October 4, 1970 – Janis Lyn Joplin was truly one of the most remarkable rock and blues performers of the 1960s and the decades following. Born in Port Arthur Texas, on January 19, 1943, she escaped the small town prejudices and took off for the San Francisco counter culture, dominated by Love and Peace and Alcohol and Drugs. Janis unfortunately became a member of the infamous forever 27 Club as she passed on October 4, 1970, just a short 3 weeks after her brief former love interest and famous 27 Club member Jimi Hendrix. She was no. 4 to join the club after Robert Johnson, Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix.
Her Texas upbringing put Joplin under the sway of Leadbelly, Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton in her teens, and the authenticity of these voices strongly influenced her decision to become a singer. A self-described “misfit” in high school, she suffered virtual ostracism, but dabbled in folk music with her friends and painted. She briefly attended college in Beaumont and Austin but was more drawn to blues legends and beat poetry than her studies; soon she dropped out and, in 1963, headed for San Francisco, eventually finding herself in the hippie filled Haight Ashbury neighborhood. She met up with guitarist Jorma Kaukonen (later of the legendary San Francisco rock outfit Jefferson Airplane) and the pair recorded a suite of songs with Jorma’s wife, Margareta, providing the beat on her typewriter. These tracks – including blues standards like “Trouble in Mind” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” – would later surface as the infamous “Typewriter Tapes” bootleg.Continue reading Janis Joplin 10/1970
September 18, 1970 – James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix, was born Johnny Allen Hendrix on November 27, 1942 and became without discussion one of the top electric guitarists Rock and Roll has produced.
As his mainstream career spanned roughly only 4 years, something can be said for the fact that he was the right man at the right time and in the right place in the socio-cultural explosion of the late 1960s. His early sixties performing career consisted mostly of the chitlin’ circuit between Clarksville and Nashville in Eastern Tennessee, backing start-ups like Little Richard, Curtis Knight, Wilson Pickett, Slim Harpo, Sam Cooke and even an occasional gig with Roy Orbison. Early 1964 he found himself in the New York Village scene, where his girlfriend Faye got him a number of introductions, one of which got him to play with the Isley Brothers Band. His big break however came in a round about way, when he made it over to London, where he bedazzled the blues rock scene led by the then Superstars likes of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page and became an overnight success. Continue reading Jimi Hendrix 9/1970
September 3, 1970 – Alan Christie Wilson, co-founder, leader, and primary composer for the American blues band Canned Heat was born on July 4, 1943. He played guitar, harmonica, sang, and wrote several songs for the band, notably among which the monster hits “On the Road Again” and “Going Up the Country”.
Nicknamed “Blind Owl”, he majored in music at Boston University and often played the Cambridge coffeehouse folk-blues circuit, before forming the blues-rock/boogie band Canned Heat. Alan played guitar, harmonica and wrote most of the songs for Canned Heat. After Eddie ‘Son’ House’s ‘rediscovery’ in 1964, the producer John Hammond Sr. asked Alan, who was just 22 years old, to teach “Son House how to play like Son House,” because Alan had such a good knowledge of the blues styles. The album “The Father of Delta Blues – The Complete 1965 Sessions” was the result. Son House played with Alan live and can be heard on the album “John – the Revelator: The 1970 London Sessions”.
With Canned Heat, Alan performed at two legendary concerts, the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. Canned Heat appeared in the film Woodstock, and the band’s “Going Up the Country,” which Alan sang, has been referred to as the festival’s unofficial theme song
Canned Heat enjoyed considerable artistic and commercial success, crowned by an appearance at Woodstock in 1969. But guitarist Al “Blind Owl” Wilson, a nick name that was given to him by John Fahey, was a troubled man. He was estranged from his family; he lacked confidence and suffered from depression, possibly even undiagnosed autism. One of his eccentric habits was sleeping outdoors, as he did at lead vocalist Bob Hite’s house in Los Angeles on the last night of his life. Wilson’s body was found in Hite’s yard on September 3rd, 1970. His hands were crossed over his chest and there was a bottle of Seconal by his side. Cause of death was officially given as an accidental overdose of barbiturates, but drummer Fito de la Parra believes Wilson committed suicide, at age 27, starting out a crop month for the 27 Club with Jimi Hendrix expiring on the 18th of that month and Janis Joplin 16 days late on October 4th, all at age 27.
April 24, 1970 – Otis Spann was born on March 21st 1930 in Jackson, Mississippi. Spann’s father was reportedly a pianist called Friday Ford. His mother, Josephine Erby, was a guitarist who had worked with Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith, and his stepfather, Frank Houston Spann, was a preacher and musician. One of five children, Spann began playing the piano at the age of seven, with some instruction from Friday Ford, Frank Spann, and Little Brother Montgomery. By the age of 14, he was playing in bands in the Jackson area. He moved to Chicago in 1946, where he was mentored by Big Maceo Merriweather. Spann performed as a solo act and with the guitarist Morris Pejoe, working a regular spot at the Tic Toc Lounge.
Spann replaced Merriweather as Muddy Waters’s piano player in late 1952, and participated in his first recording session with the band on September 24, 1953. He continued to record as a solo artist and session player with other musicians, including Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf, during his tenure with the group. He stayed with Waters until 1968 before leaving to form his own band. In that period he also did session work with other Chess artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley..
Spann’s work for Chess Records includes the 1954 single “It Must Have Been the Devil” / “Five Spot”, with B.B. King and Jody Williams on guitars. During his time at Chess he played on a few of Chuck Berry’s early records, including the studio version of “You Can’t Catch Me”. In 1956, he recorded two unreleased tracks with Big Walter Horton and Robert Lockwood.
The 60s also so him touring and recording in Europe and in the UK appearing on records with the likes of Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Big Mama Thornton, Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac and others. He recorded a session with the guitarist Robert Lockwood, Jr. and vocalist St. Louis Jimmy in New York on August 23, 1960, which was issued on Otis Spann Is the Blues and Walking the Blues. A 1963 effort with Storyville Records was recorded in Copenhagen. He worked with Waters and Eric Clapton on recordings for Decca and with James Cotton for Prestige in 1964.
The Blues Is Where It’s At, Spann’s 1966 album for ABC-Bluesway, includes contributions from George “Harmonica” Smith, Waters, and Sammy Lawhorn. The Bottom of the Blues (1967), featuring Spann’s wife, Lucille Spann (June 23, 1938 – August 2, 1994), was released by Bluesway. He worked on albums with Buddy Guy, Big Mama Thornton, Peter Green, and Fleetwood Mac in the late 1960s.
Spann died of liver cancer in Chicago on April 24, 1970 at age 40. He was buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery, in Alsip, Illinois. His grave was unmarked for almost thirty years, until Steve Salter (president of the Killer Blues Headstone Project) wrote a letter to Blues Revue magazine, saying “This piano great is lying in an unmarked grave. Let’s do something about this deplorable situation”.
Blues enthusiasts from around the world sent donations to purchase a headstone. On June 6, 1999, the marker was unveiled in a private ceremony. The stone reads, “Otis played the deepest blues we ever heard – He’ll play forever in our hearts“.
He was posthumously elected to the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.
April 21, 1970 –Earl Zebedee Hooker was born on January 15, 1929 in rural Quitman County, Mississippi, outside of Clarksdale. In 1930, his parents moved the family to Chicago as part of the Great Migration of blacks out of the rural South in the early 20th century.
His family was musically inclined (John Lee Hooker was a cousin), and Earl heard music played at home at an early age. About age ten, he started playing the guitar. He was self-taught and picked up what he could from those around him. He developed proficiency on the guitar but showed no interest in singing. He had pronounced stuttering, which afflicted him all his life. Hooker contracted tuberculosis when he was young. The disease did not become critical until the mid-1950s, but it required periodic hospital visits beginning at an early age.
March 16, 1970 – Tammi Terrell was born Thomasina Winifred Montgomery on April 29, 1945. was an American recording artist, best known as a star singer for Motown Records during the 1960s, most notably for a series of duets with singer Marvin Gaye.
Before turning 16, Terrell signed under the Wand subsidiary of Scepter Records after being discovered by Luther Dixon, recording the ballad, “If You See Bill”, under the name Tammy Montgomery and doing demos for The Shirelles. After another single, Terrell left the label and, after being introduced to James Brown, signed a contract with him and began singing backup for his Revue concert tours. In 1963, she recorded the song “I Cried”. Released on Brown’s Try Me Records, it became her first charting single, reaching No. 99 on the Billboard Hot 100.
January 31, 1970 – Slim Harpo aka Harmonica Slim was born James Isaac Moore on January 11th 1924 in Lobdell, West Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After his parents died he worked as a longshoreman and construction worker in New Orleans, during the late 1930s and early 1940s. A musical late bloomer influenced by blues harmonica legends such as Little Walter and Jimmy Reed, Harpo began moonlighting in Baton Rouge bards as Harmonica Slim in the mid-1950s, also gigging with brother-in-law singer-guitarist Otis Hicks, aka Lightnin’ Slim, who was the region’s most established bluesman.
Known as one of the masters of the blues harmonica; the name “Slim Harpo” was a humorous takeoff on “harp,” the popular nickname for the harmonica in blues circles, as suggested by his wife, after discovering that someone else performed under the name Harmonica Slim.
At the time, Lightnin’ was recording with producer J. D. “Jay” Miller, who had an agreement with Excello Records, under which Miller sent the blues and R & B cuts he produced in his studio in Crowley to the Nashville, Tenn.,-based label, which distributed the records nationally. Slim’s own recording career didn’t start until 1957. His solo debut coupled “I’m a King Bee” with “I Got Love If You Want It.”
“King Bee” took off, launching a recording and touring career that lasted more than a dozen years. Although their relationship was at times contentious, Harpo and Miller created a distinctive, easily recognizable sound. Harpo’s vocals were deliberate and steady, sometimes even slowing down to a spoken drawl. By draping a handkerchief over his harmonica, Harpo coaxed the instrument to produce a muddy but rich sound that complemented Miller’s creative use of reverberation and other studio magic.
Further influenced by Jimmy Reed, he began recording for Excello Records, and enjoyed a string of popular R&B singles which combined a drawling vocal with incisive harmonica passages. Among them were “Rainin’ In My Heart”, “I Love The Life I Live”, “Buzzin'” (instrumental) and “Little Queen Bee”. The result was something altogether matchless. Says Baton Rouge Blues Foundation Director Johnny Palazzotto, “When you hear a Slim Harpo song, you know it’s Slim Harpo.”
Harpo co-wrote many of his records with his wife, Lovelle Casey (though Miller, in a managerial trick common in the 1950s and ‘60s, frequently added his name to the writing credits). Numerous sidemen backed Harpo in the studio and on tour during his career, but his favorite lineups featured guitarist Rudy Richard, bassist James Johnson and drummer Jesse Kinchen.
Harpo’s bandmates remember the bluesman as an easygoing, relaxed man. But when it came to music, they say, a very exacting Harpo was all business.
“You had to do what Slim say,” Johnson says with a reflective laugh. “He wasn’t a real hard guy to get along with, but he had his ways.”
Adds Richard: “He was a nice, nice guy, but he really meant business. He wanted everybody trying to do it right.”
The group worked the regional club and juke-joint scene constantly, but occasionally they would venture to metropolises such as New York and Los Angeles to play at the Apollo Theater and the Whiskey A-Go-Go.
Harpo and his band needed to tour constantly and play as much as possible; times were frequently lean financially, and the men had to scrape up whatever they could get. It didn’t help that Harpo was frequently shortchanged by Miller over song royalties and other financial matters, a large reason the musician and the producer often had trouble getting along.
“Miller knew how to run a business,” says Harpo’s stepson, William Gambler. “My father just wanted to record. But Miller really wasn’t doing anything other [executives] weren’t doing.”
On top of being a musician and business owner, Harpo strived to be a good father and family man, even through the lean times. Often, Harpo was forced to work straight jobs, including operating a trucking business.
“He worked hard,” says Gambler. “He was always looking for a way to make things better for us.”
Still, despite the financial hardships, day jobs and grueling gig schedule, Harpo loved what he did — playing the swamp blues and representing his hometown — and that enthusiasm rubbed off on those around him.
“If you’re into the blues like Slim, it’s going to be all right,” says Kinchen. “Anytime we do it, if we do it with Slim, it’s gonna be all right. Slim always had a good feeling.” Adds Johnson: “He wasn’t making money then. We just wanted to play, so we fell right in with Slim. He was all about the music.”
Unfortunately, Harpo never really broke through to the blues big time. Despite producing three pop hits, he never reached the heights of popularity that such blues luminaries as B.B. King, Jimmy Reed or Muddy Waters attained. In a Nov. 29, 1968, review, New York Times writer Mike Jahn outlined his explanations for Harpo’s muted popularity. Jahn asserted that Harpo was less theatrical than his more popular contemporaries, saying Harpo “is not a showman like B.B. King, and he is nowhere near as flashy as Albert King.”
Jahn argued that Harpo and his band “perform with consummate cool, quiet dignity and at a relatively low volume” and that the group “deals in authenticity, not fireworks.”
However, Jahn added, that might be a good thing: “All [Harpo] does is play the blues — authentic, country blues — and invite people to come and hear it if they want to.” Concludes Jahn: “The blues is all around. Slim Harpo has just gone deeper into it than most people.”
Also contributing significantly to Harpo’s lack of exposure was his sudden, early death from a heart attack in 1970 at the age of 46. Aside from a standard obituary, the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate did nothing to acknowledge his passing, and it took nearly two months for the news of his death to reach the pages of Rolling Stone, which published a lengthy and well-researched obituary in its March 19, 1970, edition.
Perhaps the most tragic aspect of Harpo’s untimely passing was that he was poised to possibly and at long last reach the upper echelons of blues stardom. He was about to record a new album and embark on a massive tour in Europe that would have exposed thousands of potential new fans to his music.
“If Slim had lived long enough,” says Chris Thomas King, another contemporary blues artist with roots in Baton Rouge, “those fans who were new to the blues would have discovered him. He’s just one of those guys who died too soon, before his impact could be truly felt.”
However, over the intervening four decades, Harpo’s legacy and impact has blossomed, thanks partially to the legions of Louisiana-rooted blues artists who infuse their own music with shades of Harpo’s blues and openly espouse Harpo’s influence on their careers.
Contemporary musicians such as Kenny Neal, Chris Thomas King and Tab Benoit continue to carry the swamp blues banner originally planted by Harpo. Benoit notes that practically any blues or rock band rooted in the Baton Rouge area features a Harpo song in its repertoire.
In addition, the blues community has embraced Harpo and his work, especially in his old stomping grounds in Baton Rouge. Harpo and his music are virtually the bedrock on which the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation has been built; the organization’s annual regional blues honors are called the Slim Harpo awards. For many years now, Palazzotto — who’s also filming a documentary about the bluesman — has gone into area schools to teach new generations about music and the blues, and he does it with Harpo in mind.
At its foundation, Harpo’s ever-burgeoning popularity continues to stem from his ability to perfectly capture the essence of both the swamp blues and the culture that created it. His music is country but accessible, distinctive yet universal.
“It’s not like Chicago blues or Texas blues,” Benoit says. “It’s a very laid-back, bayou style of playing, like someone’s just playing on his porch on the bayou.”
The riff from Harpo’s 1966 hit “Shake Your Hips”, which itself was derivative of Bo Diddley’s “Bring It to Jerome”, was used in the ZZ Top 1973 hit “La Grange”, and the Rolling Stones covered the song on their 1972 album Exile On Main Street. “Shake Your Hips” was also covered by Joan Osborne on her 2012 album Bring It On Home. Other notable covers of Slim Harpo songs include “I Got Love If You Want It” by the Kinks, “I’m the Face” by the Who (when they were still called the High Numbers), “I’m A King Bee” by the Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and the Doors and “Don’t Start Crying Now” by Them with Van Morrison.
Harpo’s recordings were also widely covered in modern African-American circles, including “I’ll Take Care of You” by Gil Scott-Heron on his final album, I’m New Here. The song is also featured on the remix album featuring Jamie XX called We’re New Here. In 2012 a Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey Whiskey commercial featured Harpo’s song “I’m a King Bee” covered by San Francisco blues band the Stone Foxes.
“He was the leader of the swamp blues movement,” says researcher and author John Broven. “All of those artists have followed in his slipstream.”
The Slim Harpo Music Awards, awarded annually in Baton Rouge, are named in his honour. Proceeds from the awards benefit the “Music in the Schools” outreach program.
He died suddenly in Baton Rouge on January 31, 1970 of a heart attack at the age of 46, despite being “one of the cleanest living bluesmen of his era.”
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