By Des Cowley.
Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge
By Martin Hawkins, hb, Louisiana State University Press
Though bluesman Slim Harpo is far from a household name these days – think Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf or John Lee Hooker – his work was esteemed by the cognoscenti of the 1960s British blues revival. Harpo’s songs were recorded by the Kinks, the Pretty Things, the Yardbirds, the Tea Set (later Pink Floyd), and Them. The Moody Blues took their name from one of his songs. And the Stones? Well, they recorded his classic ‘I’m a King Bee’ on their debut album, and returned for more with ’Shake your Hips’ on Exile.
Harpo’s lesser stature can, in part, be attributed to the brevity of his recording career, which lasted just thirteen years, from 1957 to his premature death in 1970, aged forty-six. That, and the fact that his stomping ground was Baton Rouge, far from blues central in Chicago or Memphis. But, as Martin Hawkins’ makes clear, Harpo and his fellow Louisiana musicians, operating at the periphery, forged their own regional variation of the blues.
Hawkins’ dogged research has uncovered an abundance of new information on Harpo’s early years, beginning with his birth, as James Moore, in 1924 on Belmont Plantation, near the small town of Lobdell, northwest of Baton Rouge. While it makes for a convoluted tale, assembled from scant sources, Harpo’s story highlights the complexity of race relations in the American south in the 1930s and 1940s. Thankfully, the narrative picks up apace when Harpo first enters the orbit of record producer JD ‘Jay’ Miller, via fellow bluesman Lightnin’ Slim, in 1956. Miller, around that time, had taken to recording Louisiana blues musicians at his studio in Crowley, Louisiana, licencing the product to Ernie Young’s Excello Records in Nashville. As Hawkins’ notes: ‘Miller always put a lot of a lot of effort into producing a distinctive disc – and he soon developed a recognizable sound, with characteristic echo and unusual percussion’. This distinctive sound can be heard clearly on Harpo’s earliest recordings for Miller, such as ‘I’m a King Bee’ and ‘I Got Love if You Want It’, both featuring his signature harp. One of the strengths of Hawkins’ book on Harpo is that it doubles as the story of JD Miller, Excello Records, and the musicians who pioneered that distinctive sound.
Like many small labels in the sixties, Excello’s strategy for chasing hits was to throw everything at the market, encouraging their artists to try every style then in vogue, from jump blues and ballads to R&B and pop. While artistry might have been the last thing on their mind, they did hit pay dirt with Harpo’s 1961 hit ‘Rainin’ in my Heart’, which charted not just in the national R&B, but crossed over into the popular Hot 100 chart.
Slim Harpo’s greatest success, though, would arrive with his 1966 single ‘Baby Scratch my Back’, one of the last songs he recorded with Jay Miller before his contract with Miller lapsed. In his final years he maintained a hectic schedule of recordings and performances, his music increasingly embraced by white rock n’ roll audiences. He played Chicago and New York, opened for Ten Years After and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers at the Fillmore East, and – hard to imagine – supported Alice Cooper at a club on LA’s Sunset Boulevard. Sadly, he died from a suspected heart attack just as arrangements were being made for him to tour Europe. Had he have lived, it is likely he would have been a regular at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, founded the year of his death, taking his place alongside legends such as James Booker, Professor Longhair, and Snooks Eaglin.
Martin Hawkins will be familiar to many Rhythms’ readers via his classic history of Sun Records Good Rockin’ Tonight, written with Colin Escott. When it comes to telling Slim Harpo’s story, Hawkins is clearly the man for the job, having recently overseen the release of the complete recordings for Bear Family Records, awarded ‘Historical Album of the Year’ at the 2016 Blues Music Awards. His book is a marvel of detail – at times arguably too much so – on not just Harpo and his wife and song-writing partner Lovell Moore, but also on the many Baton Rouge and Louisiana musicians who worked with Harpo or recorded for Excello Records, including Lightnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester, Robert Pete Williams, and others. For a brief few years, they, with Jay Miller at the helm, produced a batch of sides that gave birth to a regional variation of the blues known as swamp-blues.