If he weren't so creative with a pen, a microphone and a Hohner, James Harman would be a most apt author of a how-to-do-life manual. Not the Colangelo version, mind you, though there are similarities. Both men, for instance, have a big streak of upbeat humor--Harman's, which pours out of his 35 years of tunesmithing, is the more offbeat and literarily satisfying--both are tops in their fields because of desire, vision and hard work. The opening liner note to Harman's 1997 rerelease of Extra Napkins . . . Strictly the Blues captures their shared wisdom: "Luck, the saying goes, is the product of preparation and opportunity."
Harman's preparation began about 1962 when he started playing professionally as a teenager in Panama City, Florida. During the Sixties, he cut nine singles in the ol' 45 format. He performed incessantly throughout the South, up in Chicago and New York, working the college circuit and opening for blues acts. In 1968, he met up with Canned Heat in Miami. Band members Bob Hite and Al "Blind Owl" Wilson liked Harman's style, and often encouraged him to come to California.
Harman finally made the move in 1970, and his career exploded with opportunity. Opening for Canned Heat regularly out West put him in touch with a huge blues community. "If you just hook on to a guy, that's the best way to learn," Harman proffers. "You pick up on things, techniques, as I did from Big Walter [Horton] and George Smith when I was a kid."
His studiousness among his new contacts in California paid off. Harman formed the Icehouse Blues Band, backing such notables as Big Joe Turner, John Lee Hooker and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. In '77, the James Harman Band came to be and was soon known as a launching pad for other careers like Kid Ramos, Gene Taylor and Willie Campbell--who pretty much became The Fabulous Thunderbirds--or Phil Alvin and Bill Bateman, founders of The Blasters.
In 1984, 20 years of preparation came face to face with a big opportunity for Harman in the person of record producer Bob Rivera. Already a longtime fan, Rivera pitched the idea of recording live for his label to capture the true grit of a James Harman performance.
Harman agreed on the condition that Rivera allow him complete control to also make a studio recording. That recording became the first release of the highly acclaimed Extra Napkins and gave Harman such industry respect that he retains artistic control of his efforts to this day.
Since then, his material has been used on movie soundtracks, notably The Accused, and he has gained an international following. Harman loves to perform throughout Europe. "Holland, the Scandinavian countries, they're all just great. My favorite place is Australia. They're so appreciative, and the food is the best." Currently he is working on the release of Extra Napkins--Vol. II.
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But the most striking quality of Harman's work this decade has to be the masterful artistry and vision that goes into each recording. From 1991's Do Not Disturb to last year's Takin' Chances, each is a complete thought or design--a "concept," if you will. Like a Tom Waits recording, but slightly more focused, each adopts a character to tell a series of short stories that offer a unique perspective about our all-too-human experiences. Takin' Chances uses the motif of "life as a gamble" told by the consummate gambler. "I've always been a storyteller," claims Harman. "Sometimes it's gotten me into trouble; sometimes it's gotten me out of trouble. But I always try to have fun."
Each concept is complemented by an equally well-defined selection of sounds. "Instruments are tools for an artist to create a palette of sounds," he says. "I grew up in Alabama in the Fifties. Wherever we went, everybody was playin' all different kinds of instruments. I picked up my Daddy's harp when I was 4. And I've always been a singer--I sang in the choir for years. But it's the songs. That's what it's really about . . . the songs."
--David K. Byrne
James Harman is scheduled to perform at 9 p.m. Friday, April 16; and the same time Saturday, April 17, at the Rhythm Room, 1019 East Indian School. The cover is $8. 602-265-4842.