A great new Slim Harpo (born James Moore, 1924) collection is the first I have received in connection with the forthcoming PBS series Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues, a seven-part look at the genre premiering Sept. 28.
While Harpo’s name may not be familiar to casual fans, his music surely is, having been covered variously by the Rolling Stones, Kinks, Yardbirds, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Hank Williams Jr., the Cramps, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. His three classic hits were the cleverly salacious “I’m a King Bee,” the syncopated harmonica gem “Baby Scrath My Back,” and the sweet blues ballad “Rainin’ In My Heart.”
Harpo came out of Louisiana and was first known as Harmonica Slim – slimness apparently running in the family as his brother-in-law was Lightnin’ Slim. Lightnin’ Slim introduced Harpo to J.D. Miller, who owned a tiny recording studio in Crowley, LA, and who in turn had a distribution arrangement with Ernie Young’s Excello label out of Nashville. Harpo recorded for Excello for the rest of his life, which ended too soon in 1970 from complications of a punctured lung.
Besides his tasty, intuitive harmonica and sharp songwriting, Harpo had a mellow, R&B singer’s voice with a pleasing nasality not unlike Joe Simon’s. His collected works range from minimalist swamp blues to the borders of doo wop and rock ‘n’ roll and back again.