TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. For a bluesman who didn't come from one of the usual places and who didn't sound much like any of the Chicago bluesman of the early 1950s, Slim Harpo not only had great success, but great influence, even though he was a late bloomer. With the release of his complete recordings by Bear Family Records, rock historian Ed Ward at last gets to tell his story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLIM HARPO SONG, "BABY, SCRATCH MY BACK")
ED WARD, BYLINE: By 1966, I'd discovered British rock groups and electric American blues, which I thought was dead or dying. Imagine my surprise, then, to turn on the car radio set to an AM top 40 station and hear blues.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY, SCRATCH MY BACK")
SLIM HARPO: (Singing) Oh, I'm itchy, and I don't know where to scratch. Come here, Baby. Scratch my back. I know you can do it, so, Baby, get to it. Oh, you're working with it now.
WARD: "Baby, Scratch My Back" was the number one hit on the black music charts in early 1966 and even got as high as 16 on the mainstream pop charts. It was an engaging record all right, but who was this guy, and where did he come from? Some of that is pretty easily answered. James Moore was born in 1924 in Baton Rouge, La., and lived there his entire life. Unlike New Orleans, Baton Rouge had a bunch of down-home guitar-playing bluesmen. And Moore, with his distinct, declarative harmonica style, could fit in with a lot of them. He spent a little time in New Orleans working on the docks but soon returned to Baton Rouge to set up as a contractor and play the clubs at night. Sometime between 1948 and 1951, he had the great good fortune to meet and marry Lovelle Jones, who worked in a sandwich shop in Baton Rouge. She had two kids from a previous marriage and developed into a confident businesswoman and a no-nonsense road manager for her husband.
Playing in the clubs, Moore met a guy named Otis Hicks, a guitar player who called himself Lightnin' Slim. When he started making records for Feature Records in Crowley, La., he brought Moore, who he called Harmonica Slim, along with him. Feature was run by J.D. Miller, who began recording Cajun music in the late 1940s and, with the coming of rock 'n' roll, diversified into blues. Lightnin' Slim was one of his first signings, and it was during a 1957 session of his that Slim Harpo was born. Afraid that his harp man would quit if Miller didn't record him, he handed Moore a song to do. Miller hated it. The song was great, but Moore's way of singing it sounded all wrong. Then he had an inspiration. James, he said, I want you to sing, but sing it nasal. Moore thought he was nuts, but he tried it. Turned out it wasn't such a crazy idea after all.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A KING BEE")
HARPO: (Singing) Well, I'm a king bee buzzing around your hive. Well, I'm a king bee buzzing around your hive. Well, I can make honey, baby. Let me come inside. I'm young and able...
WARD: And the other side had another classic.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOT LOVE IF YOU WANT IT")
HARPO: (Singing) Got love if you want it, babe. Got love if you want it, babe. Got love if you want it. Got your love if you want it. Got love if you want it. We can rock awhile. We can rock awhile.
WARD: Miller's approach to the record business was to release country and Cajun records locally and find larger labels to release his blues recordings. His best relationship was with Excello, a Nashville label that promoted itself through Ernie's Record Mart, a mail-order business that bought time on WLAC, Nashville's clear channel radio station. Even so, Slim Harpo wasn't an overnight success. And it wasn't until 1961 that he had his first national hit.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINING IN MY HEART")
HARPO: (Singing) Raining in my heart since we've been apart. I know I was wrong. Baby, please come home. You got me crying...
WARD: "Raining In My Heart" got to 17 on the R&B chart and even did well on the pop charts. Meanwhile, Miller and Excello could be sure of at least some strong regional success with Slim Harpo records, and Moore could use them to tour the South and make money doing construction work at home in Baton Rouge between records.
By the time "Baby, Scratch My Back" hit in 1966, the British bands had discovered Slim Harpo. The Rolling Stones put "King Bee" on their first album, although Mick Jagger famously told Rolling Stone what's the point in listening to us do "I'm A King Bee" when you can listen to Slim Harpo doing it? Keith Richards said that one of his favorite songs was by Slim Harpo, a very telling one indeed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUES HANGOVER")
HARPO: (Singing) Lord, I wonder what done happened. Ain't nobody here but me. All these empty bottles on the table here. I knew I didn't drink all this by myself. I must have had a blues hangover. What's this? My check? And I don't have change for a grasshopper and that's two crickets. Uh oh...
WARD: The Stones weren't the only Slim Harpo fans in England - The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Pretty Things, Them, Love Sculpture and Pink Floyd all recorded his tunes. And The Moody Blues took their name from one of his more obscure instrumentals. Slim Harpo's success came when the rock scene in America was also beginning to look to electric blues, and The Paul Butterfield Band and others were sharing stages with Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Magic Sam. It would just be a matter of time until he started getting invited to share stages with rock bands, and his wife Lovelle was always there, helping to make sure things went right. And he was getting more inventive with his backup, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TE-NI-NEE-NI-NU")
HARPO: (Singing) I want you to be my te-ni-nee-ni-nu. I want you to be my te-ni-nee-ni-nu. Tell me the truth, ain't you my te-ni-nee-ni-nu? Now, will you love me?
WARD: By 1967, he was recording with the same Memphis band that would soon back Al Green, with Mabon Teenie Hodges on guitar. Excello figured you couldn't sell a bluesman to white audiences without having a guitar in the picture, but the guitars on the album covers are props. In January 1970, he and Lovelle got passports. They were on their way to England. In the middle of the night of January 31, though, he screamed, waking Lovelle, who discovered he was dead. It was a heart attack, his second as it turned out. He was 45 years old. But many of the musicians who played with him are still alive, and his music still gets played at Baton Rouge clubs at the annual Baton Rouge Blues Festival.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Austin. He played music from "Buzzin' The Blues: The Complete Slim Harpo Box Set" on Bear Family Records.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, one of the best performances I saw in the past year was by a dog - make that two dogs who share the leading role in the Hungarian drama "White God." It's just come out on DVD, and tomorrow, I'll talk with the woman who trained these dogs, Teresa Miller. She spent her career following in her father's footsteps, training animals for movies and TV. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.