“My daddy picked cotton, but I didn’t. Playing the blues wasn’t all that glamorous, but then again, what’s glamorous is relative. My dad grew up a sharecropper in the Mississippi Delta, and they were poor, dirt poor! And he told me. He said, “We didn’t know we were poor. So, since we didn’t know we were poor. We were as happy as we could be.”
Zac Harmon is a Renaissance man. Singer/songwriter/guitarist and producer, he’s written songs for artists as disparate as Evelyn “Champagne” King, Freddie Jackson, The Whispers, K-Ci & Jo Jo, and The O’Jays. He was nominated for a Grammy for producing Black Uhuru’s Mystical Truth album and was a staff writer for Michael Jackson’s publishing company. He’s working on his sixth blues album, co-writing songs with John Hahn, Shemekia Copeland manger and principle songwriter.
Yes, Zac Harmon grew up in Mississippi, but his early years were hardly stereotypical. Zac’s father was a pharmacist whose customers included Muddy Water and Sam Myers. Both parents have college degrees. Dad told Zac he didn’t care what he ended up doing for a living, but he wanted him to get an education. “Dad was a harp player. So, it wasn’t that he felt that music was bad. It was that he felt there was something better, and he wanted better. Being in Mississippi, he didn’t know many musicians that were very successful.
“I have one master’s degree, and two undergraduate degrees. What you will find out, Don, is that there are a lot of guys out there that at least have undergraduate degrees that are playing the blues that you don’t really know about because sometimes they feel like it’s not politically correct to be educated and play the blues and it’s not politically correct to have all your teeth and play the blues.
“That’s part of the issue here in America. We get so caught up in stereotypes, and one of the things I experience in Europe is they just let the music be free, especially in France. Sometimes, they get a little bit too free, ’cause some of the bands playing stuff over there sound like they’re just throwing pots and pans.
“My parents were the first folks in their families to go to college. My father taught me, he was really into education, and I wanted to be a musician so bad. Music was just in my blood. So, (I heard) all the stereotypes that my dad threw at me like, ‘Oh musicians are this, Musicians are that.’
“It wasn’t that my dad thought it was something inferior. It’s just that he wanted better for me. My dad wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer because in his eyes from his perspective, those were the more desired occupations that he would want his son to have, but I was a musician, and that’s what’s in my heart. That’s what’s in my blood.
“I made up my mind that I was never gonna be any of those basic stereotypes like musicians drinking and doing drugs and things like that, sleeping all day, you know, and that type of image was never gonna be my image. I’ve never been late for a show. I’ve never been late for an interview. No one has ever had to wait on me. No one has ever had to worry about whether I was going to be prepared when I came ’cause that’s just part of who I am.
“As a matter of fact my good friend Vasti Jackson and I talk about this all the time because both Vasti and I came up together and went to college together, and that’s one of the things we always kind of expressed between the two of us that we were not going to do the stereotype. We were going to be the exception, and it wasn’t just him being the exception because I learned a lot of that from Little Milton because Little Milton was like that. Many of those guys were like that. B.B. was like that.”
Zac toured with B. B. in 1977. “I was blessed having had firsthand experience with B.B. watching him every night after show when I was playing with Dorothy Moore, and we were on the road with him. I was able to watch him and just watch how he conducted himself. Little Milton was one of the Godfathers because he was always down in Jackson (Mississippi). He was always in my father’s store. So, seeing him all the time was really something, and I watched how he conducted himself, and these guys were so far removed from any kind of blues or just music stereotype that I wanted to be like that.”
Zac smashes another stereotype. Even though he studied under Sam Myers, one of his dad’s pharmacy customers and a close friend, he ended up writing songs for the likes of R&B artists far removed from the blues spectrum and was Grammy nominated for a reggae album.
“Let’s remember what Willie Dixon said, ‘Blues is the roots. Everything else is the fruit.’ It’s almost like skipping all – what is that thing you give kids – Hooked on Phonics? It’s like skipping all that stuff and trying to read. It’s not saying you couldn’t ever learn to read, but it would be really, really difficult, and the thing about blues is blues is the roots, man. Blues is the root of all this western culture music, and if the root is where you come from, then it’s easy for you to do all the other stuff. The other stuff is easy.
“It was easy for me to do that other stuff. The only thing I ever had any reservations about was when I worked with Black Uhuru because I had so much respect for them that even though their record company had called and asked me to work with them, I was apprehensive because their music is so pure. I felt like who I am, a blues guy from Mississippi? Who am I to produce this reggae record?
The leader of this band is a guy named Bucky Simpson, and we had dinner one night, and I expressed my reservations with him, and he told me, (Jamaican accent) ‘There’s no worries, man. You got the ticker.’
“I got the ticker? What’s he talking about? I got the ticker.
“So, I asked him, I said, ‘What are you talking about? What is the ticker?’ And what he explained to me was I’m from blues. Blues and the music he’s playing are both part of the tree rooted in African music. So, if I was rooted in blues, that means I had the ticker. I had the heart that would allow me to make an easy transition into what they did. We started working, and it just started coming. When he expressed that confidence in me, that made me say, ‘You know what? I can do this.’
That wasn’t the first time that happened in Zac’s career. His very first production was a group called the Whispers, a really big R&B group in the ’70s and ’80s.
“Just like I was with Black Uhuru, I was a fan. So, who was I to produce these guys? I was star struck, and I remember the very first session the leader of that band was a guy by the name of Nicholas Caldwell, and he could obviously see that I was nervous. He took me outside the stadium, and he said, ‘Hey, man, we chose you. First of all, we like your writing. We like this song you wrote for us. We want to do this song. That’s why you’re here,’ and he said, ‘We obviously chose you because we hear what you can do. So, what I want you to do is understand that we are going to be totally submissive to you.’ Ok, so in other words, you’re the potter, and we’re the clay, ok? So, you do your thing.’ He gave me confidence.”
Europeans understand and accept American blues musicians who don’t fit the stereotypes. Zac has spent a lot of time performing overseas. I asked him if the European acceptance is because blues is all around us, and we don’t appreciate it. It’s not special to us, but to them it is.
“I think that’s part of the contributing factor, but the other part of it is we have lost the respect for the essence of the blues, the creative legacy of the blues. Musicians, especially young musicians, want to play the blues and want to do their thing. So, the problems in America has not been with enough people playing the blues or enough people happy with the blues. The problem has been with the presentation of the blues in America. We have a tendency in America to get so far out ahead of the game with the blues that we start showcasing a lot of blues, and we forget the legacy of the blues.
“People always ask me this question. They say, ‘You know, young black guys don’t like the blues. Black folks don’t like the blues.’ That is so far from the truth, Don. That is so far from the truth. There are so many young black guys playing the blues. Black folk love the blues. I play a festival in Jackson, Mississippi, and you have 10,000 chocolate folks there every year. So, that stereotype is not true. Ok? The only thing that’s true is those people who present the blues to America seem to forget that segment of the blues population, and they don’t as much feature those young guys or even those young old guys.”
There’s also the question of political correctness in the “business” (my words) of blues in America. We talked about Christian “Kingfish” Ingram recording his first album with Tom Hambridge co-writing with him. Hambridge has written a lot of songs for Buddy Guy’s recent albums.
“The only reason you’re going to hear Christian Ingram is because Buddy Guy wanted him to have help recording a record, and so he calls on Tom Hambridge and nothing against Tom Hambridge. He’s a friend of mine. He’s a great guy, but why does he need Tom Hambridge to write songs for him?
“Where we have gotten off track in America is that we are not allowing that segment of the blues the blues legacy to be heard. We are going with what’s politically correct for the times. Now, Tom Hambridge is a great writer, don’t get me wrong. He’s a great writer, but it’s politically correct to have Tom Hambridge do that record.”
Zac is currently co-writing the songs for his next album with John Hahn who has written some of Shemekia Copeland’s best songs.
“John and I writing together is like the perfect marriage of husband and wife and I ain’t the wife. (laugh) Anyway, I’m just saying we write so well together that it’s incredible. One of us will get an idea and will say, ‘You know about this and this,’ and we’ll start talking about it. While we’re talking, we’ll start writing and the next thing you know, we have written a song. These are not just fly-by-night songs. These are serious songs with serious lyrics, serious stories, and so right now I’m having a lot of ’em. Next weekend I’m going to record the first one that we wrote which is called “Finding My Way Home,” and this song is about a conversation we had about Vietnam veterans.
“John and I in 2008 went to Iraq together and we did the Bluesapaolooza tour over there (with Shemekia Copeland, Janiva Magness and other blues acts), and one of the things we learned when we first got over there was that some of those who came over to “entertain the troops” were actually only going to Kuwait and doing the big camp in Kuwait. They never would go into Iraq. So, those guys that were on the front lines that were out in what they called FOBs, those guys never got a chance to be entertained. They never got anything like that.
“So, we decided, guess what? We’re gonna go into Iraq. We’re gonna go out and entertain everybody we possibly can, and that’s what we did. So, that kind of started a conversation between John and I about our military, and I was like most Americans. I was a breakfast table commentator about what the military did and so forth and how dare you do this and how dare you do that, and then, I gotta tell ya, it was such a moving experience to go over there and realize that these guys put the “P” in patriot because these guys are not political. I always say this. I didn’t see one Republican flag when I was over there. I didn’t see one Democratic flag. I didn’t see one Tea Part flag. I only saw the flag of the United States of America. That really touched me.
“I had a guy over there who was assigned to be my body guard. He was an 18-year-old soldier, and I spent a long time with this guy, and he asked me what my favorite song was. I know a lot of songs, so I said, ‘I don’t really know,’ and I asked him what his was, and he told me “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” I asked him why, and he told me because he was a mine sweeper, and every day when he went on patrol he wanted to feel he was knocking on heaven’s door, and that touched me so much that what I decided to do was every show I’ve done since then, every show I’ve done since 2008, I do a special tribute to our American soldier.
“When I started doing that tribute tour a lot of guys were coming up to talk to me, well, most of the guys were Vietnam veterans, and they were so thankful. They were so thankful, Don, And the reason they were so thankful was because no one had ever acknowledged them like that. All they got when they came back from Vietnam was, ‘How dare you. Look at what you did.’ That is what they got.
“So, that started a conversation and John and I continued the conversation. Finally we decided, you know what? Let’s write a song about this. And we wrote the song “Finding My Way Back Home,” and after we wrote the song, I did a little rough recording of it, and I had to stop half way in the middle of it because I was crying because this song speaks for everyone of those military veterans, especially those Vietnam guys. It speaks. It tells their story. That’s all I can say.”
Pain, and the catharsis blues brings to soothe it, are important to its success.
“Pain is pain. I don’t care how you define it. Blues is no different than any other art form. Pain is in every musical style. Every musical genre has pain. There’s pain everywhere and there’s joy in blues. I think blues has been unfairly labeled with pain and suffering when pain and suffering is just a part of life, and so it’s going to be a part of every musical genre ’cause if you live, you’re gonna have some pain and suffering.”
Visit Zac’s Website at : www.zacharmon.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.