Slim Harpo may not be a household name among rock ‘n’ roll fans, but he should be.
The blues singer, who died in 1970 after having some moderate success during his 15-year recording career, stands as an important precursor to the white blues movement that was a dominant strain of rock and roll in the 1960s.
Not only did the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Van Morrison’s Them and others record Harpo’s tunes, but they also appropriated some of his style. The reason seems pretty clear when you listen to The Excello Singles Anthology. Slim Harpo was writing, singing and playing a blues that was as close to mainstream rock ‘n’ roll as you could get.
Harpo was born James Moore in 1924 in the small rural town of Lobdell, Louisiana, and was first recorded in 1955 after coming to the attention of producer Jay Miller. He was a contemporary of the great Jimmy Reed and Lightnin’ Slim, playing the harp for the latter.
Listening to the new compilation, two things become readily apparent. First, Harpo, like nearly every bluesman of his generation and after, was deeply influenced by Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Second, Harpo’s influence was greater than one might think, given that he hit the charts only a couple of times.
Harpo’s music is as rhythmically driven as any in the blues genre — always the hallmark of the Rolling Stones, rock’s most rhythm-driven band — but also very laid-back, so that every song has what can be described as a shuffling or rambling gait. He was a masterful songwriter, with a real knowledge of song structure, and a melodic harp player — which is what I think is most notable of his records. His records lack the pyrotechnics of more modern bluesmen, which is a strength as far as I’m concerned.
Harpo’s easy manner, his supple harp playing and occasional forays into country can be heard in Van Morrison’s work with Them or the manner in which the Rolling Stones have always treated the blues (the band covered “I’m a King Bee” on their first album).
“Here was good-time Saturday night blues that could be sung by elements of the Caucasian persuasion with a straight face”, writes Cub Koda for the on-line All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com). “Nothing resembling the emotional investment of a Howlin’ Wolf or a Muddy Waters was required; it all came natural and easy, and its influence has stood the test of time”.
Listen to any of the British blues bands of the 1960s, and whether they are playing a tune by Muddy Waters or Elmore James, the majority tends to sound more like Slim Harpo.
Harpo failed to hit the charts very often during his career, though two songs — “Rainin’ In My Heart” and “Baby Scratch My Back” — managed to get into the pop Top Forty — “Rainin'” hit 34 on the pop charts in 1961 and number 17 on the “Black Singles” chart and “Baby Scratch My Back” rose as high as 16 on the pop charts and topped the “Black Singles” chart in 1966.
Listening to The Excello Singles Anthology, one can hear the changes in the blues genre as filtered through Harpo’s songwriting, moving from the more traditional gutbucket electric style pioneered by Muddy Waters (“I’m a King Bee”, “I Got Love If You Want It”) to horn-based, electric soul a la Otis Redding or Little Milton Campbell (“That’s Why I Love You” and “I’ve Got My Finger on Your Trigger”). It is this chronological presentation — and Hip-O’s decision to include the A and B side of every single released by Harpo between 1957 and 1971, 44 tracks in all — that make it the definitive Harpo collection (Hip-O released an outstanding The Best of Slim Harpo in 1997 that featured 16 tracks). John Broven also offers some very fine liner notes that place the recordings in their historical context.
Hip-O deserves a lot of credit for ensuring that such an important figure in the histories of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll continues to be available on disc.