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Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge

C. Michael Bailey By

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Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge
Martin Hawkins
416 Pages
ISBN: # 978-0807164532
LSU Press

James Moore, AKA, Slim Harpo, was a musician that existed at ground level. In his heyday, one was as likely to see him exiting the Excello Records in Nashville, TN one day and driving a truck in New Iberia, LA, the next, then walking into J.D. Miller's recording studio in Crowley, LA, while working on the docks the day after that. Martin Hawkins has composed a biography fitting for such a contemporary, unacknowledged, hero. Right now, let us take advantage of the technology not available to me in the early 1970s and listen to The Excello Singles Anthology (Hip-O, 2003). You may find this anywhere. This is unlike any other blues recorded. It was given the unfortunate moniker of Swamp Blues, a sound crafted by Miller, using a

"characteristic echo and unusual percussion. He said, 'See, we didn't even have a set of drums in my studio, and, [if] the people we recorded didn't have [their own] drums—we used percussion. We improvised, and that wasn't all bad—because it gave us a different sound. I've used everything from a coke bottle. Beating a newspaper, a saddle from my horse...".

This passage describes the muddy, humid sound achieved on all of Harpo's recordings. It sounds oppressive and thick, smelling of damp, fecund ground and sweat. This is almost spooky music.

Why is Slim Harpo important? I believe that the answer to that question depends on the listener's age. Harpo's recording career began in 1957, when he recorded "I'm A King Bee" backed by "I Got Love if You Want It" (Excello 2113). For the next ten years, Harpo with create a string of hits on Excello records that included, "Blues Hangover" / "What A Dream" (Excello 2184, 1960), "Rainin' In My Heart" / "Don't Start Cryin' Now" (Excello 2194, 1961) -R&B chart #17, US pop chart #34, "Baby Scratch My Back" / "I'm Gonna Miss You (Like The Devil)" (Excello 2273, 1966) -R&B chart #1, US pop chart #16, and "Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu" / "Mailbox Blues" (Excello 2294, 1968) -R&B chart #36. Standing the vestibule of international success, Harpo died of a heart attack January 31, 1970, despite being considered one of the best-behaved blues singers of the period, a fact that makes straight the highway of this story.

Harpo's renown was potently felt during the '60s with this strange sounding blues that could not have been more different from the Chicago brand, or the Delta brand before that. But it was not until around the time of his death that the name Slim Harpo lit up like a Roman Candle. The Rolling Stones recorded a strange little song called "Shake Your Hips" on arguably the band's greatest (if not the greatest rock album) Exile on Main Sreett. (Rolling Stones, 1972). A frantic song with a fast tempo and simple construction. The Stones' version shows its respect for the original. Recorded in the basement of the Villa Nellcôte, in the South of France and tax exile home to Keith Richards, the song retains its humid character because of the heat and closeness experience by the band during the summer of 1971, when is masterpiece was taking shape. For a generation of white Baby-boomers and those that came after, Harpo's name would be forever known.

Author Martin Hawkins did not have a great deal to work with when conjuring Harpo's biography. So, he did what any real historian would do, he researched horizontally around the vertical timeline that was Harpo's life. The result is a book whose narrative makes Baton Rouge and its surrounding area come alive, not just from a music perspective but a human perspective. In the most neutral of tone, Hawkins' describes the institutional racism of the period, infusing it with its own creole brand in the area. His descriptions of the terrain and times is as historically unadorned as the early reportage of the Delta Blues was overtly Romantic. Hawkins' tale is filled with a cast of contributing characters and account of recording sessions and marketing methods that bring Harpo and his contemporaries into sharp relief. The story is one that many living, sons and daughters of the American South, will recognize and appreciate. Hawkins' achievement with, Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge should be celebrated with the other great biographies of American Music.


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