Blues great ‘Slim Harpo’ gets state marker

The musical talents of West Baton Rouge native James Moore, better known as “Slim Harpo,” were formally recognized in his home parish Saturday with the dedication of a historical marker near his gravesite.

Moore’s songwriting, his instantly recognizable, nasal-toned vocals and his elegant harmonica playing made him a national music star. The late musician is among the most beloved recording artists from southeast Louisiana.

Moore’s swamp blues classics include 1957’s “I’m a King Bee,” 1960’s “Rainin’ In My Heart” and 1965’s “Baby Scratch My Back.” British invasion acts the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, the Yardbirds and the Kinks were his fans. The Rolling Stones recorded Moore’s “I’m a King Bee,” for instance, for their 1964 album debut. The Stones turned to Moore again when they recorded “Shake Your Hips” for the album considered to be their best, 1972’s “Exile on Main St.”

The West Baton Rouge Historical Association dedicated a Louisiana State Historical Marker to him Saturday morning at the intersection of South Mulatto Bend Road and U.S. 190. It’s the first of the parish’s 26 historical markers to honor a musician.

The audience for Saturday’s unveiling ceremony included members of the Moore family, musician Kenny Neal, blues star Buddy Guy’s brother, Sam, and Slim Harpo Awards founder Johnny Palazzotto. Other attendees included David Kearns, the Alabama man who recorded a performance by Slim Harpo and his King Bees in 1961 in Mobile, released in 1997 by England’s Ace Records as “Sting It Then!”

The historical marker, Moore’s stepson William Gambler said at the dedication, “is extremely appreciated and something that we’d have never thought of.”

Moore grew up in the historic African-American community of Mulatto Bend, on the west bank of the Mississippi River near the U.S. 190 bridge. He died in 1970 at 46 and is buried next to his parents in Mulatto Bend Cemetery, a short walk from the new marker.

Moore’s fans continuously travel to Mulatto Bend in search of his gravesite, lifelong Mulatto Bend resident Mary Collins said Saturday.

“People come from everywhere,” she said. “Always did. If they didn’t know where the graveyard was, they’d ride through Mulatto Bend Road. If they see some of us are walking on the street, they’ll ask us where the graveyard is. They say, ‘Because Slim Harpo is buried there.’ ”

Fans often leave harmonicas on the grave in tribute to Moore.

Collins’ sister, Barbara G. Ross Carter, another dedication attendee, sang with Moore and his fellow Excello Records artist, Otis Hicks, aka Lightnin’ Slim.

“They used to play and we wouldn’t miss it for nothing in the world,” Carter said. “We had a good time with Slim Harpo. He was a nice young man. We missed him after he was gone.”

David Couvillon, a member of the West Baton Rouge Historical Association and the Baton Rouge Blues Society, initiated the effort to erect a historical marker in Moore’s honor. The historical association sponsors one marker per year. Neighboring state Mississippi has an extensive network of markers, dubbed the Mississippi Blues Trail, but Louisiana has no similar program dedicated to musicians and music sites.

“Slim Harpo influenced a tremendous number of people,” Couvillon said. “But even though ‘Rainin’ in My Heart’ is played at almost every Louisiana wedding reception, people in Europe know more about him than people in his own parish do.”

Couvillon, who grew up in Port Allen and Brusly, heard Moore perform in the late 1960s. Driving his grandfather’s tractor from Rosedale Road to Pine Street, he stopped to listen to music coming through the side door of the White Owl Inn. Slim Harpo was performing that day.

“That’s how I got turned on to the blues,” Couvillon said. “Later, it really hit home for me that somebody as influential as Slim Harpo, James Moore, was right out of my backyard.”

Gambler is amazed that his stepfather’s music has remained popular throughout the 44 years since his death.

“It’s probably greater now than it was then,” he said. As for the marker in Moore’s honor, “He would be overjoyed, but he would still be humble.”