This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the current Toorak Times/Tagg site.
This is album retro-review number 138 in the series of retro-reviews of both vinyl and Cd albums in my collection.
The series is called “Cream of The Crate” and each review represents an album that I believe is of significant musical value, either because of it’s rarity, because it represents the best of a style or styles of music or because there is something unique about the group or the music.
The first fifty reviews were vinyl only, and the second fifty reviews were CD’s only. Links to these reviews can be found at the bottom of this page. From review 101 onward I have mixed vinyl and CD albums and, try and present an Australian album every fifth review!
I have dipped into the ‘blues” section of my crate this week, and an album released around 27 years after this man’s death.
This is a CD album and it is a compilation which doesn’t minimise the impact it can have.
The album is simply titled The Best Of and it is by a genuine blues legend, Slim Harpo. It was released on the Excello label in 1997 with the code – 45-2278.
It actually contains some of the best work of Slim Harpo and has 16 of his tracks. It also has a reasonable booklet with it.
Excello is the label that Slim Harpo recorded the greater part of all his music on, and indeed all 16 tracks on this CD were originally recorded in the Excello Studio and released on that label.
The booklet would rate at around 8 on my scale of 1 to 10 which makes it one of the better one’s.
It has five double sided glossy pages of information, with three black and white plates. There is the quite comprehensive story of Harpo and a detailed list of all 16 tracks with the various backing musicians listed.
Slim Harpo was born in 1924, in Lobdell, near Baton Rouge Louisiana and his real name was James Moore.
After his parents died, he dropped out of school to work every juke joint, street corner, picnic and house rent party that came his way. By this time he had acquired the alias of Harmonica Slim, which he used until his first record was released.
It was fellow bluesman Lightnin’ Slim who first steered him to local record man J.D. (Jay) Miller. Incidentally Lightning Slim (Otis Hicks) Harpo was a leading player in what became known as “swamp blues’ along with Slim Harpo.
Miller, the Producer, used him as accompanist to Lightning on a half dozen sides before recording him on his own.
When it came time to release his first single (“I’m a King Bee”), Jay Miller informed him that there was another Harmonica Slim recording on the West Coast, and a new name was needed before the record could come out.
Moore’s wife took the slang word for harmonica [harp], added an ‘o’ to the end of it, and a new stage name was the result, one that would stay with Slim Harpo the rest of his career.
So apart from his brilliant playing two other factors stand out.
Firstly, he has distinctive vocals, sometimes referred to as “adenoidal”. His vocals were perhaps best described by writer Peter Guralnick as – ” … if a black country and western singer or a white rhythm and blues singer were attempting to impersonate a member of the opposite genre.”
Secondly he is accepted as if he were in the same blues class as pre WWII artists like Lightning Slim and Lightning Hopkins, no small badge of respect.
but the fact is that he is a post-war (WWII) bluesman.
His first track was I’m A King Bee recorded in March 1957 in Crowley, one of a number of towns that he had started his career playing as Harmonica Slim.
His second single didn’t get the same “transatlantic shock” that King Bee did, and I’ll discuss that track in more detail shortly.
His second single, released in November 1957, was Wanderin’ and Worryin’.
He would go on to release 22 singles between 1957 and 1969, 16 albums between 1960 and 1978, and have 12 CD compilations released between 1989 and 2011.
1. I’m a King Bee 3:03
2. I’ve Got Love If You Want It 2:47
3. Wonderin’ and Worryin’ 2:1
4. You’ll Be Sorry One Day 2:17
5. Strange Love 2:09
6. Bobby Sox Baby 1:57
7. One More Day 2:25
8. Rainin’ in My Heart 2:34
9. Blues Hangover 3:06
10. Buzzin’ 2:07
11. Still Rainin’ in My Heart 3:01
12. Snoopin’ Around 2:16
13. Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu 2:06
14 . Tip on It, Pt. 1 2:51
15 . Shake Your Hips 2:30
16 . Baby Scratch My Back 2:52
So we move to track one – I’m A King Bee!
The track was recorded in March of 1957 and accompanying Slim Harpo were:
Guitar Gable – Guitar
Clinton “Fats” Perrodin – Bass
Clarence “Jockey” Etienne – Drums
As indicated previously it was the first release by Harpo on Excello 2113. Now despite what you might read elsewhere the lyrics were not written by Slim Harpo, but by his wife.
Many years after his death his widow Lovell Casey, told Blues and Rhythm interviewer, Steve Colleridge: “It was me that wrote King Bee. I wrote a lot of the songs with him . . . We’d trade ideas, we’d just kick something around . . . I kept several legal pads with me . . . he would think of something, I would think of something and when we got home or to a hotel we would put them all together and he would get his harmonica and guitar .
I don’t know where we were, but we were on our way somewhere and passed some beehives and he said,”Go get your your paper and pen,” and he started humming, “I’m a king bee, baby . . .” That’s the way we did it, and he did not read music”.
Now while Muddy Waters recorded Honey Bee prior, in 1951, Harpo’s song is still considered as a better version, although reviewers have never defined what they mean by better! I’d just say – different.
But there is no doubt that this track is uniquely Slim Harpo from its ‘buzz’ bass guitar glissandos through to the ‘sting’ guitar solo – which must just about be the most economic blues guitar break ever.
It is Harpo’s ‘adenoidal’ vocals that caught the listeners attention and indeed, set him up for a string of well received “swamp blues” tracks.
You have just got to love the crack drumming of Clarence ‘Jockey’ Etienne which along with the lyrical machismo, made this recording so irresistible to the white blues-based rockers.
When the track was released to the English “kids” in 1963, it was immediately picked up by a young up and coming British Blues band – The Rolling Stones.
This is the version that appeared on the original Slim Harpo single.
I’m A King Bee
The single is an absolute collectors item, because apart from having King Bee on one side, it also had another fantastic track as the single was a double-sided R&B hit.
The track indeed spawned numerous follow-ups on the “King Bee” theme, and it was also to be picked up by British Blues bands.
Track 2 is – Got Love If You Want It.
It is less exciting to me but it did encourage three great British groups to record it.
The Kinks, The Yardbirds and The Pretty Things all added their own flavour to the original and certainly popularised the track, with its rhumba-flavoured groove proving irresistible.
Whilst not recording it, The Rolling Stones paid homage to the track by naming their first live album (1966), Got Live If You Want It.
Got Love If You Want It
Track 8 is Raining In My Heart.
In the summer of 1961, as a result of this track. Slim Harpo went national and even crossed over into the pop charts with this track. Recorded in November 1960, it featured Slim Harpo backed by:
Rudolph Richard and James Johnson – guitars
T.J Kitchen – bass
Sammy K. Brown – drums
Producer “Jay” Miller said he wrote the song based upon the title provided by Harpo, but was not satisfied with the end product. Yet he also believed that they had got all that they could out of the song.
Despite his misgivings he sent the record to Excello owner, Ernie Young, with a letter of apology.
He need not have been concerned because Young released the track (Excello 2194) and it made it to number 17 on Billboards R&B chart and it reached number 34 on their pop chart.
Cash Box described the track as: “Slow moaning, earthy blues proves the artists meat as he takes the tune for a tuneful ride. A real weeper”.
Interestingly it was yet another track covered by the Rolling Stones.
Raining In My Heart
I moved to the final track on the CD, but not the final track for this retro-review.
Track number 16 is Baby, Scratch My Back.
It was recorded in October 1965 and accompanying Harpo were:
James Johnson and Rudolph Richard – guitars
Geese August – bass
Sammy K. Brown – drums and possibly,
Monroe Vincent – percussion
By the middle of June 1961 Slim Harpo was such hot property that Imperial Records tried to lure him to New Orleans.
Harpo was having regular fallings out with his Producer – Miller, as he thought he wasn’t getting his due royalties.
Harpo’s widow said after his death, “We tried to get out of the contract when we understood a little more about the recording contract”.
To add to Harpo’s anger, Miller threatened to sue, and in fact Harpo had recorded some tracks and as a result of the falling out, they were not released at the time.
It’s safe to say the “musical marriage” had broken down, but not quite irreconcilably!
It did mean there was a recording hiatus of around 3 years, when Harpo just refused to record.
He went back into the studio in 1963 and released some instrumentals, Buzzin’ and Snoopin’ Around, both appear on this album.
By 1965 it appeared as though Slim Harpo’s recording career was all but over.
Despite their differences, the combination of Slim Harpo and Miller did deliver another hit, in fact his biggest!
In October of 1965 he recorded and released Baby Scratch My Back, which peaked at number 16 in the pop chart early in 1966.
The song is swampy, some what silly, some say sexy, but, what is undeniable is that it had a slinky dance groove and the timing was perfect.
This was the time when funk gaining popularity and the funk godfather, James Brown, recognised both the value of the track and Slim Harpo and took him on a national tour with the James Brown Revue, right at the peak of “Scratch Fever” in 1966.
Reports from the time claim Harpo stole the show both at Madison Square Garden and at the Apollo Theatre shows.
In one final show of respect for Harpo, Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds revamped the track and released it as “Rack My Mind“.
This version you are about to listen to was the version released on the single by Harpo.
Baby Scratch My Back
The end was in sight though! Even while Scratch was still a hit, Harpo released Shake Your Hips as a follow up. The track was an attempt to keep the groove going and it was in fact very much in the groove of John Lee Hookers “Boogie Chillen“.
However the audiences of 1966 found it too anachronistic.
Track number 14, Tip On In Part 1.
This is the penultimate track recorded by Harpo, that is as provided on this album.
In 1966 Miller sold Excello and Harpo at last had an “out” of his contract with Miller. He actually continued to record on the Excello label, but he was free from Millers influence.
He recorded Tip On In and it actually reached number 37 on Billboard’s R&B chart in 1967.
But 1967 was the “Summer Of Love” and when he recorded Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu it would be the last charting track for him, but really its not a memorable track.
Accompanying him on Tip On In, is:
James Johnson and Rudolph Richard – guitars
Geese August – bass
Sammy Brown – drums
Tip On In
While this period ended his charting success Harpo, he was actually breaking free of the “Chitlin Circuit“.
He was appearing regularly in from of white audiences in the counterculture.
Jim Morrison was in the audience for his performance at Hollywood’s Whiskey Au-Go-Go in 1968.
By 1970 he had a contract for a European tour and a recording session in London. Everything was right, and in fact 1970 was the year Howling Wolf hit London for the recording of “The London Howling Wolf Sessions“, which were incredibly successful.
Authentic “black” American Blues was having a revival.
Flush with success, he contacted Lightnin’ Slim, who was now residing outside of Detroit, MI. The two reunited and formed a band, touring together as a sort of blues mini-package to appreciative white rock audiences until the end of the decade.
It was the time when many US Blues veterans were revitalising their careers, as the Euro audiences simply could not get enough of them.
Sadly, Slim Harpo would not be one of those whose careers were revitalised.
He passed away on January 31, 1970 from a heart attack, only 45 years of age and just a few weeks shy of his 46th birthday.
There is a genuiness to his music, and even 50 years after his death Slim Harpo’s music has lost none of its vitality!
He may very well be one of the last genuine “down home” blues artist to achieve pop success, albeit briefly.
As the liner notes of the booklet declare: “He both embodied and transcended his genre, and, 40 years since he cut I’m A King Bee, Slim Harpo’s buzz has lost none of its sting”. [Mark Humphrey – 1997].
It would be hard to conceive having a blues collection and not having at least one Slim Harpo album.
Given his amazing number of albums recorded in what was, and all too short career, I can’t say this is the best.
But it does embody his music and his style and it does represent some of his best work on the Excello label. It is available on Ebay for around $17.00 including postage, but be careful, there is another Harpo album called The Best Of, but it is on the Ace label, and contains a different arrangement of tracks.
Sadly there appears to be no known live recorded performances of Slim Harpo.
I did find a couple cool vids put to one of his music.
Scratch My Back
Shake Your Hips
Previous Cream of The Crate Albums:
To view/listen the first 50 vinyl album reviews just click the image below –
To view/listen the first 50 Cd album reviews just click the image below –
Click to open the following Vinyl reviews from 101 onward:
#108: Paul Simon – Graceland