Slim Harpo. Courtesy Bear Family Records

Hail to the King Bee

New Slim Harpo biography chronicles music, influence of West Baton Rouge bluesman

by John Wirt

 

“I’m a King Bee,” released by Nashville’s Excello Records in 1957, announced the arrival of Baton Rouge’s Slim Harpo and his inimitable swamp-blues sound.

Harpo’s eerily atmospheric debut wasn’t a national hit, but the song’s reputation grew through succeeding decades. Major, and soon-to-be major, artists recorded and performed “I’m a King Bee”—The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry and even Chicago blues star Muddy Waters.

Now there’s more evidence of Moore’s enduring appeal: “Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge,” a new biography by British author Martin Hawkins.

In 2008, 38 years after Harpo’s death, the Recording Academy inducted “I’m a King Bee” into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The long, slow growth in appreciation for the song also applies to its creator, James Moore, aka Slim Harpo.

The West Baton Rouge Historical Association dedicated a Louisiana State Historical Marker to Moore in 2014. It stands impressively in Port Allen, a short walk from where Slim Harpo fans leave harmonicas at Moore’s gravesite.

In 2003—before the book, marker, Grammy and mammoth “Buzzin’ the Blues: The Complete Slim Harpo” CD box set—Baton Rouge music entrepreneur Johnny Palazzotto staged the first Slim Harpo Awards. He hoped to amplify awareness of Moore by honoring the stars who recorded the West Baton Rouge Parish native’s songs.

Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge
by Martin Hawkins
416 pp. Louisiana State University Press,
Baton Rouge, 2016. $35

“The people who appreciate Slim’s music have been outspoken about it,” Palazzotto said.

Van Morrison, Dr. John, Ray Davies of the Kinks, Tony Joe White and Jimmie Vaughan are among the stars who either accepted their Harpo Awards in person or sent some form of grateful acknowledgement.

“Who needs a Grammy when you got a Slim Harpo Award?” Vaughan asked at the 2015 Harpo Awards.

Davies sent a videotaped acceptance speech to the 2011 Harpo Awards. “Slim Harpo is very dear to me, as he is to my band and many others,” Davies said. “This will go on the shelf along with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and all the other awards I’ve been lucky enough to receive.”

Dr. John was similarly appreciative in 2009. “When I was coming up, I loved ‘Rainin’ in My Heart,’” he said. “I loved ‘Scratch My Back’ and I loved ‘Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu.’ We all love the music.”

Hawkins details Moore’s progression from poor, rural child to scuffling part-time musician to successful recording artist and in-demand performer. Despite Moore’s national rhythm & blues and pop hits, he wasn’t well-documented during his lifetime. No film of him is known to exist, not even a clip from his 1961 “American Bandstand” appearance. Nevertheless, Hawkins’ exhaustive research and new interviews bring Slim Harpo out from the shadows.

Moore was born on February 11, 1924, in the West Baton Rouge Parish community of Mulatto Bend. Characteristically for the time and place, his hard early life included toil in the sugarcane fields.

“I’d go right from school out into the field every day until I went on my own,” Moore remembered.

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During his teen years, music became his refuge, specifically blues. “Music was the only thing I had,” he said. “When I sing the blues, I can tell about the hard times I’ve had and the places I’ve been living; the things I’ll never forget.”

When Moore was about 12, he bought the least expensive musical instrument he could find, a harmonica. “All I had was a dime, you know,” he said.

Moore eventually heard music other than the local blues performed in his community. He especially enjoyed recordings by East Texas singer-guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson and Chicago’s Howlin’ Wolf. He began performing at a young age.

“Every Friday and Saturday night,” Moore said, “we’d have off from work and every weekend we’d have a big supper at somebody’s house. . . . We played music for dancing called the ‘Slow Drag.’ It was for holding each other real close.”

Despite his enthusiasm for music, Moore worked as a longshoreman in New Orleans during most of the 1940s and, after his return to Baton Rouge, as a construction worker and sugarcane hauler. His stepson, William Gambler, remembers his stepfather performing only occasionally during the early 1950s. “Harp only,” Gambler recalled. “He would play locally, just in small juke joints, clubs, Thursday to Saturday. He just picked up with other bands.”

His stepfather, Gambler said, knew “all the musicians from everywhere.” These included singer-guitarist Otis Hicks, aka Lightnin’ Slim. In 1956, Hicks took Moore, then known as Harmonica Slim, to Crowley in southwest Louisiana, home base for Hicks’ record producer, J.D. Miller.

Hawkins details Moore’s progression from poor, rural child and youth to scuffling part-time musician to successful recording artist and in-demand performer.

Hicks let Miller know that his harmonica player wished to be more than an accompanist. The producer was skeptical. He liked Moore’s harmonica playing, not his singing. Hicks persisted, telling Miller that he feared Moore would quit working with him unless Miller made a recording with Moore as the lead performer. Miller agreed to consider recording Moore if the harmonica player bought a good original song to the studio.

“So,” Miller remembered, “sure enough he did come back in two or three weeks. And he had a great song, ‘I’m a King Bee.’” Miller loved the song, but still disliked Moore’s voice. “James,” he said, “I want you to sing, but I want you to sing nasal. . . . Sing through your nose.”

“It wasn’t great singing,” Miller said later, “but it was so unusual, unique. That’s what sold the records.”

A name change accompanied Moore’s recording debut. Because there was already a Harmonica Slim on the West Coast, Baton Rouge’s Harmonica Slim became Slim Harpo.

Encouraged by the release of his first recording, Moore aspired to being a fulltime musician. His stepson remembers the day his stepfather told his mother, Lovell, that he wanted to leave his day job.

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“He was making maybe a dollar an hour doing construction,” Gambler said. “He told her, ‘I’m going to play music.’ She went berserk a little bit to herself, but she didn’t say anything. She basically supported him in whatever he did.”

Even after the release of “I’m a King Bee,” Gambler remembered, life for the family was a struggle. “We was considered poor… As things got better, we moved on up and built a new house. ‘Rainin’ in My Heart’ really made his name.”

Released in January 1961, the mournfully sad “Rainin’ in My Heart” lingered for months before it entered the Billboard rhythm & blues Top 20 and pop Top 40. A significant hit then, the song has since become a south Louisiana classic that still brings couples to the dance floor.

Moore’s biggest studio success came five years later with his country-funk hit, “Baby Scratch My Back.” In 1966, the song climbed to No. 1 on Billboard’s rhythm & blues chart and No. 16 on the pop chart. He toured widely on his own and joined soul star James Brown for five weeks in the spring of ’66.

Moore’s career appeared to be on the rise again in January 1970. His sudden death that month at 45, from a fatal breach in the main artery that carries blood from the heart, left an unfinished album and already-booked European tour dates. Hawkins believes that had Moore lived, he would have been more popular than ever, especially among blues-loving Europeans.

James Moore is nearly 50 years gone, but the songs he wrote and the recordings he made ensure that Slim Harpo has never left us.

 

John Wirt writes about music, film and other arts and entertainment topics. He’s also the author of “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues.”

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