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Artist Spotlight  
James Harman
By “Downtown" Bob Stannard, correspondent to BarrelhouseBlues.com
bob@bobstannard.com
© 2007 BarrelhouseBlues.com - All Rights Reserved
Photograph by J. C. Stearns Jr.
 

James Harman lives in southern California, but his music clearly reflects his southeastern roots. Born in 1946 in Anniston, Alabama to musical parents, Harman began piano lessons at age four and sang in the church choir. His father's Hohner harmonicas were in the piano bench, and he would play them after his piano lessons. He experimented with other instruments as well, including guitar, organ, bass and drums, performing solo and with family members at dances and country suppers. He found the blues early in life, both on black radio and on the street corner. "Radio" Johnson, a local blind street singer who played slide guitar with a knife, was an early influence and collaborator.

Harman's professional career began in 1962 after moving to Panama City, Florida. Soon after the move, he discovered like-minded friends, who invited him to black nightclubs to see such performers as Little Junior Parker, Jimmy Reed, Little Milton Campbell, Slim Harpo, Bobby Bland, O.V. Wright, B.B. King, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Joe Tex and James Carr. He began hanging out on a regular basis and was eventually asked to sit in by local house bands, becoming known as "that boy who sings like a man." Encouraged by this acceptance, Harman launched the first of his many rhythm n' blues ensembles, using such names as King James and the Royals, Snakedoctor, Disciples of Soul, Disciples of Blues, The Disciples, Voodoo Daddy, Soul Senders, Pieces of Eight, Kingsnakes, and finally, The Icehouse Blues Band.

To fully appreciate what James Harman is all about you really must see him LIVE!

(As the interview was about to begin guitarist, Nick Adams, walks in).

NA: Oh shit man, I’m sorry. You doin’ an interview?

DTB: Don’t worry about it, man. It don’t hurt me a bit. James, let’s start with the basics. Where you from?

JH: All that’s on my website. It’s done professionally and accurately. Get that stuff from there.

DTB: Perfect.

JH: Anniston, Alabama. That’s where I’m from. Seriously, stuff like this is always better to get off my bio. I’ve perfected it. Everywhere I go I’m the victim of paraphrasing hacks who didn’t do their research, so there’s a million pieces of bad information on me. I’ve seen books with half my career left out and wrong dates and things.

DTB: Did they leave out the bad half?

JH: I ain’t got no bad half.

DTB: Influences. There’s a reason James Harman is James Harman.

JH: My father is my biggest influence. He was a great harmonica player. My mother was a great piano player. They started me on the piano at the age of four. My Dad’s harmonicas were in the piano bench. I would take them out and play them after I had my piano lessons. I’ve been playing music all my life. I sang in the church choir until I was 16. I walked out of the church choir and started singin’ about women for money. I play many instruments. The harmonica is the one I choose to play out live, because it doesn’t constrict me. Sitting behind a piano or a set of drums or even holding a bass starts to annoy me.

DTB: Are you proficient in all of these instruments?

JH: I play all of them, but I can always hire somebody better then me on all of ‘em. I’m not about that. I’m about story telling and song writing and singing. I’m a singer and a story teller, so when I write it’s like I’m writing short stories. It’s just that they’re really short, ‘cause they have to fit in a song. I’m a short story writer, so I write from fiction and I write from shocking true stories and accounts that I know for sure have occurred. I may embellish them in order to make them more humorous or more significant and meaningful. I’m a short story writer.

DTB: Some people think that you can make up a song while you’re on stage performing live…

JH: I do it all day long. I mean, I make up every song unless it’s one that you’ve already heard. I’m funny about songs; people yelling out the names of songs. I don’t do requests. Generally when I record a song, I’m done with it. I never play it again.

DTB: Really?!

JH: Yeah, it’s boring (to do them again). When I paint a picture, I don’t paint it over again.

DTB: So you wouldn’t play “Layla” for the seven-thousandth time?

JH: If I was the guy who did that I would have jumped out of a window. I would have already committed suicide.

DTB: You would’ve killed yourself by now.

JH: Oh yeah.

DTB: So you do a song and it’s for that audience and off we go. Next song.

JH: No. I do the song for me. Just for me. Every time. Just for me. If they enjoy it, great. If you like my music, kiss my face.

DTB: What’s not to like?

JH: Everybody’s got different tastes. Somebody get up and walk out on me ‘cause they don’t like the way I sing or like the content of my story; don’t like the way I play. That’s too bad. They’re missin’ something. But they got a right. This is America. There’s always something different up and down the street. (Laughs) That’s my take on it anyway.

DTB: Who’ve you played with over the years that you really like?

JH: You mean musicians I’ve hired or those I’ve backed? I’ve backed every great Blues musician. They’re all gone now.

DTB: Namely?

JH: Big Joe Turner. Clean Head Vincent. Big Mama Thornton. George “Harmonica” Smith. Who do you want to know about? I’ve back ‘em all.

DTB: When you say “backed them,” were you a side man for them?

JH: No, I put together bands and backed them. When I first got to California I was the house band at Ash Grove and I backed up all the old Blues musicians who didn’t have their own band. If they did have their own band I would open for them. But I was always there on the job makin’ sure they were in tune; didn’t piss their pants or fall off stage.

DTB: Nothin’ worse.

JH: You have no idea.

DTB: I bet I don’t.

JH: If you have to go wake up Big Mama Thornton and she’s pissed her pants and she’s got that .38 and that bottle of Old Grand Dad in that purse, you don’t know who she’s gonna shoot next.

DTB: So, be careful waking her up….

JH: They all liked me back then…. all the promoters and club owners would say, “Now you going to come in and do”… back then they’d do week long gigs….“Who you going to have on the show?” I’d go, “Well, Freddie King’s in town and he’s going to drop in and sit in, but on the show I’m going to have Margie Evans and Clean Head Vincent.” T-Bone Walker drops in and plays the piano the rest of the night.

DTB: You were OK with that, eh?

JH: (Surprised) OH, yeah, well sure. These guys were my friends. We’d all go over to T-Bone’s house and play all night and then have breakfast. These were all my buddies. I’m just a lucky guy. I was lucky to be in a lot of the right places at the right time.

DTB: What was your first lucky break?

JH: Never had one.

DTB: OK.

JH: Bad Luck follow me everywhere I go.

DTB: There wasn’t one day when you said, “Man, that was some different than yesterday.” They’ve all been the same?

JH: No, there’s never been really any one thing that’s happened. It’s just been a long, … (someone comes to the door with James’s dinner). Thank you very much. I really appreciate that very much. You got some napkins to go with that? I really appreciate it. Hey Ed, we’re in the middle of an interview. I’m sorry. I’ll be with you in a few minutes. (Back to the interview). I love that man.

DTB: Who is he?

JH: That’s Ed Burke. He had the only Blues club in Boston for years. I played there many times. Then the House of Blues came in and closed him up. Then I played the House of Blues for many years before that went to hell, just like I told ‘em it would. There’s an interview like 15 years ago where I’m telling the guy and he’s going, “Well, it seems like the Blues is really coming along and becoming more popular.” I said, naw, it’s a sham. The greatest thing about the Blues is that it’s the people’s music. It’s a low-key thing. It’s not like rock. If you want to be a star, go write rock songs, don’t play Blues, ‘cause there’s no stars in Blues. If you’re a success in the Blues it means you work, and you can actually make a living if you are good at what you do. It scares me when I hear…. My best friend is Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. I played all the harp on the ZZ Top records, and he brought Issac Taggart to my show and I gave him a CD and a hat or Tee Shirt, and Issac became a friend. He told me that he was going to be opening a series of night clubs called the House of Blues and we’ll have you play. I told the reporter doing the interview that scares me; that’s scary. If you build a cathedral about the blues and have forty-foot statues of Muddy Waters, I don’t trust it. It sounds corporate to me.

Eventually the time will come, ‘cause the public is fickle and they’ll go to see what it is and they’ll eat Barbeque then they’ll go back to the suburbs and it won’t be real. There will come a time when the people will quit going and the corporate people will say, “OK, ‘nough of this Blues shit. What are we going to do next?" Pirates of the Caribbean! Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Knights of the Round Table. Something. And they’ll take down the statue of Muddy Waters’ and put up the Robin Hood statue. That’s what it’s all about in the world of Pop and Popular Music. The Blues is not for everybody.

When they built the giant cathedrals to the Blues, people went there and it killed all the little clubs that had brought the Blues to the neighborhood. In the world of clubs like Ed Burkes, the unifying thread of all that is they’re playing blues for an audience hoping they can get that audience to like it. They have maybe 20% of the audience that already like it and they’re trying to get the house filled with the rest of the people who will hopefully like it too. Then those people become loyal fans.

Now, given that, jump ahead and when every blues society decides it’s tired of competing with these jerks at a night club. They won’t help us so we won’t help them. We’ll start our own festival. Pretty soon there’re a thousand festivals instead of three. Now, people trying to save their money will go to four festivals a year, maybe a Blues Cruise. Nobody’s going to the clubs so the clubs fail. Then, the touring Blues act doesn’t have a place to play on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, to get their rooms paid for. Suddenly it’s not cost effective to tour. That’s what happened to me. I stopped touring around 2000. I’d been touring since the early 60’s. My life changed. I had to reinvent myself. The festival offers still came in, but you had to fly to them. We can’t fly a whole band. That’s thousands of more dollars. They’ll fly me in and then I have to play with a local band.

Now, I’m flying to a festival every weekend and there are no clubs in between. Blues clubs fail when they start having Reggae on Monday, alternative music on Tuesday, etc. The Blues clubs fail and then the fan base dies out. Used to be the old Blues fans would die out and the young kids would come in to see what this Blues stuff was all about. But, the old guys keep dying and the young ones have quit coming because there’s no place to go. What we’re left with, those of us fortunate enough to be old and have recordings out and are on the list of the festivals; I fly somewhere every week in twenty-two countries and I play a festival. When the local band backing me can add two or three club dates then maybe I got three or four gigs that week. It’s mostly just to pay the band and promote them so they’ll be my friends and be there for me the next time I’m around.

Now, it’s a system that works, but it’s a long ways from me being under my own power doing 250 nights a year driving all over north America playing Monday night here; driving 300 miles and doing Tuesday night there.

DTB: That was the old days.

JH: Right. We had a club circuit. It’s all gone. So what you got now is every local area has the blues clubs that haven’t failed all together, but it’s a damn poor touring act.

DTB: You mean like DJ’s and Karaoke.

JH: No, no, no…. that doesn’t count. Some clubs did go to Karaoke; some went to something else, but I’m talking about night clubs. I’m not talking about horseshit. Karaoke is not to be considered in this conversation. It’s not even the illegitimate bastard child of music. Karaoke doesn’t count.

DTB: I’ll give you that. So where’s it all going?

JH: Who knows? I’m riding along here hopin’ for the best.

DTB: So, how many gigs you doing a year?

JH: Instead of the 250 gigs I used to do; 200 of those were driving around North America and 50 were flying to festivals. Now, I’m doing 50 festivals a year and very few club gigs. Therefore, my income….oh and I can’t fly and carry merchandise… so when I’m flying I can’t sell T-shirts, etc., so my income went down to about 25% of what it used to be….

DTB: Ouch.

JH: Yeah.

DTB: How do you make that up?

JH: I don’t make it up. You mean how do I survive?

DTB: Yeah…

JH: Don’t forget, I’m a song writer and I have a big catalog of songs and I have seventeen songs in movies. I make a living in the mailbox. The local musician is the guy who's really got it rough. The guy that didn’t get well known. The guy who didn’t get thirty releases. The guy who’s trying to play music and has to have a day job to do it. My heart goes out to him, ‘cause he’s tired and he can’t go play. Who knows. Maybe he shouldn’t play. Manifest destiny.

(Nick Adams re-enters the room at this moment.)

NA: “You talkin’ about me?” (Laughter everywhere) and exits the room.

DTB: He’s a real good player.

JH: Yes, and he’s a very good musician, real good guy. He’s got the sweetest wife in the world. He’s got it made. He’s a wonderful human being and that’s most important of all. Some guys say, ah, never mind those nice guys. Just give me a sumnabitch who can play. But I like to work with nice people. I’ve worked with jerks most of my life. Life’s too short.


© 2007 BarrelhouseBlues.com - All Rights Reserved

You may contact James Harman at:

Website: http://www.jamesharman.com
Email: james@jamesharman.com

"Downtown" Bob Stannard is a Vermonter, Blues Singer and Harmonica player of 38 years and creator of the “Tubular Blues Tube.” You can learn more about him by visiting:
website: http://www.bobstannard.com
Email: bob@bobstannard.com

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