Slim Harpo

TrackSingle / Album
I'm A King BeeExcello 45-2113
I Got Love If You Want ItExcello 45-2113
Dream GirlI'm A King Bee
Blues HangoverExcello 45-2184
Rainin' In My HeartExcello 45-2194
Don't Start Cryin' NowExcello 45-2194
Baby Scratch My BackExcello 45-2273
I'm Gonna Miss You (Like The Devil)Excello 45-2273
Shake Your HipsExcello 45-2278
Tip On InExcello 45-2285

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Slim Harpo photo 1

Slim Harpo

 

Contributors: Dave Stephens – with Cal Taylor

You might be aware that the Stones recorded Slim Harpo’s I’m A King Bee and later, on Exile, his Shake Your Hips. If you’re old enough you’ll remember other groups in the Brit R&B boom performing another Harpo number, Got Love If You Want It and plenty of people recording that one too including the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and many more. None of these songs in their original incarnations made the US charts, however other Harpo songs like the near country sounding Rainin’ In My Heart and the semi-instrumental Baby Scratch My Back did achieve that feat. From that you might guess, correctly, that Slim Harpo was a man of contrasts and contradictions.

Top of the contradictions was the fact that those records that didn’t seem to bear a lot of relation to blues as many of us see, or more correctly, used to see them, and yet at the same time the late Mr Harpo is undoubtedly the most well-known member of that group of artists we hang the label of swamp blues on. Perhaps our thinking had to change. In his excellent notes to the Ace UK Slim Harpo compilation, I’m A King Bee, Paul Jones put this point rather well:

“… “blues purists” (whoever they were) were not supposed to like Slim Harpo. The blues were characterised by words like “harsh” and “brooding”, “agonised” or even “tortured”, “wild” and “dirty”. Other words like “relaxed” and “subtle”, made rare appearances, “pleasing” and “melodic” were distrusted and “entertaining” was almost an insult. Yet Slim Harpo warranted all these, and was no less a pure bluesman, however long it would take some of us to learn the fact.”

Harpo’s first record was so memorable that it invited statements along the lines of “if he’d stopped there he’d still have had an enviable reputation”. I’m A King Bee backed with I Got Love If You Want It, released in summer 1957 when Slim was 31, was a monster of a record unlike anything that had preceded it out of the Crowley, Louisiana studio. The A-side bore a slight relationship to those macho styled singles coming from Chicago like I’m A Man/Mannish Boy but the delivery was wholly original both vocally and instrumentally. Taking the latter first, it had an arrangement which was minimalist with the most noticeable feature being an electric bass player sliding his fingers up and down his fretboard and a guitar doing little more than hold down the rhythm and play a single note on delayed repeat in response to Harpo’s “Sting it then”. The harmonica – Harpo’s own – comes in for the break (wherein it neatly echoes the vocal line) and the fade and that’s about it. His vocal is nasal, intimate and in your face at the same time. The format is close to twelve bar blues but slightly stretched as if they sometimes took a little longer to do things down in Southern Louisiana but got there in the end. And there’s a melody line, slight perhaps but it’s present. Overall I’d be tempted to term the record lazy but insistent at the same time if that wasn’t a sloppy oxymoron.

Well I’m a King Bee, buzzin’ around your hive (repeat)
Well I can make honey baby, let me come inside

I’m young and able to buzz all night long (repeat)
Well when you hear me buzzin’ baby, some stingin’ is goin’ on

Well, buzz awhile

I Got Love If You Want It on the flip, was similar but different. Similar in that it was easy, mid tempo (as in they’d just about stirred themselves) and stripped back in instrumentation, but different in that there was a kind of latin rhythm in play and lyrically it was set in more recognisable blues terrain. Once you got beyond the self-promotional first verse with its closing invitation, “We can rock awhile” it soon became apparent that Slim’s lady had been spreading her delights around and our man was none too happy about things to the extent that the “mistreat” word got used. Once again there was economical but effective use of harmonica from Slim, and the band did their thing extremely well to the extent that they deserve name checks. Leader and guitarist was Guitar Gable, on bass was John “Fats” Perrodin (brother of Gable) and on drums was Clarence “Jockey” Etienne. Under the name of Guitar Gable they’d had a local hit with the instrumental Congo Mambo in 1956 which they followed up with Guitar Rhumba. Possibly it was this apparent interest in latin rhythms that had inspired them on I Got Love If You Want It.

Slim Harpo was the oldest of the swamp blues big names, having been born in 1924. But he was also the first to die – in 1970 from a heart attack before anyone had thought of sitting him down and getting his view on the blues and, indeed, life in general.

His birth name was James Moore and he started out life in Lobdell in West Baton Rouge Parish. As an orphaned teenager he travelled down river to New Orleans to find employment but returned to Baton Rouge to work as a labourer. He started playing mouth harp and, using the name Harmonica Slim, got himself a role in Lightnin’ Slim’s band. Occasional studio work at Crowley followed but Moore wanted to be a front man. Lightnin’ persuaded Jay Miller to give him a listen. Miller wasn’t initially impressed and reportedly – and this story hasn’t been refuted to the best of my knowledge – persuaded him to try singing through his nose (source: John Broven’s book ”South To Louisiana: The Music Of The Cajun Bayous”).

Jay Miller informed Moore that there was already a Harmonica Slim in existence: he was born in Texas but operated out of L.A. Hence a different name was required. The “Slim” was retained and it was James’ wife who came up with the new surname “Harpo” from the instrument he played.

That first record, I’m A King Bee/I Got Love If You Want It sold well across the south. While it didn’t do enough to make the R&B Chart, it was certainly enough to persuade Jay Miller to continue with his new artist. Discographies of Harpo which appear to show an uninterrupted flow of Excello releases until the late sixties suggest that the relationship between Miller and Slim Harpo continued to be positive. That wasn’t the case though. After the success in 1961 of Rainin’ In My Heart, Harpo started complaining about a real or perceived lack of payment of royalties. He went so far as to record four numbers for L.A. based Imperial Records but Miller got wind of the exercise and, via use of Excello’s lawyers, stopped release of the tracks (for more, see Footnotes).

Jay Miller continued producing Slim but the relationship had cooled. In 1966, Ernie Young sold Nashboro/Excello to new owners also based in Nashville, albeit in new premises. The new owners tempted Harpo to record for them directly which angered Miller to the extent that he split from Excello. So, from 1967’s Tip On In onwards, Harpo’s production was “under new management”.

Slim Harpo never managed to tour in Europe but was scheduled to do so in 1970. Tragically he died of a heart attack in January of that year after a suspected drug overdose. He was 46.

An obvious place to start getting into the music would be with the hits and near hits so why do anything different.

Jay Miller tried several things with Slim to follow up the local success with “King Bee” including a predictable return to the same lyrical theme with Buzz Me Babe which was actually yet another remake of Rock Me Babe within which we were assured that “stingin’s still goin’ on”. (See also the discussion on Rock Me Mama/Rock Me Babe in the Lightnin’ Slim Toppermost.) It was a decent disc but maybe didn’t have that extra bit of zing about it that would have made it stand out.

1961’s Rainin’ In My Heart certainly stood out from the crowd. Originally a B-side (to Don’t Start Cryin’ Now) but it was flipped when DJs started playing “Rainin’”. Most reviewers reach for the word ‘country’ when attempting to describe this side. Maybe there is a slight resemblance in chord structure to Hank Williams’ Your Cheatin’ Heart (and Hank was certainly keen on ‘heart’ songs with a strong dose of miserabilia) but I’ve described that song and performance elsewhere as akin to blues so perhaps there was some country/blues hybrid thing going on. Where I do see definite resemblance is to both Jimmy Reed’s Honest I Do and to the swamp pop genre. The latter had been rumbling around largely unseen in Acadiana for years; its first on-record example is usually quoted to be white Cajun Bobby Charles’ On Bended Knee, the flip to See You Later Alligator in 1955 but it surfaced occasionally in records like Rod Bernard’s This Should Go On Forever which was a hit in ’58. The genre was unusual for those days in that it was popular with both cajun and creole audiences and there were both white and black performers. Most songs in the swamp pop vein featured a high degree of sentimentality sometimes extending to the presence of a recitation. Another feature that almost invariably appeared in such records was the slow boogie bassline which had travelled across the bayous from Fats Domino in New Orleans. All those attributes: sentimentality, recitation and bassline, were present in Rainin’ In My Heart. And, I should confess that the recitation makes it something of a love/hate object for yours truly. However, given its importance in the Slim Harpo story it was hardly one I could ignore.

That record made #16 in the R&B Chart and #34 in the US Pop Chart.

Those influences from both Jimmy Reed and swamp pop are even more in evidence on I Love The Life I’m Living where a more inventive background riffing pattern was deployed. In an ideal world this record should have followed Rainin’ In My Heart within weeks in order to capitalise on the latter’s success, but it didn’t. There were more than 18 months between releases and record buyers’ memories had no doubt faded. The reason for the delay was the rift between Harpo and Miller that I reported earlier.

There was another delay until hit number 2 turned up. 1966’s Baby Scratch My Back was different again or was it? It could have been viewed as a mash up and refinement of the two sides of the first single combining the lasciviousness of I’m A King Bee and the rhythm of the flip but with more emphasis on the instrumental side particularly on Slim’s fine harmonica playing. The lyrics, where they were present, had moved towards the basic and Slim’s vocal was spoken more than sung. Swamp funk had been invented with a bit of help from the rhythm section and splendid guitar from Rudolph Richard who’d been with Slim on and off since 1958. Perhaps there was a nod towards Allen Toussaint who’d done something very similar in New Orleans, or perhaps not.

That record made #1 in the R&B Chart and #16 in the US Pop Chart.

The follow-up was unsurprisingly also rhythm based only this time with a precursor, even if a somewhat distant one. Yup there were echoes there of John Lee Hooker’s Boogie Chillen but they’d all but disappeared under the streamlining that created Shake Your Hips. The drive this time was via an insistent guitar, joined as the record progressed by Katie Webster’s organ. The hits in terms of the pop chart were largely over but that didn’t stop the James Brown of swamp from motoring on. 1967’s Tip On In continued the dance theme and although it was created in Memphis without Jay Miller’s hand on the tiller, it did so with plenty of confidence and authority.

The keen reader might have by now spotted an absence of what one might call ‘proper blues’ in Slim’s output so far. They were there though and a fine example is Dream Girl, which was recorded in 1960 but not released until it appeared on Ace’s I’m A King Bee album. Slow and deliberate with fine work from the guitarists, Rudolph Richard and James Johnson – their semi baroque treatment of the turnaround is a particular delight.

Dream girl, I know your love for me is gone (repeat)
You love me baby, you know you won’t do nothing wrong

You run around baby in your long black limousine (repeat)
Well I just won’t be your chauffeur, to drive you round and keep it clean

While I’ve gone more for the dance floor stuff, Cal would have included slow blues such as One More Day, What A Dream and Sittin’ Here Wonderin’. All of these have that lazy swamp feel and fine guitar work usually from the pairing I’ve already mentioned, Rudolph Richard and James Johnson. Jody Man, which appeared on the flip of Slim’s final single had a sound that I can only describe as Chicago strut but as interpreted in late 1969 with much more urgent Harpo than we usually heard. (For an explanation of the origins of this title, see Footnotes.) The A-side was a recall for Rainin’ In My Heart, and no, I don’t mean proper revisit: this was merely an attempt to milk more from the punters via the original. However, at roughly the same time such a visit to that song did take place and I have to say that the reinterpretation was almost of Dylanesque proportions with some tasty blues guitar cutting back the sentiment level (though the recitation was still present). Under the alternate title of Baby, Please Come Home this track (and Jody Man) got included in a well regarded Excello album entitled Slim Harpo Knew The Blues which was released posthumously.

Circa 1964/1965 I used to make the occasional pilgrimage of a Saturday to that basement shop in Lisle Street, Soho called Transat Imports where I’d riffle through fabulous American 45s and wander off having parted with some cash, clutching those records that I just couldn’t resist. Slim Harpo’s Blues Hang-Over/What A Dream was one of those purchases. But there was a problem. That big central hole, the one you get on US 45s, was ever-so slightly off-centre introducing an extra element of wooziness to a performance that was wooziness personified in the first place. First you get Slim’s harp moaning for 12 slow bars over a grungy bass and then “Lord, I wonder what could have happened” with no pretence of singing – how could he in this state? By the end of the first verse with a suitably inebriated sax in the backdrop and after his eyes have taken in all those empty bottles, he’s coming to the conclusion that he “must have a blues hangover”.

I have two more tracks. They were both flips and probably wouldn’t appear in a shortish best-of album. Both were natural follow-on’s to I’m A King Bee – medium to fast tempo, a rhythmic thrust of originality rather than something that had been done to death, lyrics that caught your attention (without necessarily continuing the sensual theme) and an overall impression of “This was done in the swamps and it smells like it, sounds like it, feels like it.” (Those final words came from Keith Richards and were recorded in Q Magazine in 2011 in relation to a compilation of Slim Harpo songs.)

Don’t Start Cryin’ Now has already had a mention. Originally the A-side to Rainin’ In My Heart but now largely forgotten other than by some of those people who bought it for that side. An absolutely irresistible riffing melange created by the usual pair of Richard & Johnson plus the superbly named Willie “Tomcat” Parker on tenor sax plus that booming bass of course: “You ain’t had to cry baby, don’t start cryin’ now”. And I may have said “medium to fast” but this one was real fast. Slim might have been the only artist at Crowley to know what fast meant.

I’m Gonna Miss You (Like The Devil) was, in comparison, Crowley easy roll, with more Richard & Johnson guitar interplay and a gent with another fabulous name, Geese August on bass. Invention was everywhere on Harpo records even on apparently minor flips like this. Kind of down-home but not down-home. Even regardless of the quality of the music I might have been tempted to include this track on the strength of the title alone, “I’m gonna miss you like the devil, but these things I’ll overcome” with our man striking a rare positive note in the doom and gloom of the swamps. And how many years has it been since the phrase “like the devil” was in regular usage in our vocabulary?

More than any other musician operating at the Crowley recording studio at the time, Slim Harpo managed the difficult feat of combining old timey blues influences – down-home if you like – with something that was outright modern. He also brought a stronger element of melody to the blues and that wasn’t just in his writing, it was just as applicable to his harmonica playing. While his voice wasn’t the strongest among the Crowley bunch this was something he overcame and, in so doing, managed to create some of the most distinctive records to come out of those studios.

Now that, hopefully, you’ve listened to some of the music, go back and reread that paragraph from Paul Jones. Slim Harpo was a blues great. Period.

I do have one more track though.

Robert Pete Williams, a Baton Rouge based blues man who was born in 1914 and outlived Slim, could be seen as part of a genuine Louisiana blues tradition as opposed to the more ‘invented’ sounds that came out of Crowley. He recorded a tribute to Slim:

Goodbye Slim Harpo.

 

FOOTNOTES

1. The Swamp Blues series on Toppermost covers discs from four of the key artists who recorded blues at Jay Miller’s Crowley studio from the mid fifties to the early/mid sixties. They are Lightnin’ Slim, Lonesome Sundown, Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester. Swamp Blues #5 is nominally allocated to another Crowley/Excello artist, Silas Hogan, but in fact covers other minor Excello artists plus artists whose records appeared on other Louisiana labels. The latter grouping are just as deserved of the ‘swamp blues’ label but have tended to receive less attention than the Excello artists.

The Lightnin’ Slim Toppermost contains discussion on the subject of swamp blues and information on the Excello Records label plus J.D. (Jay) Miller and his studio in Crowley, Louisiana.

2. Guitar Gable, whose full name was Gabriel Perrodin, was the leader of a band called the Musical Kings. Gable himself, with or without other members of the Kings, was/were frequent member(s) of the Crowley studio support band. They also recorded in their own right and the most famous song they cut was the original version of the swamp pop anthem This Should Go On Forever with King Karl on vocal. Rod Bernard covered the song and had a national hit with it. The story is actually slightly more complex than that. (For details see the Rod Bernard Toppermost – link below.)

3. Sun rockabilly man Warren Smith recorded I Got Love As You Want It under the marginally changed title of I’ve Got Love If You Want It in December 1957. While another Sun artist, one Elvis Aaron Presley, had largely kicked off his career via covers of blues records, it was still relatively rare for other Sun artists to pursue this avenue. Smith’s record is certainly well worth a listen even if the reader is of the opinion that white covers of black records are invariably inferior. Personally I would just add an “almost” in front of the “invariably”.

4 The four tracks recorded for Lew Chudd’s Imperial Records were Somethin’ Inside Me, A Man Is Crying, Still Rainin’ In My Heart and Tonite I’m Lonely. The first two of these tracks eventually saw release on the album Rural Blues Vol.2: Saturday Night Function. It is believed that the other two are still in the Imperial vaults.

5. I made a rather distant connection between Slim Harpo and Hank Williams in the main text. John Broven mentions another in his book: when Jay Miller recalled suggested Harpo sing through his nose, he posed the question, “you know who developed that? And he answered himself – “Hank Williams”.

6. The usage of the term “Jody Man” as a song title wasn’t meaningful to me but it was to Cal who has contributed the very helpful footnote below:

“I was intrigued when I listened to Jody Man as I had not heard that expression before – so I investigated and found that it was a term most likely, but not exclusively, used by military personnel. It refers to a man who is often a ‘draft dodger’ who takes advantage of the wives and girlfriends left behind by the men who are away serving their country. Jody’s derivation comes from Joe De Grinder, Joe D. Grinder or Joe The Grinder – a mythical character from folklore. In a 1939 field recording Irvin ‘Gar Mouth’ Lowry sang about Joe De Grinder and in 1954 doo-wop group The Hawks recorded Joe The Grinder. Later recordings by Slim Harpo, Johnnie Taylor and Bobby Newsome shorten the sobriquet to simply ‘Jody’ and are included in an interesting article by Azizi Powell on a site called pancocojams.”

7. Robert Pete Williams was a Louisiana blues singer who was born in 1914. His earlier influences would have included Blind Lemon Jefferson. His first instrument was a homemade cigar box guitar. From the 1930s into the 1950s besides working in lumberyards around Baton Rouge he played music at small events locally. In 1956, he shot a man dead in a nightclub and was sentenced to life imprisonment, although he claimed it was in self defence. In parallel to a certain Leadbelly he was recorded in prison and later a case was put forward by the people who had recorded him to get his sentence reviewed. This eventually proved successful and he was released in 1959 under strict conditions, which included lengthy unpaid community work and restricting him for five years to only being able to perform within Louisiana. However, his records proved popular, his reputation grew and later he performed for the first time outside Louisiana at the legendary 1964 Newport Folk Festival where he was a success. In 1966 he performed with the American Folk Blues Festival, where in London Cal saw and met him. He continued recording and performing at festivals into the 1970s before he died on the last day of 1980, aged 66. Pete Welding said of him that he was “a real rural bluesman, whose music is tough, mean and above all, impassioned, like the man himself”. (Although Cal is referred to in the third person, he wrote this footnote too. See also his autographed picture of Williams – vertical on the RHS – in the American Folk Blues Festival programme, below.)

Robert Pete Williams photo

8. I should put on record the fact that Baby, Please Come Home wasn’t the first Rainin’ In My Heart semi-clone, it was the second. The first came in 1964 and was entitled Still Rainin’ In My Heart and like “Baby” it too was very listenable.

9. Slim Harpo’s somewhat counter-intuitive attitude towards the one with horns in I’m Gonna Miss You (Like The Devil) wasn’t shared by Lightnin’ Slim who took a more predictable line in Nothin’ But The Devil.

10. One of the more interesting versions of a Slim Harpo number came from Booker T. & the M.G.’s who recorded Baby, Scratch My Back sometime in the early/mid sixties. It was one of a number of ‘after hours’ studio tracks which eventually got collected together and released as Booker T and the MGs Play The Hip Hits in 1995. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t give you the Stones and I’m A King Bee. There’s a famous quote from Mick Jagger relating to that record:

“What’s the point in listening to us doing I’m A King Bee when you can listen to Slim Harpo doing it?”

11. Mr Harpo was not at all averse to recording cover versions though whether these were via the instigation of the producer or himself isn’t on record. Versions of Charlie Rich’s Mohair Sam and Folsom Prison Blues (from you know who) appeared in ’68 and ’69 respectively, all dressed up with R&B cum soul accoutrements, and they weren’t anything like as bad as you might have expected. Maybe to his peers the second cover didn’t come as any surprise since, according to Lightnin’ in the John Broven book, the first number Harpo, then still James Moore, could play on his harp was Blue Suede Shoes, another Sun classic.

While still in the Jay Miller period, Slim recorded label mate Lonesome Sundown’s My Home Is A Prison with the assistance of another Crowley man, Lazy Lester, on mouth harp. It’s not a bad closer.

 

 

Slim Harpo photo 2

 

Slim Harpo (1924–1970)

 

Slim Harpo discography

The Slim Harpo Music Awards

Slim Harpo: The Excello Singles Anthology (2CD)

“Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee Of Baton Rouge” by Martin Hawkins (2016)

“South To Louisiana: The Music Of The Cajun Bayous” by John Broven (1983)

Slim Harpo on 45cat

Excello singles discography

Excello albums discography

Slim Harpo biography (iTunes)

Swamp Blues toppermost series
#1 Lightnin’ Slim
#2 Lonesome Sundown
#3 Slim Harpo
#4 Lazy Lester
#5 Silas Hogan

Swamp Pop toppermost series
#1 Rod Bernard
#2 Cookie and the Cupcakes
#3 Jimmy Donley
#4 Bobby Charles
#5 Freddy Fender

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding and Betty Harris.

The Stephens/Taylor toppermosts include Johnny Ace, Arthur Alexander, Cyril Davies, The Falcons, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Alexis Korner, Johnny Otis, Junior Parker, T-Bone Walker.

TopperPost #715

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    May 1, 2018

    Dave & Cal, thanks for yet another superb piece. Slim was such a brilliantly versatile artist. Would have to this one in my top ten though. Heard it on Irish radio a long time ago and had been looking around for it for a long time before someone posted in on you tube a few years back. And, Cal, this is another Johnnie Taylor song on the ‘Jody’ theme.

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