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.
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.
The connection between James Harman and Lester Butler is worthy of note. In a 1997 interview with Real Groove, Butler addressed that friendship:
Real Groove: Perhaps 13 Featuring Lester Butler will become known as the blues album for people whose tolerance for the blues is limited.
Lester Butler: My tolerance for the blues is limited, too – except for James Harman. I love him. He’s like a father to me. I saw him at a gig the other night, and I said, “You know, James, I’ve been coming to see you over half my life!”
In one of those strange, full-circle moments, Lester and James found themselves grooving onstage together, a half-world away from their California stomping grounds, on May 2, 1998. The scene was the Moulin Blues Festival in Ospel, “Lester’s Legendary Last Gig.”
Not long after Lester’s death, my friends and I saw Harman for the umpteenth time, this time at a little hole-in-the-wall, his native habitat, in Indianapolis. That night, we cornered Harman like the twentysomething fanboys we were, bombarding him with questions about blues, cars, the mysteries of life and aging.
It was asked of Harman, “Do you have any good Lester Butler stories?”
“There are no good Lester Butler stories,” was his curt reply. He shook his head. Yeah, that’s right.
Maybe at that same gig, we asked him why he doesn’t play such-and-such song (understand, that James’ albums often are thematic, and the songs work together as a whole), and he said “Because the record is the record, this show is this show.” Damn, that is confidence in one’s ability and vision.
Harman has had a triple-album’s worth of bad luck lately: his health, two burglaries (“they got my entire record collection, seven cars, all of my instruments, and all of my amplifiers”) and the demise of touring here and abroad.
A friend started a GoFundMe for Harman, which picked up steam last week and raised nearly $50,000 for the man, for his medical bills and the other necessities of life on this big blue marble.
HELP OUT: GoFundMe site for James Harman
Sure, he’s not a household name, and the Queen of England doesn’t seem to be booking any acts right now. You might not have ever heard of him, but that’s your own dang fault! Icepick James put it out there in the world; you being hip is between you and your ears.
For the music he’s already given us, and the music we have yet to hear, consider shaking some change loose for James Harman.
As the man says, “Thank you baby!”