The 1960s British blues boom's favourite Louisiana bluesman (his song I'm A King Bee was an early Rolling Stones' cover), Slim Harpo remains the state's seminal swamp bluesman. His lazily drawled, bluesy vocals, framed by fleet-of-note guitar, simple harmonica and grinding funky rhythm section, helped define a timeless form of modern blues that was rooted in Deep South tradition.Towards the end of his brief life, however, Slim was busy modifying his blues with elements drawn from the then-voguish soul and progressive rock genres. At the time of their first release, many blues purists were apt to dismiss these trends and recordings out of hand. With hindsight, though, the blues produced at the end of Slim's career sound as strong as anything he recorded earlier (and they benefit from the weight added to the musical fidelity by their improved studio sound and stereo recording).These 25 sides include Slim's classic and truthful version of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues, a threatening, slow-grinding Jody Man, a sly, boastful Dynamite ("I'm dynamite pretty baby/All you do is light my fuse"), a great version of (the much over-recorded) Rock Me Baby, the southern-fried recipe of Tee-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu and the classic 2-part Tip On In. Guitarist Lynn Ourso, who played on Harpo's later Baton Rouge Sessions recalled: "It was a dream working with Slim Harpo because he was my hero..We lost one of the greats when Slim died".
Whether it was another of Crowley, Louisiana swamp blues producer J.D. Miller’s brainstorms or the inspiration of the harpist’s wife (reports vary), James Moore was rechristened Slim Harpo at his first session as a leader in March of ’57 after being informed that his previous stage name, Harmonica Slim, was already spoken for. Miller didn’t have to search very hard to discover Moore, born January 11, 1924 in Lobdell, Louisiana near Baton Rouge. He was a sideman for the producer’s first important blues discovery, guitarist Lightnin’ Slim, and had recorded with him in Crowley as far back as the autumn of 1955.
"He was Lightnin's harmonica blower," said the late Miller. "I had no idea that he wanted to make records. He had Lightnin' come and ask me if I'd record him. Well, I hadn't heard him sing, so I told Lightnin', ‘I'll listen after we get through the session.’ I did, and it sounded pretty bad. So I told Lightnin', 'I don't believe I can use him. He's not too good a singer.' He said, 'Mr. Miller, I sure wish you would, because he might quit me if you don't.’ So I said, 'Well, we'll give him another try.'"
Miller had a novel idea that would serve the harpist well. "I instructed him to sing nasal," he said. "I'd never thought of that before. I asked him to sing nasal, and he didn't know what that meant. So I got in the studio, 'Sing through your nose, partially.' And that was really unique."
Slim was backed that day by guitarist Guitar Gable, Gabriel ‘Fats’ Perrodin (Gable’s brother) on bass guitar, and drummer Clarence ‘Jockey’ Etienne. He came up with a classic his very first time out: The strutting I’m A King Bee incorporated the nasal gimmick perfectly, while Slim’s amplified harp work stuck close to the distinctive melody and Gable’s stinging guitar answered in all the right places.
Although it didn’t pierce the R&B charts after Miller shipped it up to Ernie Young’s Nashville-based Excello Records for release, I’m AKing Bee found its way over to England in time for the Rolling Stones to include it on their debut album. Slim’s catchy flip side I’ve Got Love If You Want It attracted immediate cover action when Warren Smith turned in a vicious rockabilly rendition on Sun.
There was still room at the top of the R&B hit parade for a savory slice of lowdown blues when the groove was as funky as the one powering Baton Rouge harpist Slim Harpo's bayou-bred Baby Scratch My Back. J.D. Miller, the Crowley, Louisiana producer who did as much as anyone to record the region's swamp bluesmen, had unearthed Slim—born James Moore—through his top act, guitarist Lightnin' Slim.
"He was Lightnin's harmonica blower,” said the late Miller. "I had no idea that he wanted to make records. He had Lightnin' come and ask me if I'd record him. Well, I hadn't heard him sing, so I told Lightnin', 'I'll listen after we get through the session.' I did, and it sounded pretty bad. So I told Lightnin', 'I don't believe I can use him. He's not too good a singer.' He said, 'Mr. Miller, I sure wish you would, because he might quit me if you don't.' So I said, 'Well, we'll give him another try.'” Miller liked Moore (then calling himself Harmonica Slim) better after he dreamed up a vocal gimmick for him. "I instructed him to sing nasal. I'd never thought of that before. I asked him to sing nasal, and he didn't know what that meant,” said Miller. "So I got in the studio: 'Sing through your nose, partially.' And that was really unique.”
The gimmick clicked on the harpist's 1957 debut single I'm A King Bee, which Miller sold to Ernie Young's Nashville-based Excello Records. Both Miller and Moore's wife have been credited with dreaming up his stage name, which appeared on a series of splendidly laconic Excello singles, including the swamp pop charmer Rainin' In My Heart, enough of a 1961 pop crossover item to actually get Harpo a lip-synch shot on 'American Bandstand'!
A disagreement with Miller shelved Slim for awhile, but he triumphantly returned to the hit parade in 1966 with Baby Scratch My Back, Miller behind the glass once more in Crowley. The vibrato-laden chicken pickin' guitar (Rudolph Richard and James Johnson were the King Bees' longtime axemen) and some mean percussion cut through the heavy bayou air behind Slim's laidback drawl and full-bodied harp wails. This is blues to shake your hips by, as the title of Harpo's next Excello single implored. Recognizing a superior groove when he heard one, Otis Redding covered Baby Scratch My Back on his '66 Volt set 'The Soul Album.'
Slim Harpo stayed with Excello until he died on January 31, 1970 at age 46, although he broke with Miller shortly after Scratch My Back vaulted to number one R&B and #16 pop. Along the way, his supremely atmospheric swamp blues caught the ear of everyone from Sun rockabilly Warren Smith, who covered his first B-side, I've Got Love If You Want It, to the Rolling Stones, who revived King Bee on their debut LP.
- Bill Dahl -
Various - Sweet Soul Music
Various - Sweet Soul Music 29 Scorching Classics From 1966