“Why would anyone want to hear us do King Bee when they can hear Slim Harpo’s version”– Mick Jagger.”
Like a lot of Americans of my generation, I discovered the blues via the Rolling Stones.
My grandparents bought me the first Stones album for Christmas in 1964 (I was five), and the first song on side two was a note-for-note cover of Slim Harpo’s I’m A King Bee. It quickly became my favorite song. I thought I was pretty cool with my high rolled collar, polka dot shirt (three buttons on the cuffs), corduroy pants and Beatle boots, walking around singing “I’m a king bee/buzzin’ ’round your hive”. I had no idea what the song meant, but I loved the sound. The way Bill Wyman’s bass just zoomed up and down the neck, Keith’s solo, so simple a cat could have played it, just one note repeated three times on the fourth bar. I had no idea who Slim Harpo was.
My grandparents also bought me a transistor radio shaped like a Jaguar XKE and I slept with it every night, tuning in the Miami stations for the latest sounds, in this manner I first heard My Generation by the Who, Don’t Bring Me Down by the Pretty Things and Gloria by Them. Spinning the dial I discovered a late night black dj named Butterball on WMBM out of Miami Beach, his theme song was a Bill Doggett instrumental called Boo-Da-Ba and he played the latest Motown and Stax hits along with something much darker and stranger– Jimmy Reed and Elmore James were on his nightly playlist as was Slim Harpo’s Rainin’ In My Heart. Sometimes I could tune in WLAC out of Nashville where Hoss Allen and John R. ruled the night, and they played Slim Harpo as well as other blues discs on Excello with tantalizing names like Lightnin’ Slim, Lonesome Sundown, Lazy Lester, and Silas Hogan. There were nightly advertisements for Ernie’s Record Mart (which owned Excello Records) and Randy’s Record Shop (which owned Dot Records), you could order these records from Ernie’s or Randys and have ’em delivered to your trailer (see Bob Quine’s copy of a 1963 Randy’s catalog above), or you could buy a hundred baby chicks for your own coop (only a dollar) and I can just imagine some poor mail man cursing the place as he humped a hundred baby chicks down the street to somebody’s mailbox. On WLAC Jimmy Reed did a wine commercial, Bo Diddley advertised hair products. So this is how I come to the blues. I got to skip the part where you pick cotton and drink sterno.
In those years– 1964-66 I got heavily into the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, Them and the Kinks, whose repertoires were heavy on the Excello sides. In the U.K. the Stateside label had been licensing Excello discs and issued two LP’s– Authentic R&B and The Real R&B, the importance of which cannot be understated. The Kinks alone covered three songs off of the former– Jimmy Anderson’s Naggin’, Lazy Lester’s I’m A Lover Not A Fighter and and Slim Harpo’s Got Love If You Want It. Along with Chess and Vee Jay discs by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, Billy Boy Arnold, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, these compilations were drawn from heavily to fill out any beat group’s set list. The Stones would return to the Slim Harpo catalog as late as 1972 when they covered Shake Your Hips on their last truly great album– Exile On Main Street. These Stateside LP’s were not seen in the U.S. but their reverberation could be felt coast to coast.
Which brings us back to me. Me and Slim Harpo. Slim Harpo and I. Whatever. Rainin’ In My Heart had been a top 20 R&B hit in 1961 (#34 pop) and was still being played on the radio when I first tuned in around ’64, but in 1966 Slim scored a monster hit–Baby Scratch My Back which went to #1 R&B in January on ’66, (even reaching #16 Pop, a most unlikely event). It was probably the best selling down home blues record of all time and was the first real blues record I ever bought. I was seven years old. Baby Scratch My Back was the crowning jewel in a brilliant career. A career that went something like this:
Slim Harpo was born James Moore in West Baton Rouge, Louisiana on February 11, 1924. His parents died when he was a teen and he took a job in New Orleans on the docks as a stevedore to support his younger brother and three sisters. Eventually he returned to Baton Rouge and found work as a day laborer and soon began playing music as a sideline, billing himself as Harmonica Slim. He was backing up Lightnin’ Slim when first he showed up at Jay Miller’s Crowley, Louisiana studio around 1957. Soon Miller gave Slim his own audition. Miller hated Slim’s voice and suggested he start singing through his nose, giving a rather nasal but pleasing sound. Since there was already a Harmonica Slim working the west coast Miller renamed his new discovery Slim Harpo.
I think this is a good place to work some background on Jay Miller into this story since he is an extremely important part of it. J.D. “Jay” Miller was a Crowley, Louisiana businessman, big in construction and later local politics and real estate who had opened a record store and as a sideline began recording local talent–black, white and Cajun including the likes of Carol Fran, Guitar Gable, Warren Storm, Classie Ballou, Al Ferrier, Johnny Jano, Katie Webster, Rocket Morgan, Clifton Chenier, Charles Sheffield, Tabby Thomas and Lightnin’ Slim and issuing records on his own labels such as Feature, Zynn, Rocko, Ringo, Fais Do Do, and eventually leasing masters to larger labels like Dot, Decca, Jamie and eventually striking up an exclusive deal with the Nashville based Excello/Nasco label giving them the first pick of any of his masters. Together Miller and Excello would strike pay dirt first with with Lightnin’ Slim and later with Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Jimmy Anderson, and other blues singers who sounded like Jimmy Reed to varying degrees. Miller built his own studio in the back room behind his little record store and that is where he made his records. Although music would be a side line for most his life, he was an excellent producer, co-writing many of the tunes (under the name J. West), he knew how to take a standard 12 bar blues and turn it into a pop tune. He liked exotic percussion and the use of maracas, wood blocks, etc. are a prominent feature of many of his productions. He also had a knack for coming up classy monikers for his blues singers, the best being Lonesome Sundown. An interesting aside was that Miller, who had recorded so many blues greats also had a label called Rebel that specialized in ultra racist country records by someone named Johnny Rebel. He had a box of these in his store as late as 1982 when I went there.
Jay Miller issued Slim Harpo’s first disc– I’m A King Bee b/w I Got Love If You Want It Babe (Excello 2113) in 1957. It was a good size regional hit and both tunes would become blues standards. The b-side, with it’s rhumba beat would become as popular as the a-side and would become a standard among British R&B groups being recorded by the Kinks and Yardbirds amongst others, although the original has never been matched. I’m A King Bee, is one of the coolest records of all time. The zooming bass sounds like a bee buzzing and the sharp, one note (repeated thrice) guitar solo was the bee’s sting. The Stones didn’t attempt to change even a note. Slim Harpo was backed by Guitar Gable’s band, featuring the great Jockey Etienne on drums.
Between 1957 and 1961 Miller recorded Slim Harpo in six sessions, releasing a handful of fine singles and album tracks including some blazing rockers like Yeah Yeah Baby, Don’t Start Cryin’ Now, Hey Little Lee as well as atmospheric blues pieces like Moody Blues, Snoopin’ Around, the soliloquy on stuperdom Blues Hangover, Buzzin’, One More Day, Strange Love, and brilliant, but un-issued sides like Wild About My Baby and Cigarette which were buried on Flyright compilation albums in the 80’s and are still un-available on CD today, a shame since they’re better than much of the released material.
The genius of these records is their simplicity. In fact they’re so wonderfully understated it’s hard to know what to tell you about them. Then again, you have ears, take a listen.
After Harpo’s initial session with Guitar Gable’s band he was recorded with his own outfit– the King Bees: Rudy Richard and James Johnson on guitars (the later sometimes playing the bass part on guitar), Willie “Tomcat” Parker on sax and Sammy K. Brown on drums, often with Lazy Lester adding additional percussion.
While performing live Slim Harpo played guitar with his harmonica on a rack like Jimmy Reed, but in the studio he rarely played guitar.
It was 1961 when Slim Harpo really hit big with Rainin’ In My Heart (Excello 2194), a swamp pop ballad (Miller and Harpo thought it a country tune) which went to #2 R&B and # 14 Pop. Since Miller was paid a small royalty by Excello, from which he paid Harpo his share, arguments over money ensued. Slim Harpo refused to record for Miller for almost two years, going so far as attempting to jump ship and sign with Imperial (even recording a session for them that went unreleased when Miller’s lawyers stepped in). Despite a good working relationship, bad blood over money would be a constant factor in the partnership between Jay Miller and Slim Harpo.
Excello cashed in on the hit by releasing Slim Harpo’s first LP– Rainin’ In My Heart (Excello 8003), the second blues album I ever owned, it was the staple of southern bargain bins for years.
A finer record would be hard to find, as would an uglier album cover.
It was September of ’63 before Miller and Harpo got back to work on a follow up to Rainin’ In My Heart and much momentum had been lost. His next disc– I Love The Life I’m Livin’ b/w Buzzin’ was a fine record but failed to sell. Luckily, like Miller, music was pretty much a sideline for Slim Harpo who kept his day job, eventually opening his own trucking company.
He did play nearly every weekend, mostly around Louisiana/Texas/Mississippi/Alabama but would go anywhere there was a gig. In 1961 a couple of high school kids recorded Slim Harpo and the King Bees live at the Sage Avenue Armory in Mobile, Alabama, although the tape wasn’t released until 1997 (as Sting It Then on the U.K. Ace label), it’s an invaluable document and one of the few live blues recordings of the era. Despite the crude sound of the P.A. we get to hear what Slim Harpo sounded like in front of an audience– here’s the Star*Time introduction and live versions of I’m A King Bee, I Got Love If You Want It Babe,
Buzzin’ as well as renditions of Lazy Lester’s Sugar Coated Love and Lee Dorsey’s Lottie Mo. You really owe it to yourself to go hunt this one down before it disappears for good, as these things tend to do.
In 1966 Slim Harpo managed to extradite himself from Jay Miller and was signed directly to the Excello label, a move that burned Miller’s ass. He would eventually sue Excello to recover his masters and lose, the deciding judge being the father of country singer and former WFMU DJ Laura Cantrell.
The loss of Miller as a producer saw something of a dip in the quality of Slim Harpo’s recorded output but he still managed to record some great material, including the #1 R&B smash Baby Scratch My Back (whose tremolo guitar riff John Fogerty would build a career on) which was followed up with such dance floor classics as Shake Your Hips (covered by the Stones’ on Exile On Main Street, again, they didn’t change a note, Jagger even calling himself Slim Harpo in the second verse), Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu (don’t you love the way he says “Philly dog! Boogaloo!“? and Tip On In pts 1 and 2, and a beautiful ballad-– I’ve Been Your Good Thing that stands with his best ever.
Excello issued three more LP’s and a slew of singles including mediocre covers of Folsom Prison Blues and Mohair Sam. Slim Harpo’s last record was a good one, Jody Man, about a back door man/pimp. Since the chart topping Baby Scratch My Back, he’d appeared at the Whiskey A Go Go in L.A., Steve Paul’s The Scene in New York City (where the above photos were taken by Bob Gruen), he opened the show for James Brown at Madison Square Garden and almost toured the U.K. with Lightin’ Slim. Slim Harpo looked to have a long and profitable career ahead of him. Between hit records, gigs and a profitable trucking business the future looked bright. Sadly, with all these good things happening, he promptly had a heart attack and dropped dead at age 46.
During his life Slim Harpo got little respect from white blues writers. In his pamphlet size book Crowley Louisiana Blues (Blues Unlimited, 1968) Mike Leadbitter, the first writer to call attention to Jay Miller and his artists, called Harpo’s recorded output “mostly dreadful”. It wasn’t until the Flyright label began releasing Jay Miller’s unreleased tapes in the 80’s that a critical evaluation began. Eventually the AVI label in the U.S. and the Ace label in the U.K. began re-releasing Harpo’s back catalog with some care. Still, he (and Jay Miller) have been ignored by the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame (I guess they are not as cool as Art Garfunkel or Graham Nash), but let those ignorant fools live their stupid lives and listen to their stupid music. I’ll take Slim Harpo any day.