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James Harman: Those Dangerous Gentlemens


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I maintain a band in Copenhagen [Denmark], that back me on my Scandinavian shows; my buddy Tee's great band in Antwerp, Belgium handles all my central-European dates. When the budget allows I fly in certain favorite American players like Kid Ramos, Junior Watson, Stephen Hodges and Nathan James who all joined me on certain dates this year. We always have a ball traveling together and playing all these different countries all spring, summer & fall.

AAJ: More and more of the gigs that you do will pay for you to attend but not your band, unless I am completely off base here. Isn't this the case for most major entertainers who attain a certain stature and demand a certain dollar for doing a gig?

JH: Yes, I suppose so. Many of the festivals have suffered the loss of important governmental backing and lucrative corporate sponsorships. They must put together shows they can afford to guarantee. If, say, ten artists each bring four to eleven players, who all need rooms and meals, it really builds up to an astronomical budget to cover. However, if they can put together a couple of really good bands, who are able to back several artists, well, they can then book the ten artists alone, to be backed by these two good bands and reduce the overhead quite a bit, you see. That way the audience gets to hear all ten artists sing, in their own styles, yet the festival is only paying those ten artists, to sing with these two hand-picked bands, as opposed to another fifty guys! I guess this system has kept the festivals alive, which is far better than the alternative, don't you think?

AAJ: Do you find this as much Stateside as you do overseas?

JH: Yes, just like in Europe, I have great bands, in several geographical areas, who are willing to back me when I get there. I have a band on the east coast, Midwest, down south and on the west's just the way it must be done nowadays.

AAJ: Who is currently in your regular band?

James JH: My regular west coast band? That would be mainly Nathan James, but could be Junior Watson, Kid Ramos, Kirk Fletcher or Rick Holstrom on guitar—it all depends on who's off and who's in town. Buddy Clark is still pretty much my main bassist when I'm in the west. Mike Tempo is the percussionist of choice. When my gigs fall into the same timeframe as John Hammond or Tom Waits, Stephen Hodges becomes unavailable so I usually try for another JHB [James Harman Band] alumnus, Steve Mugalian for drums, when Mr. Hodges is gone. To my knowledge, there are only a few good piano players available today, so I will use the one that's off when I call. My friend Kim Wilson works so much that it's difficult to get my long-time piano playing partner, Gene Taylor often, but I ask Sonny Leyland or Bob Welch as well.

AAJ: When did you start in music?

JH: In 1962 I stopped singing in church and started taking money to sing.

AAJ: It seems I recall seeing something, I don't recall where, promoting a "sixteen year-old James Harman."

JH: Yes, I was sixteen in '62. I had been slipped in, with a fake moustache, to see Little Junior Parker, and started hanging around a number of black night clubs in Panama City, Florida where I lived. I managed to get myself heard and they all started calling me "That boy who sings like a man. Within a year or so I started my own band.

I've pretty much had a band since then. I've restarted several times by moving to Chicago, New York, Miami, New Orleans and, finally, California. I ran an ongoing business, recording and touring all the way through 2000, at which time I gave up carrying my own band everywhere and started taking only fly-in festival dates and being backed by different groups of players everywhere. In order to survive today you must learn to roll with the punches and reinvent yourself.

AAJ: In the years that you have been in the business, what are the biggest changes you have seen?

JH: A white blues audience came only after a very long struggle. Pickings were slim in the early- and mid-60's; I used to play dances for teenagers. We would start playing at 7:00 PM then at 10:00 PM they ran the kids out, swept up the floor and put out the booze, charging a more adult admission and selling booze. We would play all the way until 2:00 AM, when they threw everybody out again and took away the house alcohol, creating a "bottle club. Then we started playing again at 3:00 AM while they charged a whole new crowd to bring in their own bottles and start paying for bowls of ice and Cokes etc. The setup charge was smaller, but hey, they were still open and collecting money. When the bars and liquor stores started closing at 2:00 AM, you could see this mob running to buy a last bottle and make it over to the Red Rooster Club or the Cork & Bottle Club.


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