When considering geographical sources of the Blues, a number of areas immediately come to mind. For example, when the topic of Country Blues enters the conversation, Clarksdale Mississippi jumps to the fore. If the conversation turns to Urban Blues, Chicago immediately comes to mind. That being said, Baton Rouge is hardly the first name that registers when discussing foundational hubs of the Blues.
Although, in time, it would be identified as the home of Swamp Blues, (and Swamp Pop), there are a number of factors that play a role in Baton Rouge taking somewhat of a back seat to other better known and more established Blues locales. Not the least of which were the limited recording opportunities available to the many musicians of Baton Rouge and environs. Simply put, there was a dearth of recording facilities coupled with a scarcity of viable labels and accompanying required distribution networks. Accordingly, any exposure that artists could muster was generated by, and confined primarily to, local live performances. And, although there were a number of venues; generally speaking, those appearances were not enough to establish artists outside the Baton Rouge area. Adding to that fact is that without the recognition, local musicians tended to remain just that – local. (And, to make ends meet, they tended to keep their day jobs.) Unless one happened to frequent Baton Rouge’s Black clubs, they wouldn’t know of musicians such as Lightnin’ Slim, Silas Hogan, Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown, Tabby Thomas, Boogie Jake, and Raful Neal, among others.
(The well-informed will cite that Buddy Guy of Lettsworth Louisiana – located some 60 miles north of Baton Rouge – went on to Nationwide fame and fortune. But, he did so by leaving town in 1957 for the streets and stages of established Chicago Blues clubs – where he earned his celebrity. The very fact that Guy left Baton Rouge rules him out as an exception to the experiences and conditions as noted.)
Having said that, there was one true exception to the above – James Moore AKA Slim Harpo. Harpo had both the talent and good fortune to not only get established locally, (through gigs and records); but also, to record and tour sufficiently to gain National recognition. Added to that, and not to be overlooked, was Slim’s unbending drive and determination to be successful in the music business. This resolve included a willingness to adapt his repertoire to entertain an audience, without compromising his downhome Blues style. (And, as the norm for local working Baton Rouge musicians, even at the height of his stardom, Harpo maintained his various jobs through every stage of his career whether they be as a dock worker, working construction, or hauling steel and sugar cane.) In sum, Slim Harpo would establish Baton Rouge as a base for the Blues.
In keeping with Baton Rouge’s “well kept secret” status, details of both Slim Harpo’s personal and professional life are somewhat clouded in mystery. He gave few interviews and information can be found primarily through accounts from fellow musicians. And, as always with oral history, facts tend to vary when human memory and aligned perspective come into play.
This much we know. Slim found success utilizing a homegrown style that came to be known as Swamp Blues. Swamp Blues is best explained as an amalgam of Blues styles originating from Texas, Mississippi, and Chicago and adapted by Baton Rouge musicians who incorporated popular local genres such as Zydeco and Cajun.
Single releases were the order of the day and Slim Harpo released 22 singles of the more than 40 sides recorded for the Excello label out of Nashville from the years 1957 through 1969. Of those there are 7 titles, in particular, that found prominence, continue to endure, and continue to be covered by other artists: “I’m A King Bee” (1957), “Rainin’ In My Heart” (1960), “Still Rainin’ In My Heart” (1964), “Baby Scratch My Back” (1965), “Shake Your Hips” (1966), “Tip On In (1967)”, and “Tee Ni Nee Ni Nu” (1968).On the strength of these releases particularly and other releases generally, Slim crossed over into the Pop charts and proved to be a great influence on and inspiration to the British Invasion bands. A prime example is The Rolling Stones who introduced Harpo to white teenage North Americans with their cover of “I’m A King Bee”. Other noteworthy covers included: The Kinks with “I Got Love If You Want It”, Them with “Don’t Start Crying Now”, and Dave Edmonds / Love Sculpture with “Shake Your Hips”.
The Slim Harpo story began in his birthplace of Lobdell, West Baton Rouge Parish on January 11, 1924. To provide some context, Lobdell is located some 10 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. Baton Rouge, in turn, can be found 80 miles northwest of New Orleans. A number of accounts state Slim’s full name as James Isaac Moore; but his birth certificate states his (only) given name as Isiah. Further, there’s no information as to how or when he started to call himself James. If nothing else, it stands as further evidence that facts surrounding Slim tend to get a little murky.
Harpo grew up in nearby Port Allen and would live in the area for his whole life. Slim’s father died when he was in the 10th grade forcing Slim to leave school to support the family; (his mother, brother, and 3 sisters). As a male adolescent, taking on a provider role was an expected and common occurrence in country living. Slim elaborated on that reality in an interview with Jim Delehant of Hit Parader magazine in describing his rough childhood: “In the country when you get to be 12 you’re like a grown man, and you have to go to work”.
Listening to and playing music was a popular pastime for Harpo and fellow residents when not working in the fields or whatever menial jobs that presented themselves. That is, if one could afford a radio, or an instrument, or even the means of transportation to Baton Rouge to buy one on a relatively meager income. (Slim, for his part, as previously mentioned, was gainfully employed throughout his career. The fact that the harmonica, Slim’s primary instrument of choice, was a comparatively cheaper purchase than, say, a guitar, may have initially steered him in that direction.)
Slim‘s first exposure to music was Blues played by people that he lived and worked with as well as listening to Blues exclusively on the radio. Harpo stated that his favourite performers were B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and, most of all, Blind Lemon Jefferson. (Jefferson, from Coutchman Texas, was immensely popular in the area having worked the streets, brothels, saloons, and parties in Texas as well as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia).
Having already taught himself harp and guitar at an early age he began blowing harp in jam sessions and at local parties. As Harpo started to shape his hard driving and straightforward style, he gained sufficient confidence to play Baton Rouge’s Black clubs. Using his newly adopted stage name “Harmonica Slim”, he performed as a sideman with various guitar players. One of those guitar players, Otis Hicks – soon to be known as “Lightnin’ Slim”; and coincidentally Harpo’s brother-in-law – would play a vital role in his career by bringing him to the attention of J. D. Miller of Crowley Louisiana.
J. D. (Jay) Miller, a former Country and Cajun player turned entrepreneur, had a makeshift recording studio in Crowley Louisiana, (located 75 miles southwest of Baton Rouge). There he developed a distinctive, echo laden recording technique that proved to contribute to the Swamp Blues sound as much as the songs themselves that were committed to tape. Rarely using a full drum kit, he still managed keep the groove with unusual percussive support such as a saddle and / or wooden blocks.
Miller recorded a number of local musicians on various labels that he owned, but reserved the works of his roster of Baton Rouge based Blues musicians for his arrangement with Ernie Young’s Excello Records out of Nashville Tennessee. The arrangement as such was that Miller would record Lightnin’ Slim, Lonesome Sundown, and Lazy Lester and the like; and send the master tapes of what was deemed the best material to Young who would release the songs, (as singles), on the Excello label. As part of the agreement, Young and Miller would each take a predetermined share of the royalties and sales. Although distribution was primarily confined to Young’s retail and wholesale business, (Ernie’s Records), and his mail order business, Excello did make inroads with discerning Blues record buyers on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was at a planned 1955 recording session with Otis Hicks / “Lightnin’ Slim” that Miller was first introduced to James Moore / “Harmonica Slim”. Hicks, after having partnered with a number of harp players, was now teamed up almost exclusively with Moore for his live dates; and brought him to the session to back him on prospective recordings. At the recording date Hicks took Miller aside, and, as a favour, asked him to record Moore as a feature artist as well. Miller reluctantly agreed to listen to one of Moore’s songs but remained skeptical. He remarked that he liked his harp playing but wasn’t enamoured with either his singing or his material. He invited Moore to come back when he had something better to record.
It was sometime later that Moore returned with songs, two of which – “I’m A King Bee” and “I Got Love If You Want It” – met with Miller’s approval. “King Bee” in particular appealed to Miller. After listening to the playback, with the objective of making a unique sounding recording, Miller urged Moore to alter his vocal delivery to a more nasal sound. Miller also told Moore that a name change was in order because there was already someone recording as “Harmonica Slim” on the west coast. With that, Miller claimed that he came up with the name Slim Harpo. (This is disputed by Harpo’s wife, Lovell, who maintains that she and Slim himself came up with the name).
Whatever the case may be, “I’m A King Bee” b/w “I Got Love If You Want It” was Slim Harpo’s first release in 1957, and marked the start of Harpo’s 12 year recording career. With Miller’s help** of artist management, bookings, and providing transportation through occasional use of his van, Slim leveraged the success of those singles, other Excello recordings, and selected covers to hire a supporting band and start to expand his gigging and touring horizons.
(**It’s worth noting that the Jay Miller / Slim Harpo union didn’t last for the duration of Slim’s career. Although the parties proved to be a winning combination, Slim’s relationship with Miller was always somewhat strained. Slim, (and Lovell, his wife and business partner), continually questioned some of Miller’s business practices. That led to a parting of ways in October of 1966 after the Miller / Harpo contract had expired – a split that was fuelled by a disagreement over royalties. Harpo, in turn, then signed directly with Excello Records. Business disagreements aside, Harpo always acknowledged Miller’s expertise and role in developing his sound).
While the line-up of Slim Harpo & The King Bees frequently changed dependent on the opportunity and economics, Slim’s core band at the time was comprised of:
Slim Harpo – vocals, harp, guitar
Rudolph “Rudy” Richard – guitar*
James Johnson – guitar*
Willie “Pro” Parker – tenor sax
Sammy K. Brown – drums
(*Slim didn’t use a bass player. Instead, Richard and Johnson would alternate playing the bass parts on guitar).
With his band Harpo solidified his following among African Americans through constant gigging at the various Baton Rouge clubs. He also started to build a younger white fan base through playing the local Sunday night CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) dances, as well as college fraternity parties. It proved to be a slow climb, but his local success on both of these fronts led to jobs outside of Baton Rouge. (Harpo aspired to play for a white audience not only to expand his following but also because those gigs proved to be comparatively better paying jobs).
Harpo started to tour more extensively outside of Baton Rouge with increasingly lucrative engagements. On out-of-town tours Slim was accompanied by his wife Lovell who provided much needed and welcomed support on the road. If Jay Miller can be termed a major contributor to Slim’s success, Lovell stands on an equal plane with him in that regard. Among other matters was her contribution to Slim’s songwriting efforts. Although Jay Miller may have disagreed, Harpo was quoted as saying: “I write most of my songs with my wife Lovell. If I got a melody, she’ll come up with the words”. Lovell herself chimed in with: “We wrote songs while we were travelling – songs like ‘Tee Ni Nee Ni Nu’, ‘Mailbox Blues’, ‘Scratch My Back’. We also did ‘I’m A Bread Maker’, all that stuff; we did just about all of them while we were travelling”. Slim’s sometime drummer Jesse Kinchen went even further: “She was his backbone. She took care of all the business and wrote down all the stuff and took care of all the money for him”.
Although Slim wasn’t on a high profile label as some of his peers, he still sold records, and continued to make his mark based on his well received live performances. Given Slim’s somewhat alternative status, surprisingly, the ball started rolling with a 1961 appearance on the hugely popular Nationally televised American Bandstand. There, on Bandstand, he mimed his first entry onto the Pop charts, the Billboard Top 40 Swamp Pop classic “Rainin’ In My Heart”.
Other highlights included a 5-week Eastern U.S. tour with James Brown that culminated in a March 1966 sold out show at Madison Square Garden. That was followed soon after with a stint at Chicago’s Regal Theatre. Slim Harpo was on a roll.
One of Slim’s most memorable appearances – and one that received considerable media coverage – was in 1968 at Steve Paul’s celebrated New York venue The Scene. Slim’s introduction was publicized as “The Blue Rock Event Of The Year! The American Underground Debut Of Slim Harpo!”. Performing as a 3 piece to keep it as basic and gritty as possible – Harpo on vocals, harp and guitar; Lightnin’ Slim on guitar and vocals, and Jesse Kinchen on drums; he was an instant hit. After a stellar opening week performance, Slim would triumphantly return 4 times in a 2-month period.
The following year would find Slim playing venues such as the Fillmore East and Electric Circus in New York as well as L.A.’s famed Whiskey-A-Go-Go to great fanfare and reviews. (Slim, hoping to capitalize on his new found success, as well as appear “hip” and current, reflected on his new found success with releases such as “The Hippy Song” and a cover of Charlie Rich’s “Mohair Sam”).
And it didn’t stop there. It seemed that Slim Harpo, at 45 years of age, was going to reap the benefits of his labours. Plans were in place for Slim’s first ever European tour in 1970. That was to be followed by a planned recording session in London joined by admiring name UK Blues Rockers. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be as Slim Harpo was felled by a heart attack on January 31, 1970.
Thus ended the highly acclaimed, short career of Slim Harpo. Of all the Baton Rouge artists, Slim Harpo enjoyed the most mainstream success. Employing immediately recognizable forceful tight arrangements, he wrote and recorded in a variety of styles – whatever was judged to please his audience.
Noted New Orleans music expert, (and author of I Hear You Knockin’), Jeff Hannusch summed it up best: “He (Harpo) was one of the toughest Blues artists of his generation, but he was also comfortable embracing Rock & Roll, Pop, and even Country music”.
SLIM HARPO PLAYLIST
- I’m A King Bee
- I Got Love If You Want It
- Buzz Me Babe
- Don’t Start Crying Now
- Blues Hangover
- Rainin’ In My Heart
- Still Rainin’ In My Heart
- Baby Scratch My Back
- Shake Your Hips
- I’m Your Bread Maker, Baby
- Mailbox Blues
- Tip On In
- Tee Ni Nee Ni Nu
- Just For You
- Rico Ferrara September 2022