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James Harman: Living with the Blues

James Harman

Harman with writer Tim Mattox.

Harman with frequent collaborator Billy Watson.

Harman with Rick Estrin.

Harman with Taryn Donath.

James Harman Band in the 1980s.

 I doubt there’s a blues harp player on this planet that doesn’t know the name James Harman. His mastery of that instrument is only exceeded by his incomparable songwriting talents.

I used to have some money,
but it all got spent.
Reached down in my pocket
and I pulled up lint.

Then add a voice coated with honey and pain, rampant recording and production skills and the wherewithal to surround yourself with the most gifted musicians alive. Next, spend half a century racking up road miles, touring the world playing electric, high-energy gigs in front of live audiences in venues of every shape and size. Then and only then, will you get a real taste of what it’s like living with the blues.

An Alabama child, Harman’s career has been well-documented. He honed his chops as a young artist working his way through the South playing every juke joint, dive bar, and roadhouse that would have him. His catalog of discography dates back to the 1960s and the depth of his musical associations/collaborations range from Albert Collins to ZZ Top. As the story goes, it was his friendship with Bob Hite and Canned Heat that encouraged him to venture west to sunny, Southern California to ply his trade.

Prior to the pandemic, you could still find Harman performing at festivals and touring throughout the United States. If you spent any time on the West Coast, you could occasionally spot him sitting in with fellow musicians Billy Watson, Nathan James, or Kim Wilson. I first saw James perform in Los Angeles in the 1980s, he was playing with David “Kid” Ramos and Michael “Hollywood Fats” Mann and I can assure you that now, almost 40 years later, he’s still “bringing it with him when he comes.” James Harman is a bluesman in the finest sense of the word. Don’t believe me. Just ask some of his friends and former bandmates.

Blues player Tracy Wiebeck goes back a long time with Harman and shared a few stories from those early days. “I was in the Ice House Blues Band, led by James Harman from late 1969 until sometime in 1974. We left Miami, Florida, in January 1970, bound for Los Angeles. Our first gig was playing for a grand opening of a clothing store in Old Town Pasadena. We were set up in a parking lot in an alley near the store. After playing for a while, the roof on the brick building behind us collapsed. Bricks and dust were everywhere, some lying on tops of cars that had the bad luck to park there. Fortunately, the building was empty and no one was injured. We were fine also, but the gig was over after that. Our guitarist, Larry Williams was interviewed by a TV reporter afterward. Larry said, ‘We hit this B-flat chord and the building collapsed.’ The story was picked up by the national news outlets and we all saw it later that night on TV. That was our introduction to LA!

“Probably my most memorable gig with the band was at the Ash Grove in LA, a legendary roots music club in late 1973. We opened the show and then backed up headliner Big Joe Turner for a set. During Joe’s set we were joined on stage by Freddy King, who happened to be there that night, hanging out. That was cool and then T-Bone Walker strolled on stage and sat down at the piano and played along. That was really cool! To top it off, Big Mama Thornton walked up to the stage carrying a tray with a pitcher of beer and several mugs. She said, ‘Here’s a mug and some shot glasses for y’all.’ That was a night I’ll always remember.

“James is the consummate showman when he’s on stage, and even off stage. One night in 1974, I think, at the Gas Company Saloon in Costa Mesa, the band was on stage playing our hearts out. James jumped offstage in the middle of a song and dashed out the side door. The band looked at each other and kept playing. Next thing we know James came through the front door of the club riding a Harley Davidson. He drove it onto the dance floor and did several doughnuts before driving out the door again, leaving the crowd with their mouths hanging open. And the band kept playing!”

Long time friend and blues harp legend, Charlie Musselwhite: “It’s always a pleasure to see fellow Southerner James Harman. We are always laughing and cracking each other up. We compare notes about one thing and another. We’re usually discussing recordings and restaurants that serve southern home cooking. James has always loved and understood the blues. When you hear his music and the songs he’s written you have to know that’s true. James has brought a lot of great blues music to the world and deserves high honors for the integrity in his life’s work; being true to real blues.”

David “Kid” Ramos remembers, “Back when I first joined the James Harman band, James would have these legendary barbecues at his house in Huntington Beach and at the end of the night we just played records—45s and 78s. James was the DJ and, at the very end of the night when all the part time listeners would leave, there would be nobody left but probably Willie J. and sometimes Hollywood Fats, Junior Watson, and me. Then he’d get out the Robert Johnson test pressing, and we’d just watch it go round on the turntable and it literally sounded like Robert Johnson was in the room with us. And we’d all be almost teary-eyed with our hair standing up on the back of our necks. It was like a religious experience.”

Southern California guitarist and producer Nathan James currently plays with Harman and talks about his influences. “I started touring with the James Harman band at age 19 and was honored to become one of the infamous Dangerous Gentlemens. I was immediately thrown into the deep end as we never rehearsed and the first shows were on the road. I quickly learned about the finer things in life, like food and music history as we travelled from region to region in the United States. In fact, the very first show with the band included arriving in Prescott, Arizona, a day early just to eat a home cooked NOLA-style meal with the club owner. Then we proceeded to sleep it off all day before the show.

“I’ve learned so much unspoken wisdom on stage from Mr. Harman just from his body language, counting in a song, how his vocal phrasing was so effortless and natural every night. He taught me how to sip fine, single-malt Scotch while we were touring Europe. One of the best memories I have was during a night off with the band at his friend Julia’s house in Minnesota. After James cooked us gourmet steak dinners we listened to records and I saw James cry with joy as he put on a James Carr record. As a 20-year-old kid it hit me hard to see a grown man so moved. It was that moment that solidified the path I chose in life and that I was in with the right company.”

Rick Estrin, a dominant force in blues today, says, “James Harman is an absolute original—a beautiful nut and a unique major talent. If shit was fair, or if the public was a little bit hipper, James’d be a superstar. We’ve had so many good times over the years, crossing paths on the road. Doesn’t matter where we are. We’ve walked around the Red Light District in Amsterdam all night long, just talking shit and laughing our asses off. Wherever we run into each other it’s the same thing. It might be in Des Moines or it might be Paris. Wherever it is, we’ll be laughing about some stuff that either can’t be made public or can’t be explained and wouldn’t mean anything to the general public anyway—‘one big area’ ‘Raymond Welch’ ‘Connie and Larry’ ‘black walnuts’ and ‘grit soup.’ I’m just looking forward to James beating this cancer and having some more good times whenever we’re able to get back on the road and run into each other.”

San Diego Blues Festival producer, Michael Kinsman says, “He’s an incredible songwriter with an unbelievable knack to make up songs on the spot. James Harman is certainly a rare, self-aware harmonica player. We all know people who pick up a harmonica and 20 minutes later think they know how to play it. James once told me that a harmonica should cost $1,000 rather than $10. Why? I wondered. ‘So, all those idiots would think twice before they bought one. Only the serious people would buy them and the world would be better off.’”

San Diego musician Marty Dodson has played with some of the best harp players in the world. “I was Mark Hummel’s drummer from 2000 to 2012 and I backed up a lot of different harmonica players…I mean, a LOT. I met Harman in January 2001. It was a big deal for me as I was already a fan of his, but I’d heard, uh, things. Things like he could be difficult as a band leader. But my experience from the very first tour to this day, is that he’s always been patient, fun loving, and kind, even when he didn’t have to be. As a player and interpreter of blues music, I had some good things under my belt, but I’ll be the first to tell you, I was green. That, I believe, is where his patience came in.” [laughing] “I’ve worked with so many blues harp players over the years, but James is a seasoned, real deal figure in American blues and roots music. I may not have spoken the whole language, but I think he could recognize that I knew some of the words. So, every time we would meet to play a tour or gig, he was always very encouraging to me. That has been invaluable and a huge, huge push in the right direction for me. I wanted to learn from the real guys, and I got it.

“I happen to know that one of James’ favorite adages is ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’ And man, can he tell them! Some of them are so good, I don’t even care if they’re true or not…just world-class entertainment. If you know anything about Harman at all, you probably know that he is a true storyteller. For James, storytelling is an art form. I was backstage at a Southern California theater one night and I rounded the corner only to find James deep in conversation with a retired Navy jet pilot. They were talking over the details of bi-plane engine parts. James was holding his own and absolutely knew what he was talking about, which came as an impressive surprise to me. You can’t fake that kind of thing. Not with a pilot. I stood there listening for several seconds and James saw me out of the corner of his eye. Without skipping a beat, he looked at me, winked and said, ‘Betcha you didn’t think I knew anything about this shit, did ya?’ then snapped right back into the conversation.” [laughing] “Just another surprising example of how random and colorful his bank of knowledge and interests could be. Oh yeah, bi-plane engine parts! [laughing] You just never know with James.

“I am so proud to say I have travelled a good chunk of this world with that guy over the last 20 years. I’ve learned and laughed so much with him. He’s a mentor, a pal, a con man, a flim-flam artist, a snake charmer, a cartoonist, a gear head, a chef, a gentleman, a pirate, a soul singer, an all-around bad mofo in the best ways. He’s a character and the only kind of person I’m interested in. My blues daddy, James Gary Harman.”

West Coast bluesman and Mighty Flyer Rod Piazza has been friends with Harman for more than half a century. “I first met James when he came to California in the ’60s. We became close friends with our mutual interest in the blues. We both crossed a lot of paths in our careers and have always had the utmost respect for each other. We had a ball along the way and hopefully there are still some good times ahead. There is only one James Harman.”

San Diego’s premier saxman Jonny Viau recalled a very memorable Gary Primich recording session in Los Angeles, produced by James Harman. “Oh My God! Oh My God!” [Jonny shakes his head] “You know that session just happened to coincide with the Rodney King/LA Riots! And the other players [laughing] had never been to California; they came out from Texas and it was a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday session. Wednesday is when they were beating up people and took Reginald Denny out of the truck and just about killed him. Thursday was loot, scoot, and shoot day, and we saw so much, so many fires and people with shopping carts full of stuff. A refrigerator in the back seat of a Cadillac with the convertible top down, people pushing big screen TVs in those little red wagons. I’m telling you, we got the most done in the shortest amount of time you can imagine. We did that record in about six hours. Harman would get on the talkback and go, ‘Fellas that sounded good. We don’t need to listen to it, trust me. Let’s move on to the next song!’ You really didn’t know there was a riot going on until you went to the bathroom, this tiny little window, you could hear sirens and helicopters and stuff. They had a curfew that day; it looked like a war zone and we had to get out before it got dark and we were all fine with that.” Jonny adds, “James was always very kind to me. Always a professional, superior talent and always lead the best bands around.”

San Diego’s very own Billy Watson shares just one of many stories about working with James. “It was time to make a new CD and I decided to play only chromatic harmonica on every song. It was a chance to focus on the instrument and all the sounds one can get out of it. My graphics man and I decided to call it ‘Blowin’ Chro.’ One of the greatest moments on the CD was the special guest appearance of one of the first blues superstars I ever met: James Harman. He agreed to sing on one of the tracks while I huffed and puffed away on the Chro. When he arrived at Nathan James’ Sacred Cat Studios he asked, ‘Well, what am I singing?’ I replied, ‘Geez James, I didn’t really give it much thought, how bout ya wing it and write it now?’ Nathan produced pen and paper and within 10 minutes James wrote the lyrics to ‘Sound Advice,’ a cryptic tale that repeated to rhyme line twice on the turn around. We joked about recording the sound of dropping tools that were nearby Nathan’s workbench and also got a steamy short rendition of ‘I Love a Parade’ on tape, but the clincher was the intro that opened with Vincent Price’s terrific voice speaking about the evil in men. The song starts and you immediately recognize Harman’s signature vocals with the creepy harmonica weaving in and out. The track ends with recordings of Harman and Price laughing, and it sounds like they are standing next to each other staring down at something deservingly treacherous. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the CD and the production with James Harman and Vincent Price laughing together is somewhat hard to beat!”

Harman’s influence is truly International. Canadian blues guitarist, JW Jones says the man has had a lasting impact on his music. “I believe it was 2009 or so that I met James Harman for the first time and got to sit in with him and Anson Funderburgh at a couple of festivals that summer. To be on stage with one of my favorite harp-playing singers and one of my biggest guitar influences was surreal. When I first got into blues guitar, I learned that Harman had a knack for picking the best of the best guitar players to work with—Kid Ramos, Hollywood Fats, Nathan James, and so many others. That was my gateway, so to speak, into Harman’s music. I learned that there was so much more to a song than the guitarist, and Icepick is a master songwriter with lyrics and a delivery that are second to none. Call it a cliché, but it’s the truth. Ironically, my favorite Harman tune, ‘The Clown,’ doesn’t have any guitar on it at all. The tune is a song to his baby, asking that if her love kills him that she has him stuffed with cotton and dressed up like a clown. It doesn’t end there…he wants it displayed in the corner of her bedroom so that her new lover will always know he’s there. It just gets better and better and more creative with each line. Many musicians will take a solo just to take a solo, and even though he is an incredible soloist, his respect for the song and the delivery comes first. The song ends with the first and last harmonica part—one single note with a perfect vibrato. James Harman is all class. Long live Icepick James!”

San Diego piano prodigy and friend Taryn Donath talks about playing the King Biscuit Blues Festival down South. “The story happened with Ronnie Earl and James Harman. I was in Arkansas to play my own set at the King Biscuit Blues Festival. I was 14. I travelled, but I wasn’t really touring at that age. I played the Cincinnati Blues Festival, the Grand Emporium in Kansas City, and ended up at the King Biscuit Blues Festival playing with those guys. I don’t know where my mom was, but I ended up with the rest of the band, outside the venue walking to a liquor store in Helena, Arkansas. You don’t leave the festival. They even tell you not to leave the festival grounds, and I told the guys, ‘Somebody said it’s not a good idea to go walking around…’ Well, James opened up his jacket and pulled out this knife [laughing] and he goes, ‘Don’t worry about a thing, baby!’”

Gene Taylor, pianist and long-time Harman friend talks about James and cats. “I met James in Los Angeles at a place called Rick’s Bar down in Venice Beach sometime in ’71, I think. I’ll tell you a little story. I was living over in Belgium for a little while and we’d bring James over to do some gigs. One time [laughing] James is allergic to cat hair—an asthma condition—and cat hair sets him off. Well, we’re playing this little club, just a trio with guitar, piano, and harmonica and they had a cat, kinda like the house cat because the owners of the club lived upstairs. So, this cat’s out running around and James is eyeing that cat…like ‘Uh-oh!’ So, we told the owners that James has allergies and would it be all right to put the cat out for awhile. We figured they’d take it upstairs or something. When James plays he just needs a room where he can change in between sets or encores, just a space near the stage where he can change shirts because he sweats so much. They had a little storage room and we finish our first set and James runs into the storage room to put on a dry shirt. He’s standing there and he feels something brush up against his leg and he looks down and he’s in this enclosed space with this cat. [laughing] He had his shirt halfway on and he came tearing out of there, trying to button up his shirt and yelling, ‘There’s a god-damned cat in my dressing room!’” [laughing]

As these stories attest, James Harman has lived his life and his blues to the fullest. But you can’t get the whole picture without exploring the depth of his music. I’d recommend you seek out a copy of the 1987 release Those Dangerous Gentlemens. It features the rhythm section of Kid Ramos, Willie J. Campbell, and Stephen Hodges. Extra Napkins is also an early favorite and Bonetime from just a few years ago has an amazing lineup of musicians, from Junior Watson and Nathan James to Gene Taylor and Kirk Fletcher. Slap on a pair of headphones for the full experience, you’ll be glad you did.

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