Slim Harpo & Lightnin’ Slim

By Gary:

On this day, May 15, 2015, we lost BB King, so I have decided to stay in the Blues arena for this post, I hope you enjoy it.

Tonight I am going to look at two old Bluesmen. One was more successful than the other, but both were great in their own way.  They were 9 years apart in age. One was the exponent of swamp blues, which would be Slim Harpo and the other Lightnin’ Slim, the less successful is considered one of the Five influential blues men of the 50’s. 

They are both considered Louisiana Bluesmen and Slim Harpo was Lightnin’ Slim’s Brother in law.  This being the case they often collaborated together. 

I have always enjoyed their music, but they were never huge stars, but they had a definite influence on 50’s Rock and Roll.

Slim Harpo
(January 11, 1924 – January 31, 1970)

Lightnin’ Slim 
(March 13, 1913 – July 27, 1974)
Because of their ages and era in which they worked,  there are not a lot of videos available, but I found one…
1972 / Lightnin’ Slim and Whispering Smith /

Music / Slim Harpo

He actually had only 2 songs that made the Pop Charts, but he recorded a lot of great Music.
1961/ Rainin’ in my Heart / # 17 R& B # 34 BB
1966/ Baby Scratch my Back / # 1 R&B # 16 BB
1957 / I’m a King Bee
1958 / Wonderin’ and Worryin’
1960 / Buzz me Babe
1966 / Shake your Hips

Music / Lightnin’ Slim

He had only one song that got chart ratings
1959 / Rooster Blues / # 23 R&B
1954 / Bad Luck /
1954/Rock me Mama
1956 / Just Made Twenty One
1961/ I’m Tired Waitin’ Baby
1961 / I Just Don’t Know
1971 / My Babe

Slim Harpo

BORN: January 11, 1924, Lobdell, LA
DIED: January 31, 1970, Baton Rouge, LA
In the large stable of blues talent that Crowley, LA producer Jay Miller recorded for the Nashville-based Excello label, no one enjoyed more mainstream success than Slim Harpo. Just a shade behind Lightnin’ Slim in local popularity, Harpo played both guitar and neck-rack harmonica in a more down-home approximation of Jimmy Reed, with a few discernible, and distinctive, differences.

Slim’s music was certainly more laid-back than Reed’s, if such a notion was possible. But the rhythm was insistent and overall,Harpo was more adaptable than Reed or most other bluesmen. His material not only made the national charts, but also proved to be quite adaptable for white artists on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Kinks, Dave Edmunds with Love Sculpture, Van Morrison with Them, Sun rockabilly Warren Smith, Hank Williams, Jr. and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

A people pleasing club entertainer, he certainly wasn’t above working rock & roll rhythms into his music, along with hard-stressed, country & western vocal inflections. Several of his best tunes were co-written with his wife Lovelle and show a fine hand for song construction, appearing to have arrived at the studio pretty well-formed. His harmonica playing was driving and straightforward, full of surprising melodicism, while his vocals were perhaps best described by writer Peter Guralnick as “if a black country and western singer or a white rhythm and blues singer were attempting to impersonate a member of the opposite genre.” And here perhaps was Harpo’s true genius, and what has allowed his music to have a wider currency. By the time his first single became a Southern jukebox favourite, his songs being were adapted and played by White musicians left and right. Here was good-time Saturday night blues that could be sung by elements of the Caucasian persuasion with a straight face. Nothing resembling the emotional investment of a Howlin’ Wolf or a Muddy Waters was required; it all came natural and easy, and its influence has stood the test of time.


He was born James Moore just outside of Baton Rouge, LA. After his parents died, he dropped out of school to work every juke joint, street corner, picnic and house rent party that came his way. By this time he had acquired the alias of Harmonica Slim, which he used until his first record was released. It was fellow bluesman Lightnin’ Slim who first steered him to local record man J.D. Miller. The producer used him as accompanist to Hopkins on a half dozen sides before recording him on his own. When it came time to release his first single (“I’m a King Bee”), Miller informed him that there was another Harmonica Slim recording on the West Coast, and a new name was needed before the record could come out. Moore’s wife took the slang word for harmonica, added an ‘o’ to the end of it, and a new stage name was the result, one that would stay with Slim Harpo the rest of his career.

Harpo’s first record became a double-sided R&B hit, spawning numerous follow-ups on the “King Bee” theme, but even bigger was “Rainin’ in My Heart,” which made the Billboard Top 40 pop charts in the summer of 1961. It was another perfect distillation of Harpo’s across-the-board appeal, and was immediately adapted by country, Cajun, and rock & roll musicians; anybody could play it and sound good doing it. In the wake of the Rolling Stones covering “I’m a King Bee” on their first album, Slim had the biggest hit of his career in 1966 with “Baby, Scratch My Back.”Harpo described it “as an attempt at rock & roll for me,” and its appearance in Billboard’s Top 20 pop charts prompted the dance-oriented follow-ups “Tip on In” and “Tee-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu,” both R&B charters. For the first time in his career, Harpo appeared in such far-flung locales as Los Angeles and New York City. Flush with success, he contacted Lightnin’ Slim, who was now residing outside of Detroit, MI. The two reunited and formed a band, touring together as a sort of blues mini-package to appreciative White rock audiences until the end of the decade. The new year beckoned with a tour of Europe (his first ever) all firmed up, and a recording session scheduled when he arrived in London. Unexplainably,Harpo — who had never been plagued with any ailments stronger than a common cold — suddenly succumbed to a heart attack on January 31, 1970. 

Lightnin’ Slim

The acknowledged kingpin of the Louisiana school of blues, Lightnin’ Slim built his style on his grainy but expressive vocals and rudimentary guitar work, with usually nothing more than a harmonica and a drummer in support. It was down-home country blues edged two steps further into the mainstream, first by virtue of his electric guitar, and second by the sound of the local Crowley, LA musicians who backed him being bathed in simmering, pulsating tape echo. As the first great star of producer J.D. Miller‘s blues talent stable, Lightnin’ Slim had a successful formula that scored regional hits on the Nashville-based Excello label for over a decade, with one of them, “Rooster Blues,” making the national R&B charts in 1959. Combining the country ambience of a Lightnin’ Hopkins with the plodding insistence of a Muddy WatersLightnin’ Slim‘s music belonged uniquely to him, the perfect blues raconteur, even when he was reshaping others’ material to his dark, sombre style.

He also possessed one of the truly great blues voices, unadorned and unaffected, making the world-weariness of a Sonny Boy Williamson sound like the second coming of Good Time Charlie by comparison. His exhortation to “blow your harmonica, son” has become one of the great, mournful catch phrases of the blues, and even on his most rockin’ numbers, there’s a sense that you are listening less to an up tempo offering than a slow blues just being played faster. Lightnin’ always sounded like bad luck just moved into his home approximately an hour after his mother-in-law did.

He was born with the unglamorous handle of Otis Hicks in St. Louis, MO, on March 13, 1913. After 13 years of living on a farm outside of the city, the Hicks family moved to Louisiana, first settling in St. Francisville. Young Otis took to the guitar early, first shown the rudiments by his father, then later by his older brother, Layfield. Given his recorded output, it’s highly doubtful that either his father or brother knew how to play in any key other than E natural, as Lightnin’ used the same patterns over and over on his recordings, only changing keys when he used a capo or had his guitar detuned a full step.

But the rudiments were all he needed, and by the late ’30’s/early ’40’s he was a mainstay of the local picnic/country supper circuit around St. Francisville. In 1946 he moved to Baton Rouge, playing on weekends in local ghetto bars, and started to make a name for himself on the local circuit, first working as a member of Big Poppa’s band, then on his own.

The ’50’s dawned with harmonica player Schoolboy Cleve in tow, Lightnin’ and Schoolboy working club dates and broadcasting over the radio together. It was local disc jockey Ray “Diggy Do” Meaders who then persuaded Miller to record Lightnin’. He recorded for 12 years as an Excello artist, starting out originally on Miller‘s Feature label. As the late ’60s found Lightnin’ working and living in Detroit, a second career blossomed as European blues audiences brought him over to tour, and he also started working the American festival and hippie ballroom circuit with Slim Harpo as a double act. When Harpo died unexpectedly in 1970, Lightnin’ went on alone, recording sporadically, while performing as part of the American Blues Legends tour until his death in 1974. Lazy, rolling, and insistent, Lightnin’ Slim is Louisiana blues at its finest.



One response to “Slim Harpo & Lightnin’ Slim

  1. Pingback: Instrumentals of the Sixties “The Lost Music” 1963 – 1969 | Russ & Gary's "The Best Years of Music"

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