Sunday, December 25, 2016

Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge
Martin Hawkins
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press
2016: 416pp

Its has been over 45 years since James Moore, aka Slim Harpo, passed away at the age of 45. It was a tragic early death for a blues performer who had just started crossing over to a broader National audience and about to go on his first European visit. Last year Bear Family issued a 5-CD box (near 7 hours of music), "Buzzin' The Blues," and Martin Hawkins, who wrote the book that accompanied that came with that set, has written a  biography of the short-lived, but influential, artist that takes us from his youth to the aftermath of his passing.

Hawkins traces not simply Slim Harpo's life, but provides the background both in terms of his ancestry and the history of the rural part of Baton Rouge that Harpo was born in. In addition to tracing his youth and development as a musician, he gives an overview of the blues and Black Music scene in the region along with the context of the segregated society. Emerging first as Harmonica Slim, his growth as a musician is set against the burgeoning swamp blues scene centered with Crowley, Louisiana producer Jay Miller as well as the more general context of small label Louisiana music.

Jay Miller had been recording folks like Lightnin' Slim before Harpo came to record with Slim. It was Miller who hanged his performing name to Slim Harpo and Hawkins traces the recording career of Moore, including his frustrations with Miller at times along with the commercial success that Harpo had on Excello. These frustrations led to a session for Imperial that was squelched by Miller and eventually to Harpo recording directly with Excello after a contract had expired, a factor that led Miller to discontinue his relationship with Excello.

In addition to fully tracing Harpo's recordings, he also describes the various clubs and performances Harpo made, including the ill-fated trip to Chicago made with Lightnin' Slim, Lazy Lester, Katie Webster and others that was the subject of a talking blues from Slim. Slim was popular on the southern fraternity circuit as well as playing Black and White clubs in Baton Rouge and playing armory shows with swamp pop acts like John Fred, or R&B shows with Bobby Bland and others. Included is a discussion of the live recording, that was originally issued on Ace in the UK and later in the Bear Family box, as Hawkins provides details on how the recording came to happen, how it was preserved and then considers the music from that live recording of him in his prime.

Towards the end of his career, he was just starting to break into the 'hippie circuit,' and Hawkins describes Harpo's time performing at Steve Paul's The Scene in New York City and similar performances, and he was about to tour Europe when he tragically died. Hawkins goes into some of the circumstances that likely contributed to the rupture of an artery that killed him, likely resulting from working on a car and something heavy falling on his chest.

Hawkins fills out a portrait of Harpo as a family man who was far from the stereotypical hard drinking blues artist some might have, He also worked at various employments to help sustain his family. In addition he interweaves Harpo with other members of Baton Rouge's blues scene (and the swamp blues scene in general) and artists such as Tabby Thomas, Lonesome Sundown and Lazy Lester have their music and careers discussed.

There is a full discography of Harpo's music along with a listing of recordings of other Baton Rouge artists, recommended listening and reading and a musical appreciation of Slim Harpo by Stephen Coleridge. Hawkins made use of existing interviews of Harpo as well as interviewed surviving members of his band, family members and others to provide this detailed, fully researched, yet highly readable account of a major blues artist whose career seems to been overlooked in recent years. Along with the Bear Family reissue, this superb biography certainly will help reestablish his reputation as a major blues original.

I purchased this. Here is Slim Harpo's recording of "Shake Your Hips," a song still popular with blues groups.

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