Top Harp

The phrase "musician's musician" has been used to the brink of clichedom. Still, there's no denying that a Houston appearance by harmonica player/singer James Harman usually provides an opportunity to run into everyone who doesn't have a gig that night. During his three decades of touring, Harman's frequent visits to town have given him a must-see local reputation that's rare for a road act. Conversations with members of Harman's following tend to be histories of Houston blues venues; the folks who now travel to the Richmond Strip to catch his show reminisce fondly about how hot and sweaty they got a decade ago on the dance floor at Fitzgerald's, how much fun they had at the Hey Hey and the Bon Ton.

"That used to be the kiss of death, being known as a musicians' band," Harman says, calling from a motel room in Florida. "It's always a great compliment to reach your peers, but these days I'm drawing as much paying audience as other players, which is even better."

Still, it's easy to understand the peer adulation. Harman combines the elements that are (or at least should be) every musician's goals: originality, energy and talent. The result is one of the most frenzied, and least derivative, shows in jump blues.

Harman's history as a bluesman is a familiar one: born in the South (Anniston, Alabama) and growing up with gospel in church and blues on the radio. By the time he was a teenager, he was living in Panama City, Florida, and sneaking into blues clubs. In the early '60s, he was already fronting bands and recording 45s under names such as King James and the Royals and Icepick James and the Rattlesnakes. As he moved around the country -- Chicago, New York, New Orleans -- Harman continued to seek out opportunities to see live the blues artists he had heard on the radio as a child. After a decade on the road, a move to the West Coast finally gave Harman the opportunity to share the stage with many of his heroes.

During the early '70s, Harman served a lengthy stint leading the house band at Los Angeles' Ash Grove Club, where he met many of the greats of Texas blues. While backing up these artists and a host of other legends, the young vocalist and harp player carefully studied their styles. Meanwhile, forays through used record stores led to a chance encounter with Billy Gibbons, who had recently founded ZZ Top, a meeting that developed into a lengthy collaborative friendship. Finally, Harman's singing and songwriting drew encouragement from the likes of B.B. King, who nudged him toward a solo career; by the '80s, Harman and band had become a powerful presence on the West Coast club circuit.

A 1987 CD, Extra Napkins, received three W.C. Handy nominations and resulted in international publicity. Bookings followed on the European festival circuit, where Harman's frenzied harmonica style and witty stage banter won new fans. It also reconnected him with some old blues heroes from Houston. "I was at a blues festival in Holland where Joe Hughes and I were being interviewed at the same time," Harman laughs. "They asked Joe if he liked me. So Joe came over and kissed me just as they snapped a picture, and of course that's the one that ran with the article."

Although Harman's first four albums were well received by critics, it was 1991 before he managed a major-label contract. His debut album with Black Top Records -- Do Not Disturb -- received airplay along with the predictable rave reviews, and resulted in two years of nonstop touring. When he finally took a break from the road in 1993, it was to record Two Sides to Every Story, a tribute to the traditional country blues that had inspired him while scanning the radio dial as a child. Another Black Top CD -- Cards on the Table -- followed in 1994. Unlike the minimalist guitar-and-piano arrangements behind Harman's vocals that had made up most of Two Sides, Cards on the Table featured full, rich R&B tracks laden with Hammond organ, extensive horn sections and female background singers that hearkened to his early experiences with church music.

Keeping to an album-a-year schedule, Harman released black & white in 1995, a CD that, while marking something of a retreat from the funkiness of the previous year's release, was lyrically more wide-ranging. Still, as Harman explains, there is often only a superficial relationship between his CDs and his live shows. "When I cut an album, and people buy that album and take it home, I've painted a picture for them to have in their living rooms," he says. "When you come to my shows, don't expect to see that picture setting on the stage; expect to see a four-piece blues band."

1996 marks the first year since '92 that Harman has abstained from recording a CD. "I don't do albums during presidential election years," he explains with a reasonably straight face. This year also marked a reunion with ZZ Top. "I was touring Florida last spring, and when I got through, Billy Gibbons asked me to come to Houston. He played 'What's Up with That' and said 'Right here it needs some harmonica.' So we had great fun doing it." The song wound up as the first single from Rhythmeen, and Harman later joined the Top in playing the song on The Late Show with David Letterman and TV shows in London and Paris.

In between jet-setting adventures with Gibbons, though, Harman remains true to his touring-musician work ethic. "I'm driving straight into a hurricane today," he laughed before getting off the phone. "That's what I do to keep shoes on my two kids in California. That's what being a musician is all about -- you play every town with electricity until you can't see straight."

James Harman plays at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, October 24, at Billy Blues Bar and Grill, 6025 Richmond. Tickets are $6. For info, call 266-9294.

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Jim Sherman