Archive for January, 2021

From Screamin’ Jay to Icepick James to 13 … the birth of a ‘Plague’

Posted in 13 with tags , , , , , , , on January 16, 2021 by J.J.

The recent health news of James Harman has reminded me, again, of the cyclical nature of the blues, and the passing down of music from one to another.

Lester Butler was (in)famous for partaking in this tradition. What many probably don’t know is that the most notorious song on “13 Featuring Lester Butler” is not exactly an LB original.

The roots of “Plague of Madness” date back to a 1957 single from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “Frenzy” (written by David Hess and Augustus Stevenson). A speeding, twanging getaway chase of a song, the accomplished music is the perfect launching pad for the wild notions that come bling!-ing out of Screamin’ Jay’s head (more on that in a bit).

Walk your fingers up the H racks in the Blues/R&B section to come upon Harman, James and his take on “Frenzy” 26 years later, on 1983’s “Thank You Baby” with the devastating Kid/Fats lineup of the James Harman Band. Again, this song suits James Harman and Co. at just the right time: A jumping, rip-roaring R&B rave-up that wouldn’t necessarily upset punks or rockabillys.

And it comes with its own art project music video that, if it didn’t make MTV, surely was a hit on local cable access. Where Screamin’ Jay had a macabre personality and stage coffins, the Harman band had a straitjacket, foam in the mouth and silent film star Michael Mann as … Hollywood Fats.

So where does Lester come in?

We’ve not heard any version of “Frenzy” by the Blue Shadows or Red Devils, nothing on “King King” tapes. But it is not hard to imagine that both Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and James Harman records were being spun at house parties, at set breaks and on boom boxes. And, it’s kind of an unforgettable cut.

In a 2011 interview with NoFightin.com, 13 guitarist Alex Schultz talked about how the songs were crafted for the “13” record. The vocals were overdubbed, which gave the band the musical license to do whatever was called for at the moment, and let Lester find his vocal themes later. Schultz even said he didn’t know what the songs were about until he finally heard them with Butler’s lyrics.

For instance: Here is an alternate take of the song that would become “Plague of Madness” — what sounds like the same backing track, a different guitar track or mix, and extemporaneous “Frenzy” lyrics:

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James Harman needs our help. (Icepick’s Story 2021)

Posted in related music with tags , , , , , , , on January 4, 2021 by J.J.

In a parallel universe, James Harman is a superstar.

An in-demand artiste who plays command performances for kings and queens. A poet laureate whose lyrics are studied in college courses. A giving mentor and bandleader whose roots have grown the fruits of generations of musicians. A vocalist whose records stop all diner conversation when the needle hits his latest song.

But in this here-and-now, James Harman — blues raconteur extraordinaire — is 74, without the means to earn a living, and beginning chemotherapy for Stage 4 cancer.

Harman is not a household name — unless your household is real hip. Those who know, know.

To the true believers of “The Red Devils, Lester Butler and California’s (and beyond’s) blues, rock and roots music,” James Harman is the Godfather.

Some of this is by talent, and some of it is by proximity. Harman is one of those threads of connective cool from his native Alabama, to the post-Woodstock Canned Heat California scene, to Big Joe Turner, Hollywood Fats, MTV, ZZ Top and a touring schedule in the 1990s that rivaled any act on the planet (“She wrapped my sandwich, boy, in an old road map”).

Harman has always surrounded himself with whipcrack musicians, and entire James Harman Band lineups have gone on to form or evolve into other killer bands, from The Blasters (Phil Alvin and Bill Bateman were early bandmates, as was Gene Taylor), to The Fabulous Thunderbirds (whose early ‘90s incarnation was a literal James Harman Band with Kim Wilson) to Lester Butler’s various 13s.

His most well-known ensemble was the early 1980s version of the James Harman Band … Those Dangerous Gentlemens: Hollywood Fats, Kid Ramos, Willie J. Campbell and the incomparable Stephen Hodges on drums (you might know Hodges from the Tom Waits band). Yes, Hollywood Fats and Kid Ramos in one lineup, under the direction of one James Harman.

Recommended: Extra Napkins, Strictly Live … in ’85!, Thank You Baby, Those Dangerous Gentlemens

James Harman, The Blasters, X, The (original) Red Devils, Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs, Canned Heat, Dwight Yoakam, Tom Waits, Los Lobos and many others shared common DNA, even if each leaned on nurture more than nature (punk rockabilly, experimental roots … or “American music”).

Harman would tell you (and has told me and my pals) that he is not a harmonica player. He is a singer and a songwriter who uses the harmonica when needed to tell his stories. And those stories are clever and compact in a way that demonstrates the craft and care he puts into his art. His musical ethos align more closely with artists and outsiders such as Waits and Los Lobos than the average “Tuesday bluesday” crowd — even though he gets the job done down behind that city dump, presiding over a real blues party.

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