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Slim Harpo: Buzzin' the Blues: The Complete Slim Harpo *

Album Notes

Slim Harpo had his first hit in 1961, the same year Jimmy Reed had his last. This isn't entirely a coincidence. Harpo played a laconic blues shuffle seemingly influenced by Reed, but as Martin Hawkins points out in the liner notes for Bear Family's 2015 box Buzzin' the Blues: The Complete Slim Harpo, Slim wasn't necessarily directly influenced by Jimmy, even though he started to record for Excello in 1957, just after Reed became a fixture on the R&B charts. If Slim was anything, he was a Louisiana son, steeped in the thick rhythms of the swamp and as equally comfortable with the rolling R&B of the Big Easy as he was a dash of Cajun spice. All this is evident on Buzzin' the Blues, a five-disc box that manages to stay compelling even though it's heavy on alternate takes. Harpo didn't record all that often in his too-brief life. He started in 1957 and had his last session in December 1969, roughly a month before he died of a heart attack, producing enough material to basically fill out the first two discs of the box. After that come the alternate takes and instrumentals, most excavated sometime in the '80s or '90s, and finally ending with an Alabama armory live concert from 1961 originally released as Sting It Then! on Ace in 1997. Bear Family dug up some unheard cuts from the 1961 show but the biggest selling point of the box is context, context that arrives via Hawkins' excellent research and, of course, the music itself. Those first two discs containing all of Slim's singles and album tracks -- all sequenced in a manner not dissimilar from Hip-O Select's 2003 set The Excello Singles Anthology but containing 17 additional cuts -- glide by smoothly, showcasing his easy transition from the down-and-dirty swamp blues of "I'm a King Bee" to the crooner of "Rainin' in My Heart," then the guy who found countless variations on the funky vamp of "Baby Scratch Back," spinning it into the New Orleans party classic "Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu" (not to mention its cousin, "Tip on In") and finding a way to recast Charlie Rich's "Mohair Sam" to the same beat. These latter-day recordings, teetering on the edge of blues and Southern soul, suggest Slim might've been able to ride the shifting tides of the '70s, but alas, he died early. This means the box is filled with alternate takes that showcase his earthier side, as most of these cuts find Harpo and his band just a shade looser than the finished product, but nothing is as gritty as the live 1961 set. If the studio cuts are often appealingly laid-back, the live set sounds appropriately tougher, whether the band is kicking out "Little Liza Jane" or opening "Buzzin'" up to a nearly six-minute jam. Perhaps this is how Slim Harpo sounded to his fans in 1961 -- casual, not calm, and clearly ready for a good time -- but it's those grooving studio recordings where his legacy lies. Maybe he recalls Jimmy Reed at times but Slim Harpo had his own thing, a thing that's captured in all its glory on this fine box. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine


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