James Harman obituary

Blues singer, songwriter and harmonica player renowned for his demanding approach as a bandleader

Southern California in the 1970s, 80s and 90s was a magic crucible of the blues, and one of its presiding warlocks was the harmonica player, singer, songwriter and bandleader James Harman, who has died aged 74 following a heart attack.

In a West Coast blues milieu that boasted formidable harmonica players such as William Clarke, Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza and Rick Estrin, Harman more than held his own. But what set him apart from many of his contemporaries was the skill and wit of his songwriting. BB King once told him: “You’ve got a real pretty voice, but you’re never going to become James Harman the artist if you don’t quit doing my songs and other guys’. You’ve got to do yours.”

Deserting the standard blues repertoire, Harman became an expert composer of what he called “stories about the human condition told through blues songs”. A musician friend and writer, Bryan Powell, compared him to Raymond Chandler and John D MacDonald.

Harman made his first album in 1972, but it was never issued, and it took a decade for his recording career to get under way, gathering momentum in 1988 with the album Extra Napkins, which earned him several nominations for WC Handy blues awards. Over the next 30 years there were a dozen albums for Black Top, Gulf Coast, Electro-Fi and other labels, all carefully planned. “With me,” he said, “the concept has already been thought out, written out, polished and honed. It’s 100% my idea all the way down.”

His sense of how blues should sound and look was central to his aesthetic. At recording sessions he insisted on old-school tube microphones and amps, and even vintage recording tape. “We tour Europe,” he told Powell in an interview for Blues Access magazine, “and we see these bands from Chicago, all playing the same six songs, and they’ve got on cowboy hats or baseball hats, running suits, sweats … and they’ve got no tradition, no class, no style, no angle. That’s the blues? I’m sorry, not where I come from.”

James Harman performing with Shakedown Tim and the Rhythm Revue in 2018

Harman was born in Anniston, Alabama, where his mother, Kathleen (nee Stephens), began teaching him piano when he was four. Lifting the lid of the piano stool, he found harmonicas belonging to his father, Oliver, a city police captain, and began playing them too.

He would later add guitar, organ and drums. He encountered the blues on the radio. “I dialled [tuned into] Tex Ritter, and then I dialled Perry Como, and then I went a little further and I got Muddy Waters. And I stopped there.”

In 1962 he moved to Panama City, Florida. Excited by its beach bars, jukeboxes and hipster fashion, he quickly became a full-time musician, playing in rhythm and blues bands and making singles for regional labels. After spells in New Orleans and Chicago, at the end of the decade he moved to California, where, billed as Icepick James with the Icehouse Blues Band, he opened for blues stars including Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker and Lowell Fulson. In 1977 he formed his own band. “The scene was vibrant, colourful and exploding,” said the singer Janiva Magness. “Remarkable music was played every night of the week. James Harman was the nexus, and his presence resonates to this day.”

“Harman had one of the tightest bands anywhere,” said the LA blues journalist Mary Katherine Aldin. “A tough leader, he demanded and got first-quality musicians and worked them hard.” Among those who played with him were Phil Alvin and Bill Bateman, who went on, with Phil’s brother Dave, to form the Blasters; pianist Gene Taylor, who joined the Blasters and the Fabulous Thunderbirds (and died just three months before him); and guitarists Hollywood Fats and Kid Ramos.

Ramos was 21 when, one night at the Red Onion on Newport Beach, he was invited to sit in with the Harman band. “I was overtaken by these guys’ sound and appearance. Two days later James invited me over to listen to records. And so began my mentoring in this music. There would be no Kid Ramos without that fateful meeting that changed my life for ever.”

Harman on the blues stage at the Simi Valley Blues and Cajun festival in California in 2013.
Harman on the blues stage at the Simi Valley Blues and Cajun festival in California in 2013. Photograph: Scott Mitchell/Zuma Press/Alamy

A longtime friend of ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Harman made cameo appearances on the band’s albums Mescalero and La Futura. He once drily remarked: “Billy’ll do a tour of the world with ZZ Top and I’ll play every week like always. He’s got another $80m to make this year. And I’ve got to get out here and try to pay this phone bill. That’s the blues.”

During the past year Harman had been undergoing treatment for oesophageal cancer.

His several marriages ended in divorce. He had two sons, one of whom predeceased him.

• Leslie James Harman, blues musician, born 8 June 1946; died 23 May 2021

Contributor

Tony Russell

The GuardianTramp

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