Nashville-based singer, songwriter, guitarist, drummer and all-around character Phil Lee was on a Slim Harpo listening kick a few weeks ago.
Locals know Slim Harpo, aka James Moore, as Baton Rouge’s funky blues artist of the 1950s and ’60s, the singer, songwriter, harmonica player and guitarist who recorded such Louisiana anthems as “Baby Scratch My Back” and “Rainin’ In My Heart.”
Lee, a native of Durham, N.C., got to know and love Moore’s recordings when they were high on the national music charts. In coastal Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, Moore’s music fell into that regional designation known as beach music.
“Like the Tams and Embers,” Lee recalled from his home on Nashville’s Westside. “Slim Harpo was in that genre, if it really was a genre, with all those guys. It was as normal to hear Slim on the radio as ‘Wooly Bully’ or any of the English pop hits. We didn’t differentiate much.”
“Blues in Reverse,” a song inspired by Slim Harpo, is the second track on Lee’s new album, The Fall & Further Decline of the Mighty King of Love.
“I wrote this for Slim Harpo,” Lee writes in his album notes. “Or maybe he wrote it for me.”
Lee knows he can only approximate Moore’s musical magic.
“Those grooves Slim had, you can’t re-create them,” Lee said. “We gave it a shot with ‘Blues in Reverse.’ I love what we did on that but you can’t beat those Louisiana guys. Every little area has their thing, but it’s like the drummers had one heartbeat down there. You can imitate it but you can’t replicate it.”
Lee happened to play the worst and best gigs of his life in one town — Baton Rouge. The worst happened at a big dancehall that could hold hundreds of people.
“They weren’t used to having guys like me there,” Lee explained. “They wanted to dance but I wasn’t giving them anything they wanted. It was a nightmare. One guy, I thought he was gonna kill me. So we did our little set, I grabbed my hundred bucks and we got out of Baton Rouge as quick as we could. I swore I’d never go back.”
Sometime between the latter disaster and Lee’s return to Baton Rouge, music fan Chris Maxwell opened the Red Dragon Listening Room. Unlike the line-dancers at the aforementioned venue, Maxwell specializes in off-the-beaten-path singer-songwriters. He talked the wary Lee into giving Baton Rouge another shot.
Lee summoned the courage to show up at the Red Dragon, eat jambalaya, play his songs and give knife-throwing lessons. By then, too, his wife had forced him to take dance lessons and he’d added some choreography to his act.
The gig went much better than Lee’s previous Red Stick engagement. He probably could have gotten away without the choreography.
Lee’s Friday, March 8, performance at the Red Dragon will be his fourth. It’s also his first engagement since he released The Fall & Further Decline of the Mighty King of Love, which features a bonus track recorded in-concert at the Red Dragon.
“I love the place,” he said. “People sit there while you do a little concert. The sound is good and Chris and his wife are beautiful human beings. It’s like a picnic and a homecoming. And you know there are a couple of natural knife-throwing people in Baton Rouge.”