Baton Rouge swamp-blues artist James Moore, better known as Slim Harpo, received more recognition in the past decade than he ever received in his brief lifetime.
Another tribute to Moore came last week. LSU Press published “Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge,” a full-length biography of the singer, harmonica player and songwriter by British roots-music writer Martin Hawkins.
The book follows the 2008 induction of “I’m a King Bee,” Moore’s 1957 recording debut, into the Grammy Hall of Fame; the 2014 dedication of a historical marker near his gravesite in Port Allen; and the 2015 release of “Buzzin’ the Blues: The Complete Slim Harpo,” a lavish CD box set from Germany’s Bear Family Records.
The belated appreciation for Moore also comes after the 2003 launch of the Slim Harpo Awards, held annually in Baton Rouge. Upon receiving their Harpo Awards, honorees Van Morrison, Ray Davies (The Kinks), Dr. John and Jimmie Vaughan warmly expressed their gratitude.
“Who needs a Grammy when you got a Slim Harpo Award?” Vaughan asked during his in-person acceptance speech in 2015.
In doing his writing and research for the “Buzzin’ the Blues” box set, Hawkins found more than enough material for the set’s accompanying 104-page book.
“I gathered so much information about and around Slim’s life and times,” Hawkins said. “It would have been a shame to just use some of it in the CD box. It was necessary to write a book.”
Slim Harpo’s national hits include his mournfully sad 1960 country-blues ballad, “Rainin’ in My Heart,” and 1965’s seductive, supremely funky “Baby Scratch My Back.” The many music stars who re-recorded his songs include Morrison (with Them), The Rolling Stones, Joan Osborne, Otis Redding, The Grateful Dead, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Who, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, Dave Edmunds, Hank Williams Jr., Pink Floyd and the Doors.
Hawkins saw three major reasons why Moore, who died unexpectedly in 1970 at 45, is worthy of a book.
“One was that so little was known about Slim’s life,” the author said. “Another was that, although a lot of people had written about him down through the years, it was all the same stuff. There had been so little original material to go on, and some of it was just wrong.
“The final reason was that, although Slim is important, I knew from my research that there was a whole history of blues in Baton Rouge to be told, not just Slim Harpo’s history.”
Hawkins’ introduction to Moore came in the early 1960s, when he first heard “Rainin’ in My Heart.” The future author of three books and more than 400 articles, sleeve notes and CD booklets was 11 or 12 years old.
By the time Louisiana blues reached the United Kingdom in the early ’60s, Hawkins was already a fan of Louisiana rhythm-and-blues artists Fats Domino, Clarence “Frogman” Henry and Huey “Piano” Smith.
“And there was a lot of Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King around before the Louisiana blues started to appear,” he recalled. “But very few people would have known about Lightnin’ Slim or Harpo until the early 1960s.”
At first, Hawkins didn’t recognize the unique swamp-blues sound in “Rainin’ in My Heart.”
“It just came across as an impossibly catchy ballad that had something a little different to it,” he said. “No one had coined the idea of ‘swamp-pop’ then.”
Moore’s sudden death came as his career appeared to be ascending. He had been recording a new album. He had booked his first European tour. Hawkins believes Moore would have become a bigger star had he lived.
“Yes, absolutely,” the writer said. “He would have been known at blues venues all over the world. He would have been interviewed to death, too, so my book wouldn’t have been necessary. And, I hate to say it, but his music would have been watered down and fiddled about with by well-meaning rock producers in the LP era. So, in that sense, we are probably better off with the consistent musical legacy recorded between 1957 and 1969.”
From Oct. 26 through Nov. 4, Hawkins will promote his new book in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Memphis and points between. He’s looking forward to spreading the word about the book and visiting with locals who helped with his research for “Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge.”