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The blues? James Harman can tell youabout the blues.
It's probably tough to sum up a career that's lasted more than 45 years.
When you do something for 46 years, it's a little hard to get it together for a few sentences on the telephone. I'm from Alabama. I started the piano when I was 4. When I would finish the piano lesson, I could open the piano bench and get my dad's harmonicas out and play those, too. By the time I was 16, I'd quit singing in the church choir and started singing about women for money. I moved from Alabama to Panama City, Florida, and fell in with a crowd that was going to hear the blues. When I was 17, I painted on a fake moustache and got in to see Little Junior Parker, and it pretty much twisted my mind and changed my life. I'm not the typical kid who tried to play like the Rolling Stones, and that led them to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. I was the other way around. I grew up in the South and saw the real stuff first. When the rock groups came along, I considered it kind of lightweight compared to what I was listening to.
When did your first record come out?
I put together my own band, and after a few years, I got "the tap," as they said, from a talent scout. They took me to Atlanta, and I cut a bunch of songs, two of which came out a couple of weeks later on a 45 in 1964. I made nine 45s in the '60s. We were so young; we were playing dances for teenagers that were put on by radio stations. That led to playing nightclubs and on into a career playing music.
And you moved around a bit before settling in Orange County?
I tried Chicago; that's too cold. I tried New York; that's too cold. I went to Miami; the scene wasn't really developed. I was playing for hippies at the beach on the back of a flatbed truck at a love-in. That night, I'd play at a serious ghetto nightclub. I was the first white guy to sing at a bunch of pretty serious places. I had the first mixed band around there. Sometimes, it'd be a fistfight at the end of the night to get paid. We moved to California by '70, dug in here and made two or three more restarts. I've been touring ever since. I was doing 250 nights a year until 2000, at which time I stopped ground touring and started only flying to festivals. I live here because I love Huntington Beach. I love the weather. I think that's the case for everybody that tours—you don't really play where you live. You live where you live, and you play everywhere else. You have to be careful what you wish for. I used to study all these old blues guys, and I wake up one day and I am an old blues guy. But I tell stories I want to tell. I'm a short-story writer. That's what it really is. They're just very short because they have to fit in a song. But don't get me started. There's very little real going on anywhere. All I can do is jump in and swim like everybody else. There's nothing I can do to fix things.
What made you stop ground touring?
It was a number of things. In 2000, my third and final wife left. It's not a walk in the park being married to a guy who's gone all the time. I'm a nice guy. I'm just not home all the time. She left me with two teenage boys to raise and finish getting through school. I couldn't raise kids from a hotel room in Ohio. I stayed home and played locally for one year. Then I started getting offers to fly to festivals and play. The most rigorous and time-consuming part of ground touring is the driving. You can fly to Oslo and play tomorrow night, and then fly to Copenhagen and play the next night, and then fly home. I get paid to travel, and I sing for free.
How about the state of blues today?
Be careful if somebody wants to build a shrine to the blues with a 40-foot plastic statue of Muddy Waters because there's going to come a day when the fickle public doesn't want to pay $20 for a hamburger to have the blues experience. Then the House of Blues will start having other things. There's nowhere to hear this stuff. It's not out there available to the masses, and that's sad.
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