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Cream of The Crate: Album # 138 - Slim Harpo: The Best Of


  • Cream of The Crate: Album # 138 - Slim Harpo: The Best Of

    "What's the point in listening to us doing "I'm A King Bee" when you can listen to Slim Harpo doing it?." (Mick jagger - Interview with Rolling Stone Oct. 1968)
    Slim Harpo may not be a household name among rock ‘n’ roll fans, but he should be."
    "He put the tackle box in a chair by the vocal mike and it was stuffed full of harmonicas. The man meant business"
    (Jonathan Foose - New Orleans musician)

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    This is album review number one hundred and thirty eight in the series of retro-reviews of both vinyl and CD albums from my collection.

    The series is called Cream of The Crate and each review represents an album that I believe represents significant musical value, either because of its rarity, because it represents the best of a style or styles of a music or because there is something unique about the music, the group or the particular production.

    The first fifty reviews were based on vinyl albums from my collection, with the following fifty on CD albums from my collection. Links to all these reviews can be found at the bottom of the page. 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 with the code – 45-2278 in 1997. 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.

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    The booklet would rate at around 8 on my scale of 1 to 10. 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, 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.

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    Slim Harpo, plate from the booklet

    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, 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.

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    Rear plate of the booklet

    Track Listing

    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

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    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.

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    Now while Muddy Waters recorded Honey Bee prior, in 1951, Harpo's song probably is more in debt musically to another track that Muddy Waters covered and released just four months previous to this tracks release, and that is Rock Me!

    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. But 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 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, spawning numerous follow-ups on the "King Bee" theme, and it was also to be picked up by British Blues bands. Track 2 - Got Love If You Want It is less exciting and three great British groups recorded it, The Kinks, The Yardbirds and The Pretty Things - 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 and 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 whose cover is quite like this, the original short of the narrative.

    Raining In My Heart

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    Slim Harpo - Booklet plate

    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 and was recorded in October 1965. Accompanying Harpo were:
    James Johnson and Rudolph Richard - guitars
    Geese August - bass
    Sammy K. Brown - drums and possibly,
    Monroe Vincent - percussion

    [Small diversion] 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 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 harp 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.

    Baby Scratch My Back

    The end was in sight though, and 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, but was in fact very much in the groove of John Lee Hookers "Boogie Chillen", and the audiences of 1966 found it too anachronistic.

    Track number 14, Tip On In Part 1 is the penultimate track recorded by Harpo, that is 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 free form Millers influence. He recorded Tip On In and it actually reached number 37 on Billboard's R&B chart in 1967.

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    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 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 ended his charting success Harpo 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. 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.

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    Slim Harpo - Booklet plate

    There is a genuiness to his music, and even 45 years after his death Slim Harpo's music has lost none of its vitality! He may very well be 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.

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    VIDEOS - sadly there are no known video's of live performances by Slim Harpo.

    If you are interested in checking out the first fifty vinyl albums reviewed, just click here

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    If you are interested in checking out the first fifty (50) CD's reviewed by me, just click here

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    Past album Reviews - Numbers 101 onward:

    Number 101 - Bo Diddley: Bo Diddley's Beach Party

    Number 102 - Les Paul & Mary Ford: The World Is Still Waiting For A Sunrise

    Number 103 - Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica

    Number 104 - Ariel Ramirez & Los Fronterizos: Misa Criolla

    Number 105 - Bobby Bright: Child Of Rock And Roll

    Number 106 - The Nylons: One Size Fits All

    Number 107 - Jimmy Cliff and others: The Harder They Come

    Number 108 - Paul Simon: Graceland

    Number 109 - The Ventures: The Very Best Of

    Number 110 - The Pardoners: Indulgences

    Number 111 - Atlantic R & B Series (Volumes 1 -3) (1947 to 1957)

    Number 112 - Atlantic R & B Series (Volumes 4 & 5) (1957 to 1965)

    Number 113 - SUN ~ Roots of Rock Vol. 12 Union Avenue: Various Artists

    Number 114 - David Fanshawe: African Sanctus

    Number 115 - A Reefer Derci (Live at the Reefer Cabaret: Various Artists

    Number 116 - Dr John: Ske-Dat-De-Dat (The Spirit of Satch)

    Number 117 - The Walker Brothers: The Walker Brothers (Self Titled)

    Number 118 - Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel (Self Titled)

    Number 119 - Curved Air: Air Conditioning

    Number 120 - The Delltones: The Best of The Delltones

    Number 121- Hound Dog Taylor: Hound Dog Taylor and The Houserockers

    Number 122 - Bessie Smith: Queen of the Blues

    Number 123 - The Shadows: The Shadows Greatest Hits

    Number 124 - Gil Scott-Heron: Reflections

    Number 125 - The Dingoes: Five Times The Sun

    Number 126 - Bert Jansch and John Renbourn: Bert and John

    Number 127 - Nat King Cole: The Complete After Midnight Sessions

    Number 128 - Various Artists: The Rock and Roll Collection(A Boxed Set)

    Number 129 - Sam Cooke: 16 Most Requested Songs

    Number 130 - Various Artists: Australian Rock Heritage Volume 1

    Number 131 - Wilson Pickett - The Exciting Wilson Pickett

    Number 132 - Martha and The Vandellas: The Best Of

    Number 133 - Van Morrison: The Best of

    Number 134 - The Marvelettes: Greatest Hits

    Number 135 - Various Artists - So You Wanna Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star Vol. 1

    Number 136 - various Artists - Zydeco (The Essential Collection)

    Number 137 - King Crimson - In The Court Of The Crimson King
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