So when did Rock And Roll actually begin? There are more than a few answers. Every couple of years someone comes up with a new discovery that seems to prove that some one-hit wonder was actually the first example of primal rock. It seems clear that it happened somewhere between the late 1940’s and the mid-1950’s, and, fueled by the excitement of artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley, became recognizable as its own genre with a growing worldwide following somewhere in the mid-50’s. The very wide-ranging nature of that answer shows that there was no single song or artist who can take full credit, but rather that there was a gradual shift in sound and subject matter toward what we now understand as the ocean of Rock. The streams that ran into that ocean came from all over the place (regionalism) and represented a number of genres; Pop, R&B, Blues, Country, Jazz. Each of these genres had a number of artists who sounded like they were on the verge of breaking out and rocking! Slim Harpo (James Moore), was one such artist. Skirting the line between R&B and Blues in the late 1950’s, he is an excellent example of an artist breaking down the walls of expectation and creating something new.
Influenced himself by the urban blues stylings of Jimmy Reed, Harpo took the electric guitar and lead harmonica style into the stratosphere with the addition of his laconic, pinched vocals, reverb drenched guitar solos (usually courtesy of Guitar Gable, Rudolph Richard or Jimmy Johnson), and unfailing turn of a clever phrase. This 2 CD set contains all his singles (A&B sides). Every cut he recorded was worth hearing, but this set really covers the meat of his best material. And oh man is the good stuff good! I guess there’s an argument to be made that you could start and end with the first single and its fabulous flip. “I’m A King Bee / I Got Love If You Want It.” In these two songs, one can clearly hear what must have grabbed Lennon, Page, Jagger and Richards by their ears. Both songs have an almost alien-sounding vocal and guitar paired with a string of sophisticated yet suggestive amorous overtures which have become part of popular lexicon ever since. Think about that accomplishment alone - writing multiple songs that, 60 years later, are part of modern consciousness. The recordings themselves are that classic “stacked” sound of late 50’s recordings. The vocal, guitar and harmonica are directly in your face, while keyboards, bass and drums churn below, striving for attention. Occasionally an organ fill, slapping snare or tambourine rise to the surface, but for the most part the backing is like the ocean lapping on the shore. That lopsided sound is what gave so many of these early R&B singles such an exciting and dramatic feel. Harpo’s voice was already an amazing instrument, but when it is coming at you, claustrophobically on top of the mix, like a torpedo in a bathtub, you have to pay attention.
Harpo continued to release strong and distinctive singles for the next few years, which were all eclipsed by his 1960 hit single (even though it was originally the B-side) “Rainin’ In My Heart.” A melancholy masterpiece, it lives in a stylistic world of its own - floating somewhere between a country ballad and an R&B torch song. It is soaked in echoey guitar, a rolling rhythm section and Harpo’s world-weary vocal. A great song if there ever was one.
Harpo left Excello for a brief period in 1965 but returned later that year for another burst of fantastic late-career singles. “Baby Scratch My Back,” “Shake Your Hips,” “Tip On In (parts 1 & 2)” and the irresistible “Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu” are all classics of the style that Slim Harpo shared with almost nobody else. The insistent rhythm of “Baby Scratch My Back” and “Shake Your Hips” find Harpo now clearly making Rock And Roll, or rather defining what that term would mean for The Rolling Stones and many others. It is insidious and more than a little dangerous. It also has a cool, slinky tempo that defines the restraint that Rock would start to develop as it matured. So, Slim Harpo not only helped define the original sound of Rock, he predicted where it would go in the future. Slim Harpo The Excello Singles Anthology belongs in the collection of any serious student of modern music and anyone who likes cuttin’ a rug.
- Paul Epstein