You can call it an epiphany, a moment of clarity or even an instant of divine enlightenment.
Whatever you call it, the end result was the same.
It was a life-changing moment for young James Harman.
Though he was way too young to be in a segregated night club in Panama City, Florida, a teen-aged Harman nevertheless donned a fake moustache and proceeded to sneak into the black nightclub to witness first-hand the magic of the one-and-only Little Junior Parker.
And by the end of that fateful evening, Harman had plotted out his future vocation – singing the blues.
So what was it about Parker’s performance that night that struck such a raw nerve with the young man from Anniston, Alabama?
“Mostly how cool it all seemed to me … as well as seeing all those women in the front row throwing panties and hotel keys up to him … I said, this is for me!”
The very next week, Harman had a similar experience at a Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland show and as they say, the die was surely cast.
“I walked out of the church choir at age 16 and started singing about women for money and that’s the only job I’ve ever had,” Harman recently said.
Harman has been singing the blues, blowing harp, leading bands, burning up the road and penning thought-provoking songs ever since, and some five-plus decades after being turned on by what can happen when Little Junior Parker or Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland takes the bandstand, he is rightfully recognized as one of the Godfathers of the southern California scene.
His latest album – Bonetime (his first for the Electro-Fi label) – came out in the spring of 2015 and immediately found a loving home with those craving a hearty dose of the real-deal blues. Bonetime ended up garnering a whopping five Blues Music Awards (BMA) nominations this past spring and that might have caught Harman – who is a member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and who has also seen his name listed on the roll-call of Grammy Award nominees – a bit off guard.
“It’s great to feel that you are being recognized by your peers and the entire record buying world, but I personally don’t ever think of music as sports, or competitive. But those folks who organize and promote those award shows sure are invested in it, so what the hell? I certainly didn’t see five BMA nominations coming, but it was nice,” he said. “I had 20 Handy nominations (the pre-cursor to today’s BMAs) during the ’80s and ’90s and even up to 2003 when I released Lonesome Moon Trance and the digital remaster release of my Strictly Live in ’85… Plus album. Those were my last new albums before Bonetime. None of this awards business is as exciting as mixing up a new batch of my songs to release. It’s still all about songs. I make songs, not albums.”
Although it was not intentional, Harman sure did make his fans sweat it out, waiting 12 years between Bonetime and the release of his previous album.
“I just stayed so busy, touring 29 countries, that I didn’t really have time to address a new release. Also, I had gotten a ‘bad taste in my mouth’ from my last label experiences in the ’90s, being sued and lied to, etc.,” he said. “I needed a break from the making-records side of the business.”
Bonetime features a wide array of Harman’s friends helping out, associates such as Junior Watson, Kid Ramos, the late, great Candye Kane, Kirk Fletcher, Gene Taylor, Nathan James and Jeff Turmes. Bonetime very much has the sound and texture of a continuous, well-thought-out body of work. It’s a bit of a surprise then, to learn that some of the material has been hanging out inside Harman’s vault for some time, just waiting to have the clear-coat slapped on them.
“I never ‘finish’ songs; I record the tracks and do the important overdubs then leave them to finish when needed. That way I approach the chosen dozen songs with a fresh mind, as I get them ready to mix and master,” he said. “This method gives me a nice ‘of the same cloth’ feel when I assemble them into a release. As I said, I make songs, not albums.”
The songs that ultimately end up on one of his albums are Harman’s own original compositions. Doing cover songs is really not in his repertoire and it’s a sure bet that is not bound to change anytime soon, either.
“I don’t really do covers. Why would I do covers? As a teenager learning my craft, I did covers to have material back in the 1960s, but that ran its course many decades ago. Recording covers is work for those who cannot write their own material. I write every day, and record a few songs at a time, using the players I choose for each song. When I have a pile of freshly-recorded songs, I put them into the ‘holding can’ until I decide I want to create a new release,” he said. “I have been doing this game a long time and will never rush an album with a label watching over my shoulder pointing at the clock. I produce my records and then make deals with labels to release and promote them. My job is writing songs, and producing recordings … promotion is the work of labels and promotion people. I would never start a business of reproducing other artist’s work; I paint my own pictures and sell them, retaining the rights to them.”
Harpist Mark Hummel – a good friend of Harman’s – has referred to his old pal as a ‘comic genius.’ Hummel’s assessment is spot-on, as evidenced by some of the material that Harman pens. One listen to “(I Am) The World’s Badluckest Man” or “Bad Feets/Bad Hair” from Bonetime confirms as much. Even though it might seem like he’s singing about himself, Harman says that’s not always the case with his tunes.
“As I said, I write every day. I consider myself a short story writer; they are just really short stories so they fit into music. They are rarely stories about me; they are mostly stories about the human condition, as I see it. Blues should not always be autobiographic; a good story is a good story,” he said. “I have lived a wild and crazy life, and I have been on the road literally all my life. I am 70 years old, from the rural south, but have lived in all the major urban centers and toured in 29 countries, so you know I’ve seen some absolutely insane things go down. I take a little about me, add a little I saw in somebody else … I’m making up characters as I look around every place I go.”
His music is filled with plenty of blues from the Delta, some pre-war swing and a nice shot of R&B. But there are other dynamics at play in Harman’s songs, as well. There’s an almost international flair going on inside his tunes, bolstered by swirling Latin, African and Cuban-inspired rhythms. Put it this way – boring and predictable are two words you won’t ever find associated with a James Harman tune.
“My life has been a carnival of swirling colors and shapes, so I grab them all to paint my pictures. Yeah, I’m from rural Alabama, and I use that a lot, but I’ve also lived in Chicago, New York City, Miami, New Orleans and Panama City. Don’t forget that I have also worked, as I said before, in 29 other countries… and brother, I always had my eyes open the whole time. If where you are doesn’t rub off on you… then I would suppose you’re not rubbing up against each place enough to be using the colors in your work,” he said. “In the late ’60s, I had a band with two whites – me and Larry Williams, my guitar player – and two blacks and two Cubans. We were the first mixed-race (not black) outfit to ever play in Miami’s famous Jet-Away Lounge. I was the only white singer ever there! Upstairs was an all-black, 16-piece jazz band, and we were down in the lounge doing Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf…. it was wild. Elderly black gents in tuxedos would tell me I had ‘the wrong paint-job,’ but they wanted to book me in their gambling casino in the Bahamas… what a scene! What I really do is cook and I approach that the same way as painting or song-writing. I create new dishes by using ingredients, herbs and spices from one place in the cuisine of another place… I enjoy most of my concoctions.”
While ‘deep southern soul’ and west coast cool’ may seem at opposite ends of the spectrum – especially musically-speaking – Harman has always managed to blend both together into something that is uniquely his own. That helps to explain the manner in which his music flows out of him, whether on the bandstand or in a recording booth.
“I guess it’s like everything else. When you move to a new location, you bring with you all the spices from every place you have already been. When I moved to Chicago I brought a lot of Alabama/Florida with me, as I learned Chicago. When I moved to southern California, I met and worked with all the old blues guys who were still living there, so a lot of that Texas/Oklahoma thing people like to call ‘West coast’ certainly came into more use,” he said. “When you’re backing Big Joe Turner or Cleanhead Vinson you can’t help sounding a bit Kansas City, and when you’re working with T-Bone Walker, Lloyd Glenn and Lowell Fulsom, you can’t help gettin’ some of that Texas/Oklahoma stuff into the sound. I was a very lucky guy to get to work with all those cats, and even more lucky to become friends with them. About half my stories of those cats are not about music or being on a bandstand, they are about life. Those men shared hotel rooms, women, bottles and cars non-stop and the stories are now sifting down into my stories. The essence of the blues lives through guys like me, Rod Piazza, Kim Wilson and a few others. We didn’t come from just being fans who bought records, we were down in the trenches working with those cats… so that’s why we have stories.”
Harman, Piazza and Wilson have all been pillars of the southern California scene, which has always been a thriving and vibrant place to play the blues. But oftentimes, southern California (and the whole west coast, really) has to take a backseat to locales such as Chicago, Texas and the Mississippi Delta when discussing the rich history of the blues. Harman helps to explain why that is.
“I suppose it’s because the music that was made in California actually came from Texas and Oklahoma. There was little California in it. Sure, there was a scene everywhere black people gathered, because people are gonna’ dance and carry on, but all your west coast artists were from the south … few were actually from the west coast,” he said. “It’s all about recording studios and labels. Piedmont artists went to New York, Mississippi artists went to Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago and Texas artists went to Los Angeles because that’s where the labels and studios were. Most folks don’t really know anything of the history, or the people who made all this great music. I used to laugh out loud when a hippie radio DJ would play the new Fabulous Thunderbirds’ album on the air and he’d pick a Little Walter tune that they were killin’ dead on, and the radio guy would come back on and say, ‘That was the big Texas sound of the Texas blues from the Fabulous Thunderbirds,’ because he had no idea they were perfectly covering a Louisiana guy who recorded in Chicago! Since the radio guy didn’t really know anything about blues records, all he had to go by was the fact that the album cover told him the band was from Austin, Texas. It’s funny, but not really too funny. Most folks only want to have fun and enjoy themselves… they don’t really want to know where this music comes from.”
An old hobby of Harman’s is due credit for him being known as ‘Icepick’ in some circles of the blues world.
“I collected old icepicks from the turn-of-the-century that had wooden handles with catch-phrases from ice houses, you know, ‘Take home enough ice,’ or ‘Ice saves food.’ They were at war with that new refrigerator and those old icepicks were interesting to me as an art student in school,” he said. “When the fellas would come for record parties, they would see all those old icepicks and started calling me ‘Icepick James’ as a blues guy nickname. I never used it myself until it seemed it would never go away, so in ’91, I made two songs with it in the title – “Icepick’s Confession” and “Icepicks Advice” … pretty funny. But I still have never promoted myself as Icepick James.”
Harman has played with – and had in his band at one time or another – a virtual who’s-who of some of the best guitarists that have ever called California home. Cats like Kirk Fletcher, Nathan James (the guitarist in Harman’s Bamboo Porch Revue), Hollywood Fats, Kid Ramos and Junior Watson, to name just a few, are some of the six-string masters that have helped Harman create his art through the years. And according to the man himself, creating art is what it’s all about.
“I have always looked on a guitar as another tube of paint and I only record with guitar players who move me and can understand what I’m trying to say/do/paint. All those cats are that kind of guitar player; they bring two important things to every session: #1 – an understanding of how to hear what the artist is looking for, and #2 – of course, a very special style. Junior Watson signs his name with one note. Kirk Fletcher plays on a few songs on Bonetime, including the song that was nominated for Song of the Year – “Bad Feets/Bad Hair.” And dig him on “Coldfront Woman.” My old bass player, Jeff Turmes is also playing some great guitar on there, that’s him playing slide on “Ain’t It Crazy.” Since he’s best known as a bass player, many people don’t think of him as a guitar player, but trust me, that cat wails. Be sure an catch him in Mavis Staples’ band. Nathan is still my favorite guitar player, he knows exactly what kind of stuff I want to hear as soon as he hears me sing one word … he’s a natural. He was already like that when I met him he was only 19, but he totally had it all down.”
Harman’s initial move from the deep south to California in 1970 was jump-started by a friendship that he had struck up with the legendary Canned Heat.
“I went to see them in Florida and introduced myself. Bob (The Bear) Hite, being a keen record collector, had a couple of my old singles from that period. We made friends and he and Alan Wilson told me that if I’d move my operation to California, they would help me by letting me open some of their shows,” said Harman. “They also went to Texas and told Albert Collins the same thing. Albert and I both took them up on it. We went to California and played tons of shows with them, as well as doing other gigs together. They were very helpful. We jokingly called me “Little Bear” because I also had long hair and a full beard. But he (Hite) was 400 pounds and I was only half his weight.”
Another friendship that Harman struck up with an iconic group was with that little ‘ole band from Texas – ZZ Top. Harman has lent his harmonica playing to several albums by the band, including on the song “Que Lastima” from Mescalero and “Heartache in Blue” from 2012’s La Futura.
“Billy F. Gibbons and I met on our hands and knees picking through boxes of old records and have been best friends for all these years. Billy plays some fine harp himself, but likes to use me when a song calls for it,” Harman said. “Watch for their new live album (Live – Greatest Hits from Around the World) coming out soon – I’m on two songs.”
Taking piano lessons at age four, Harman soon discovered his father’s Hohner Marine Band harmonicas in the piano bench and very quickly, it was a match made in heaven. So much so, that Harman – who’s been playing so long that he doesn’t ever remember not playing – only blows Hohner Marine Band harps to this very day.
“I still only play Hohner Marine Band harmonicas. All my old amps were stolen in two huge burglaries back in 2004 and 2012. Nowadays, I use a Quilter Aviator amp; Pat Quilter is a certified genius. I was playing through a Fender Pro amp until they put out a new amp in 1963 called a Vibroverb. I bought a new one and loved the amp, but not the two 10-inch speakers, so I ran it through my 15-inch Jensen speaker in my Pro and that became my signature sound,” he said. “Through the years I managed to find three more Vibroverbs and modified them all to be one 15-inch Jensens. I used that rig until I was robbed.”
He may once have entertained such lofty goals as becoming a painter, or a motorcycle or car drag racer – but ever since he cut his first sides back in 1964, it’s been music, music, music and the blues, blues, blues for James Harman. And it appears that is still his plan for the future, with no eye on retirement from music in sight.
“No, then I would have to actually make paintings and might find I stunk… I cannot endure that shame and rejection, so I’ll stick to what I know I can do well and to Hell with the rest of it,” he said.
And what he does well is play the real-deal blues.
“In my humble opinion, most of what wins awards as blues music is actually pop music done wearing a stingy brim and posing as a blues guy in somebody’s mind. When I see a five- or six-string bass coming, I just leave, because if you can’t play it on four strings, why play it? This form of music has been watered and dumbed down for the public,” he said. “I think most blues artists are thinking, ‘How can I make this into a rock song and still call it blues?’ Real blues music is too complicated and simple at the same time for most audiences. However, I don’t know much and could be wrong. I’m just an old, analog, hillbilly blues singer… livin’ in a digital world.”
Visit James’s website at: www.jamesharman.com
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Terry Mullins is a journalist, author and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.