A native of Jackson, Miss., Zac Harmon spent his formative years in the once bustling African-American business district based on Farish Street. On Saturdays and Sundays, country folks from the plantations traveled to Farish Street to shop and have a good time. The crowds and characters were such that weekends in Jackson rivaled Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Music, of course, was part of the Farish Street scene, as were two important independent labels that issued blues recordings, Ace Records and Trumpet Records.
Harmon, still in his teens, performed with local artists Z.Z. Hill, Dorothy Moore and Sam Myers and such visiting stars as King Floyd and Bobby Marchan. Hoping to establish a blues career of his own, he went west to Los Angeles in 1979, but L.A. didn’t much care for the blues.
“But I was a good player so people liked me that way,” Harmon said a few weeks ago, just before a flight to Milan and a series of concerts in Italy and the Canary Islands.
Recording sessions provided Harmon’s income in the early ‘80s. The sessions led to production and writing for the O’Jays, the Whispers, Karyn White, Alexander O’Neal, Black Uhuru and more.
“I started making money in that area and I ended up with a long career,” he said.
But Harmon had not forgotten about the blues.
“We’d be in the studio doing sessions and I would be saying, ‘Hey, you guys gotta get this thing done. I gotta go.’ “
Harmon’s fellow session players asked why he was in such a rush. He told them he had to get to Babe & Ricky’s Inn, an L.A. blues club, to sit in. The non-blues-playing session guys with couldn’t believe their ears.
“You’re getting paid to do this!” they said. “Why are you rushing down there to play for free?”
“Listen,” Harmon told them. “The blues is in me. This I have to do. This other stuff that I’m playing with you guys, well, you gotta pay me to do it, because that’s the only way I’m gonna do it!”
Harmon learned to love the blues on Farish Street, where his dad, a Xavier University pharmacy grad, owned Harmon’s Drug Store. The elder Harmon, a blues harmonica player, welcomed the local street musicians into his store Saturday evenings for jam sessions.
“My dad’s favorite blues artist was Slim Harpo,” Harmon said. “Oh, yeah. Slim’s ?Scratch My Back’ is almost an anthem for me. That was my dad’s favorite song.
“So I was around music so much. The street musicians would get on the corner in front of my dad’s door and play on the weekends. I’d stand next to them. Man, it just got in my blood. I couldn’t shake it.”
Harmon was in his teens and playing professionally when he made a deal with his education-advocating mother.
“She let me play as long as I went to school,” he said. “As a result, I’m probably one of the most educated blues men you’ll ever meet.”
Harmon’s father later insisted that, if his son were really serious about music, that he leave Mississippi.
“He pretty much forced me to go to Los Angeles,” Harmon said. “He said, ‘If you’re gonna be in the business, you need to go where the music business is.’ “
After realizing the West Coast wasn’t the place to be a blues musician, Harmon worked for 15 years as a session musician, songwriter and producer, until the growing dominance of rap music inspired him to seek a new direction.
“Rap music wasn’t really my thing,” he said. “So I said, ‘Wait a minute. Why don’t I do what I came out here to do?’ I went back to the blues.
“The thing is, the older you get, the harder it is to do something that God didn’t bless you to do. So I’m only doing what I was put here to do. That’s why it’s so easy for me.”
Baton Rouge blues artist Kenny Neal was among Harmon’s early supporters.
“Kenny said, ‘Hey, man. We need you out here. You need to come on back.’ That really gave me a lot of the confidence to do it.”
Recognition quickly came Harmon’s way. XM, Sirius and the American Blues Network broadcast his 2002 CD, Live at Babe & Ricky’s Inn. He won the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge in Memphis in 2004. XM listeners named him best new blues artist in 2005. Blues Revue magazine listed him among 10 artists who represent the future of the blues.
And following a European tour with Gregg Wright in 2009, Wright cited Harmon as the freshest act in blues today.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Harmon said of his late-blooming blues career. “Well, people seem to recognize what’s real.”