He found the blues early in life, both on black radio and on the street corner: "Radio" Johnson, a local blind street singer who played slide guitar with a knife, was an early influence and collaborator. As a youngster in Alabama, James played with a local blues musician named Radio Johnson, and bought R&B records. By the age of 16 he had launched his own band and subsequently recorded a number of singles and albums with various ensembles, including Soul Senders, Snakedoctor, King James And The Royals, the Icehouse Blues Band and Icepick James And The Rattlesnakes. In 1970 Harman moved to southern California and had to abandon music for some years due to health problems. He did not refrain from playing music for long, and in the late 70s he formed the James Harman Band, going on to make acclaimed recordings for the Rivera and Rhino labels before graduating to Black Top Records at the start of the 90s.
He recorded some of his best studio work for this label, including 1991's Do Not Disturb and 1995's Black & White. Later recordings have appeared on the Cannonball and Pacific Blue labels. Harman, who by the start of the new millennium resembled Gandalf (from Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings) with his extraordinary white beard, is an imposing sight to watch perform. He is a fine singer and harmonica player whose approach to the blues is one of fun and enjoyment. Harman's professional career began in 1962 after moving to Panama City, FL.
Soon after the move, he discovered like-minded friends, who invited him to black nightclubs to see such performers as Little Junior Parker, Jimmy Reed, Little Milton Campbell, Slim Harpo, Bobby Bland, O.V. Wright, B.B. King, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Joe Tex and James Carr. He began hanging out on a regular basis and was eventually asked to sit in by local house bands, becoming known as "that boy who sings like a man." Encouraged by this acceptance, Harman launched the first of his many rhythm 'n' blues ensembles, using such names as King James and the Royals; Snakedoctor; Disciples of Soul; Disciples of Blues; The Disciples; Voo Doo Daddy; Soul Senders; Pieces of Eight; Kingsnakes; and finally, The Icehouse Blues Band. The buzz surrounding James' live shows attracted talent scouts from several southern record companies.
Earl Caldwell, manager of the Swinging Medallions, signed Harman and took him to the Ken-Tel recording studio on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, GA. In 1964, 18-year-old James cut the first of nine regional 45 RPM singles that would appear on five different labels and put him on the road. James toured the eastern half of the country for the rest of the decade, playing radio station dances, fraternity parties, nightclubs, college concerts, after-hours joints, striptease parlors, bottle clubs (in which Harman would play all night, literally, performing six to eight sets of music) and honky tonks. When he wasn't headlining his own show, he was opening for and/or backing the top R&B artists of the day. During the mid 1960s, Harman relocated to Chicago, New York, Miami, and New Orleans, in efforts to find a home for his music.
For various reasons, these moves didn't work: In Chicago, the club scene was sewn up tight by Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Charlie Musselwhite and Paul Butterfield. Also, the Windy City, like New York, was just too cold for a Southerner. New Orleans was a violent place, and its music scene at the time consisted of "47 bands on Bourbon Street playing 'Proud Mary,'" Harman recalls, and a ghetto club scene devoted to R&B and soul music. His recorded work seemed to be of no help.
Harman did enjoy some success in Miami. He played free "love-ins" from the backs of flatbed trucks for large crowds of hippies, by day. By night, he played such clubs as the Climax or the Jet-Away Lounge. At the latter, he was the first white act to perform and one of the very first to do so with a racially integrated band.
Still, opportunities in Miami were limited; even with a history of recording and touring. All that most local bands could hope for was an opening slot on a larger show. So, in 1970, at the advise of his fellow record collector friends, Canned Heat’s Bob Hite, Alan Wilson and Henry Vestine, Harman moved to southern California. Within a month, Harman was performing at the Golden Bear, Troubadour, Ash Grove and Lighthouse, where he and his band were able to play real blues for real blues audiences. Almost immediately, Harman connected with a small community of kindred spirits, such as Rod Piazza, who was leading the band Bacon Fat, Kim "Goleta Slim" Wilson and John "Juke" Logan of the band Brother Chaos.
Collectively, these four performers and their bands backed and/or opened for the last great blues artists of an earlier era, both those who lived in the Los Angeles area or visited it while on tour. The "Icehouse Blues Band” featuring James Harman" played one- to six-night stints with the likes of Big Joe Turner, John Lee Hooker, Freddie King, Muddy Waters, Albert King, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Lloyd Glenn, Lowell Fulsom, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Albert Collins. The disco and urban cowboy fads of the late '70s nearly killed club work for blues musicians.
Two bouts with bleeding ulcers and two painful divorces almost killed Harman himself! But in 1977 he rebounded to form a new band, with his old piano player, Gene Taylor, using his own name for the first time. The James Harman Band has been a touchstone for notable players, including Phil Alvin and Bill Bateman, who left in 1978 to form the Blasters; "Piano Gene" Taylor, who left in 1981, also to join the Blasters before moving on to the Fabulous Thunderbirds; and David "Kid" Ramos. Ramos played 10 years with Harman, retiring in 1988, return to the blues as guitarist for the Fabulous Thunderbirds, for a time. Alumni also include the late Michael "Hollywood Fats" Mann, who played five years with James after leaving his own band in 1980; multi-instrumentalist session man and tunesmith Jeff Turmes played saxophones with James for years, switching to the bass for six more years beginning in 1988. Alumni drummers include Richard Innes, Stephen T.
Hodges and Steve Mugalian and Paul Fasulo to name a few. Along the way, Harman's own production company: Icepick Productions, has generated more than a dozen releases to add to the fifteen he had released before using his own name. These twenty nine releases are the fruit of his forty plus year career, at this point. While Harman continues to perform and record, he also is working on several projects as a producer, a venture that involves longtime production partner Jerry Hall.
The pair has worked together since 1971. Hall has engineered every track of every Harman release since that time, and together the pair has produced many other artists. Meanwhile, seventeen songs from James Harman's releases have been featured in films and television, the most famous being "Kiss of Fire" (from Those Dangerous Gentlemens), which was the background for the infamous rape scene in "The Accused" (starring Jodie Foster). James' "Jump My Baby" (from Thank You Baby) has been in three different movies, including "Burning Love." Harman has received 14 W.C. Handy Blues Award nominations, for his songs on his own releases and for other artists albums, such as his friend and alumni “Kid” Ramos.
Through the years Harman has received several Handy nominations for “Blues Song of the Year”, “Blues Single of the Year” and even “Re-release of the Year” for the CD reissue of his landmark 1987 album, “Extra Napkins”. James Harman has been inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and won the “Best Blues Album of the Year" award, from Canada's Real Blues Magazine. Harman has performed live shows in 18 countries, as many as 250 dates per year, including appearances at such North American festivals as the Long Beach Blues Festival, the New York State Blues Festival, the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Heritage Festival, the King Biscuit Festival in Helena, AR, the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle, the Bayfront Blues Festival in Duluth, MN, the Waterfront Festival in Portland, OR, the Edmonton (Canada) Blues Festival, and other festivals from Montreal to Mexico City. Abroad, Harman has appeared at the Peer and Spring Blues Festivals in Belgium, the Notodden and Hell Festivals in Norway, the Great Britain R&B Festival in Colne, England, the Milano and Pistoia Festivals in Italy and the Bayron Bay Festival in Australia, to name a few. In more than four decades of touring and recording, Harman has staked his claim as an original, legitimate blues artist, musician and producer. In his recordings and live performances, James creates music that stands out as unique and personal yet clearly reflects his passion for the roots of the blues.
Harman learned a key secret years ago: You have to develop your own approach and identity in order to have lasting success. As vocalist, musician and songwriter, James Harman chronicles life with energy, wit and humor. He has a novelist's eye for detail and irony, and the result is well-conceived music that stands the test of time. Harman's roots are apparent in his recordings and live performances.
He is a disciple of the classic qualities of the Southern blues tradition. Still, like his mentors, Harman is telling his own stories. He knows the difference between innovation and imitation, and his own character as a blues artist is fully reflected in his work. In all cases, he remains true to his credo: strictly the blues. Read more on Last.fm.
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