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MUSIC : James Harman Makes a Life of the Blues, 'Music of the People' : The almost-always- on-the-go musician's first records of the 1960s are now worth more money than he ever made from them.

October 27, 1994|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Huntington Beach finheads are as territorial as other locals when it comes to putting bumps on surfers with a different ZIP code. Don't blame James Harman, who's lived in Huntington Beach since 1970 and never ever hogged anybody's wave. He plays the blues. He doesn't give them.

The well-dressed harmonica player and "those dangerous gentlemens" in his band will be making their Underground debut in Santa Barbara on Friday, across from the X Files. Harman talked things over recently by phone.

"Cards On The Table" is doing OK?

Oh, yeah, it's great. I'm gonna take out the trash as soon as I get done with you. Black Top is a good label and everybody is really nice, but I'm not sure they have the distribution to get me to the next plateau. But I'm happy. I've been doing this for 32 years, just telling my stories.

So you've lived on the beach for a long time. Is there any danger of your taking up surfing or learning any surf songs?

I never have and I never will do any beach music. I've lived in Huntington Beach since 1970, and I've never set foot on the pier, probably never will. I live close to the beach, but I have skin cancer and I don't go outside unless I'm covered up. It's too expensive to live here, but if you live in a really beautiful place, there's always winters, and I can't do that again. Here you can play all winter long. The worst thing that happened to me here is that I got hit in the head with a Frisbee in the park. Here in Orange County, we have drive-by swearings, that's about it.

So how's that endless road trip going?

We've cut it back to about 250 gigs per year. Those rock stars can make an album, tour for a year, then take three years off, but they have the big publicity campaign with a lot of power and hype behind them. It's a double-edged sword--out of sight, out of mind. Then again, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Plus those rock stars can afford it. I can't, so I have to get around every year. My dream is to have a Cadillac, three blondes and dress like a pimp.

What was your background growing up in Alabama?

I started out in the church choir, and all my family were musicians. I started playing the piano when I was 4, plus I had about 30 aunts and uncles that plucked, picked or pulled something. So, I really didn't have many options. We were really just a bunch of Appalachian hillbillies. I remember turning the dial of that big ol' Philco radio and discovering Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. That changed my life. When I was 16, I started working on a mustache, and I got into the places to see all the great black guys that are dead now. They used to say, "Look at that little white kid that sings like a man." I cut my first record in 1962 and started touring in 1964. Those first nine singles--all on little Southern labels--are pretty hard to find now. I see them mostly in Europe when people want them autographed. They tell me they paid 75 bucks for one. I never made that much off of them.

No MTV and no radio, but the blues is doing all right?

Well, the biggest problem with the blues is that I'm afraid it's becoming a fad, just like the urban cowboys were in the '70s. Then, it'll be on to the next--World War I soldiers, pirates, whatever. I'm in this thing for life. I ain't no Eric Clapton, doing my blues album. This is my being, my entire heart and soul. I'm very disheartened to see two kinds of opening acts. One, the Blues Brothers, or two, a rock band that couldn't make any money, then became a Delta Blues band.

So if the blues gets too big, that's bad?

Nowadays, there's a B.B. King's and House of Blues everywhere, and I'm afraid they're going to kill all the little clubs. Don't get me wrong, the House of Blues is cool, nice stage, nice dressing room and all that, so I'm not complaining. But when I call up some of these smaller blues places, they say "James Harman, man, we can't afford to pay you; you'd never play here." But I don't mind playing for 50 people--I can sell them a CD, a tape, or a shirt and they'll go home and tell five more people. Or else I get owners who want me to send them a tape.

You've played Santa Barbara, what, a million times?

I've played everywhere on that street (State) that has electricity. I think it's sort of a hip, groovy place, but all the money's up on the hill and they spend it on opera or something. People that come to see me ride bicycles and don't have any money.

Anywhere you haven't been?

Yeah, I'd like to go to Antarctica. I'd kind of like to go to Russia. I've been to Finland, but never to Russia. You can't take any money out of Russia, and I don't want no fur; they don't have nothin' I want, but I'd just like to go sometime.

Has your vision of hell changed?

Nope. It's still a bunch of hippies sitting around smoking dope--with tapestries on the walls and those beaded things in the doorways--and listening to Country Joe and the Fish.

What's James Harman's brand of blues?

Thank you for realizing that there is a brand of James Harman blues. Well, blues used to have a regional identity. If you were from the East Coast, it sounded that way. But now it's all getting gray. I do whatever I like, sort of a Mississippi goes to Chicago, Deep South goes to New York and Texas goes to the West Coast blues. I'm not teaching a lesson. All you have to do is be alive--the human condition is what I'm talking about. It's the end of the week, and you want to party. Blues is the music of the people. It's honest, and I'm just having a good time.

Details

* WHAT: James Harman Band.

* WHERE: Underground, 110 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara.

* WHEN: 9 p.m. Friday.

* COST: $8.

* CALL: 965-5050.

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