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2010 Blues Fest -- Harmon-izing: Zac Harmon (Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Bandshell) PDF Print E-mail
Music - Mississippi Valley Blues Festival
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 23 June 2010 05:51

Zac Harmon

Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s and '70s, guitarist and vocalist Zac Harmon says, "The thing about the blues is that it wasn't something you heard and said, 'Oh, I like that.' It was part of the culture, so when I started playing, it was only natural that that's what I played.

"Blues was like air," he adds. "And if you breathed, you was gonna get it."

With JazzNow.com lauding his "soulful vocals and breathtaking showmanship" and the Edmonton Sun describing him as "the closest the blues gets to a heavy-metal star," it's clear that Zac Harmon got it good ... even if it did take a while for people to realize it. Following two decades as a Los Angeles-based studio musician, writer, and producer, Harmon released his first solo CD -- Live at Babe & Ricky's Inn -- in 2002, and four years later, at age 49, received the Blues Music Award for best new blues artist.

"It's kind of funny," says the musician, during our recent interview, of his relatively late emergence in the blues spotlight. "Folks sometimes say, 'Oh, wow -- he's an overnight success!' But overnight in the music business can sometimes be 20 years."

He laughs. "That's a lo-o-o-ong night."

The son of a blues-harp-playing father and pianist mother, Harmon says he began his own musical education on the violin at age six, and became fascinated with the guitar at nine, much to the annoyance of one of his siblings.

"My sister had a guitar, and I would wait until she went to sleep at night, and I would slip her guitar and play. And she finally caught me one night, and the house exploded," he says with a laugh. "So my mom decided she would buy me one."

And it wasn't long after securing a guitar of his own -- "around 1968 or '69" recalls Harmon -- that his adoration for the blues was solidified. "My mother took me to a show at the Mississippi Coliseum," he says. "I think Bobby Rush was the opening act, but the show featured Little Milton Campbell, B.B. King, Albert King, and Albert Collins. And I just left there scarred for life."

Yet while he continued to hone his blues skills, Harmon says that, as a youth, he didn't seriously consider pursuing a career in music. "I didn't know what a professional musician was," he says. "It wasn't like I knew successful musicians or anything, you know? I just wanted to play, and it didn't make any difference where I played, or who I played for, or whether I was getting paid or not. I mean, money was kind of like a secondary blessing that happened to come along."

The first of such blessings came, says the musician, "when I graduated high school. I went on tour with Dorothy Moore, who had a big hit record then called 'Misty Blue.' And then, when the tour was over, I got a call from Little Milton Campbell, who was one of my idols. He called because he had heard me out on the road and was impressed, and he was like, 'I want you to join my band.'"

That opportunity, however, wasn't in the cards. "The deal that I brokered with my mother," says Harmon, "was if she would just let me go out on the [Dorothy Moore] tour, then I promised, when the tour was over, I would go to college. So when Little Milton called me, I had to tell him that I couldn't play because my mom wanted me to go to college. And the first thing he said was, 'By all means, you go to college. If I had known that that's what you were going to do, I never would've called you.'

"And that kind of encouragement from him kind of sealed the deal for me," he continues. "To go ahead and finish college before I went out to pursue my career."

Majoring in economics and accounting, Harmon received his degree from Jackson State University in 1980, even though, as he says, "I had no intentions of doing anything other than music." Happily, though, when he decided to seek employment in music rather than finance, he did so with his parents' approval.

"My mother and father said, 'This is what you want to do? Okay. But you cannot do it here, because the industry is not here. The industry is in Los Angeles and New York. So if you're going to do this, that's where you need to be.'"

New York -- or rather, near New York -- was Harmon's first destination. "I went to Philadelphia," he says, "because I had a girlfriend who was good friends with some of the folks at Phila International Records.

"But when I got there, it was in the middle of winter, and there was snow, and cars were sliding everywhere ... . I was just not accustomed," Harmon says with a laugh. "I'm a Southern boy, you know? So I was like, 'You know what? Uh uh. I can't do this.'"

California's climate, says the musician, proved much more fitting, and between 1981 and 1985, he worked a day job, spent evenings playing guitar as a studio musician, and even found time to earn an MBA from Malibu's Pepperdine University. "I had a full plate of things," says Harmon. "And around 1985, I finally started making more money playing that I was working my job, so I was able to stop the day job and concentrate solely on music.

"I was very, very lucky," he adds. "Having that blues base really helped me a lot because a lot of guys wanted me playing on their records because I had that feel, that Southern-blues kind of feel, which worked for what they were doing musically in L.A. at that time."

From his tenure as a studio musician, Harmon went on to a career as an L.A.-based songwriter and producer, collaborating with such blues and R&B artists as Karyn White, Freddie Jackson, and Black Uhuru, whose Harmon-produced Mystical Truth album received a Grammy nomination in 1994. And while the musician says he was grateful for his success during the late '80s and through the '90s, "the only thing I wasn't really happy about was that my own career as a blues artist was kind of on hold."

That changed, says Harmon, when "the landscape of music changed" at the beginning of the 21st Century. "The whole session scene was pretty much gone because rap music came in and took over, and it was either you were gonna get with that, or find something else to do.

"And at that time in Los Angeles," he continues, "gangster rap was real popular. And because, I guess, of my Southern roots and the fact that I'm a Christian, I just could not bring myself to be part of some of the things that they were saying. It just didn't work for me. I couldn't be on a record that had to have the tag of 'Parental Advisory,' you know?

"So in 2002, I finally said, 'You know what? I've played on or written or produced or been a part of over 100 records. Not one have I done on me. So I'm going to do a record on me. I'm gonna go into a club, and I'm gonna do a show, and I'm gonna record the show. And I'm gonna put it out -- no overdubs, no nothing -- and just be who I am and what I am. And if nobody buys the record, that's fine. But I'm gonna do what I came here to do.'"

The result was Live at Babe & Ricky's Inn -- described by MNBlues.com as "an excellent debut CD" -- and as Harmon says, "The record really took off, you know? Blues folks were digging it, and one thing led to another, and two years later I won the IBC [International Blues Challenge] award" for Best Unsigned Blues Band. "And here I am today."

Harmon's busy touring schedule, which he says keeps him on the road roughly 30 weeks per year, has also found him in Canada, France, Italy, northern Africa, and Iraq, where the musician performs blues standards and compositions from his post-2002 CDs The Blues According to Zacariah (2005) and From the Root (2009). And while he says that he's "so excited and so happy" to be in this year's IH Mississippi Valley Blues Festival lineup, Harmon hopes, and expects, that his audiences might be even more excited and happy.

"The only thing I can say," states the musician, "is that people need to get there on time, and they need to take a good, deep breath before we start. Because they won't be able to exhale until we finish."

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