicians, exemplifying the grit that Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities are known for. “My bass player had to work early Monday mornings driving a cement truck. They guy in the deli [at the Gaff Room] would make him up a big corned beef sandwich and he’d put a six pack of Stroh’s in his little cooler, and he’d drive directly to the yard and park next to his truck at four in the morning so he’d know he’d get to work,” laughs Hollywood. “I was lucky at that point. The place I was working at, we were working four [ten hour shifts a week], but we were working Tuesday through Friday.”
Their schedule was grueling. “You’d get home at 3:30, 4:30 in the morning and then have to be at the welding shop at 7:00 or 6:30 or some shit like that,” Hollywood remembers. “You know, by the time you laid down, the next thing you know the birds are chirping and it’s time to go to work.”
Still At It
I asked him about how the Cleveland music scene has changed since his years as a young, working musician. “There were a lot more places around. There were a bunch of places around here,” he recalls, gesturing out the window of his small downtown apartment, “They’re gone now.” He pauses, reflecting, and then adds, “It was good days. There was a lot more music in those days. Blues was in more of an upswing in those days.”
Things may have changed, but Hollywood’s passion for the blues has not. Despite being 67 years old and feeling the effects of a lifetime of smoking and partying, he still plays shows regularly. How much? “As much as possible,” he grins. “I’m playing twice this week.” His band’s gig schedule bears this out. “I’d rather play a little more,” he adds, “but it really whips my ass anymore with the COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a lung condition) and stuff anymore, you know? I don’t blow nowhere near as much harmonica as I used to, but singing don’t bother me near as much as blowing harp. You need a lot more wind for that.”
Check out any of Hollywood’s shows around the city and you’ll quickly see that this local blues legend still has more than enough wind to put on a great show.
The Name “Hollywood Slim”
Initially suspicious that “Hollywood Slim” was not actually the name he was given at birth and that there might be an interesting story behind the moniker, I asked him about it. Pointing to a painting hanging in his kitchen of a portly fellow Hollywood explains, “As you can see by that portrait,” he laughs, “I was kind of chunky when I got out of college.” He shed some pounds after a few years, and his bandmates started calling their newly skinny and shade-wearing friend Hollywood Slim. The name stuck. “Even my family took to calling me ‘Hollywood’,” he chuckles. “There’s too many Gregs in my family.”
Hollywood Slim’s First Gig
“We went out to this one bar [in Valley City] we used to always go to and told the lady, ‘We want to play here,’ you know? She said, ‘Oh, I can’t do music here. I can’t afford that.’ And we said, ‘No, we just want to play here for free, just to get used to playing out in front of people.’ So she said, ‘Alright, if you want…’ So, we started playing out there and just brought tons of people. The place is just packed. The first night we played there for nothing, she gave us a bunch of money, saying ‘I can’t just send you home with nothing, I haven’t made this much money in years!’ And we did it for maybe a month or something. But then we started attracting too many people, and knuckleheads were sneaking in pints of whiskey and a joint, and one of them got so drunk they drove up one of them guard-wires holding a telephone pole up. And the car was hanging on the guard-wire and shit. And they only had two cops out there! It was Valley City, you know? They had the sheriff and the deputy. So the law made them cancel us.”
Hollywood Slim vs. The Mob
“We played 76 Sundays straight at a joint in North Canton. It was kind of like a mob place. I know it was mob controlled because the first night we went in there the guy came over and said, ‘Come over to the table, I’m buying you a drink when you get on break.’ So, I went over there and the guy says, ‘You guys union?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah. The bass player’s a Teamster. He drives a cement truck. He’s gotta be there in the morning. But as far as musician’s unions? No.’ ‘Well, you ain’t playing here no more. Here, it’s union guys.’ That’s how I know it was a mob joint. Later on, the owner came up and said, ‘What’d those guys want?’ I told him [what they said], and he said, ‘Come back next week. Don’t worry about it.’ Never saw them people again, so apparently they just paid whatever they wanted. All they want is a little percentage of what you’re making, and the bands can hardly afford to pay that. Not with the kind of money we were making to drive down to Canton and back, you know?”