Music News

The Sauce Of His Content

Bluesman James Harman called his latest album Extra Napkins out of his fondness for saucy barbecue. But the title easily might've referred to the drooling that must've gone on during the production of the record.

Consider this: The Harman-ica player says the owner of Rivera Records, Extra Napkins' label, told him, "The money's available. Just do what you want."

It's a good bet that, in the Eighties, no other record executive dared to link those two sentences together. In the past decade, the story of the bigwig instructing a band in the fine art of writing a hit has become one of the industry's greatest cliches. The concepts of available money and complete artistic control were thought to be mutually exclusive.

But the way Harman describes the negotiations with the label honcho, the deal was easy. "This guy Bob Rivera said, `How much does it take to make a real blues record?' and I told him, `Well, if I can do it my way, I'll do a fine one.'"

Harman, naturally, took his time on the album. The SoCal-based bluesman worked on it for almost four years between creating a more marketable LP for Rhino Records and jumping across the country and around the globe on tour.

"Every time I came home off tour, I went in the studio and I cut a new song for my new album, which became the Rhino album, and I would cut two or three blues songs," Harman remembers. "I mixed twenty of them and picked twelve of them out, and that's Extra Napkins."

Behind the high-powered takeoff of "It's Alright Now," the scorching guitar-harp-drums jam of the title cut, and the slow, deep tones of "Sad to Be Alone," the album proved to be a critically acclaimed smorgasbord of the blues. Harman says that not only was it revered as a new standard in the blues community, but that it also was nominated for three W.C. Handy blues awards, including album, artist and band of the year.

"It's got about an inch-and-a-half-thick stack of rave reviews from around the world: Poland, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Norway, England," he says. "I got about three [rave reviews] from England, from guys that are real snobs and don't even like white guys at all."

Extra Napkins even proved to be a wise investment for Rivera. "It was No. 13 on Radio France, with no pop tune on it at all," Harman brags. "I was real proud of it. It's still selling, and it's still in the charts, and it's a year-and-a-half old now."

Why wasn't Extra Napkins the financial flop that so many artistic free-for-alls are? Part of the reason may be that Harman has found a way to maintain artistic integrity and work in a few well-placed marketing schemes. He says he slipped in a few blues tunes on his more pop-oriented records, such as Rhino's Those Dangerous Gentlemens, to give listeners a taste of the real stuff. "My plan is a devious, evil plan," he says. "I'm gonna undermine all of these characters that don't understand. If they buy `My Baby's Gone' when it was a hit, and they get to `Jump My Baby' and they get to `Goatman Holler,' and it moves them, they might go buy Extra Napkins. That's the way it works. That's how you get them."

Until the day the nuclear family is ready to buy some straight-shootin' blues, Harman says he'll continue juggling his split musical personalities--at least to help pay the bills. "I love to play the blues. The blues is what's in my heart, and the blues is what I know and do," he says. "However, I'm capable of writing tunes that go beyond that."

Some of Harman's tunes have been accessible enough to land on several film soundtracks. "`Kiss of Fire' was bought by the movie The Accused. I made a lot of money," Harman says. "`Jump My Baby' was bought by a movie called Burning Love. I made money on that. I had a tune called `I Got So Many Womens' that was used in the Chuck Norris movie Invasion U.S.A. I made a lot of money on that. I still do. Every three months I get a check from Belgium or France or Holland or Germany or somewhere where those tunes were in movies, and they just keep making money."

Even with the success of his records and movie royalties from his songs, Harman says he still has to tour most of the year to keep the barbecue on the grill. "My main concern is being on the road and making a living," he says, "and so I have to come in and make these records when I can." (Harman's next album contains material from performances half a decade ago. Called Strictly Live in '85, it's due out in about a month.)

One of these days, Harman hopes to turn the tables around so that his gigs play second fiddle to his albums. "See, if your records make so much money, then you go tour to support selling the record," he says. "But until then, you make your living playing music live, and the records are to get people to come hear you. I'm still in that category.

"What I'd really like is to have a couple of big hit records and get so rich that I can take off more time. If I could just get more comfortable on the time, I'd be better, I'd be fresher. I'd tour for half the year and stop, and take two or three months off, and I'd relax and go fishin' and write new songs and record albums and take my dragster out and go drag racing for a few months."

Harman isn't exactly complaining, mind you. Don't think he's not aware that any musician who's ever held a day job has to be envious of his career. Harman has been a musician, and nothing but, for the entire twenty-seven years of his professional life. He rubs it in a little deeper: "I've never had a callus on my hand. I've never had to work. All I've done is sing. I walked out of the church choir right into a bar, and I've never left."

James Harman will perform at Chuy's on Friday, February 16, and Saturday, February 17. Show time is 9 p.m.

"I got about three [rave reviews] from England, from guys that are real snobs and don't even like white guys at all."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Louis Windbourne