How many Slim Harpo recordings do you know? Perhaps you’ve heard “Raining in My Heart” (not the Buddy Holly tune), which made it to No. 34 on Billboard’s pop chart in 1961; “Baby, Scratch My Back,” which reached No. 16 five years later; or “I’m a King Bee,” which failed to sell many copies upon its 1957 release but later became Harpo’s signature song. More likely, you’ve heard of him but can’t recall actually hearing him. He was never a big hitmaker and his career was long ago and rather brief. He died of a heart attack in 1970 at age 46.
Among his musical peers, though, he remains a giant. You’ve likely heard his compositions without realizing it because they’ve been widely covered, and not just by fellow blues artists. During the 60s, British rockers like the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Pretty Things, the Yardbirds, Them, and Pink Floyd all recorded his songs. (While an essay included with this box set says the Moody Blues took their name from one of Harpo’s instrumental tunes, however, that’s not correct, according to interviews with the Moodys’ Mike Pinder.) Blues and soul artists such as Otis Redding and Muddy Waters have covered him, as have American rock acts ranging from the Grateful Dead to the Doors and country artists like Marty Stuart and Hank Williams Jr.
You don’t have to listen long to Harpo’s music to grasp the reasons for his wide appeal among fellow musicians. He was a terrific harmonica and guitar player, a fine and clever songwriter who penned much if not most of his material; and a mellow, understated vocalist who melded blues to elements of country, rock, and pop. His sound was not quite like any other, and critics have struggled to describe it. Writer Peter Guralnick, for example, once wrote that Harpo’s singing sounded like what you’d hear “if a black country and western singer or a white rhythm and blues singer were attempting to impersonate a member of the opposite genre.”
Actually, that’s not a bad summation but rather than try to conjure up Harpo’s style from it, check out Buzzin’ the Blues—The Complete Slim Harpo, a new five-disc box set on the Bear Family label. If you’re familiar with that company, you know its box sets include everything but the kitchen sink, and this 142-track collection is no exception. It incorporates the A and B sides of all of Harpo’s singles; his album tracks; all the surviving alternative versions of those singles and album tracks; all the songs that remained unissued during his lifetime, including a newly unearthed piece he was working on during the week he died; and a spirited 1961 concert that features previously unavailable material. (Bear Family’s obsession with completeness comes across in a liner note about how “we have not included several tracks that have appeared elsewhere on CDs as unissued songs or unissued alternative versions but which on close examination are neither of those things.”) The package also offers a well-illustrated 108-page book with insightful essays, session notes, a discography, and two sets of track listings (alphabetical and in order of presentation). This box truly is the “complete” Slim Harpo that its title promises and its contents leave no doubt that the man deserves such a package.