Kemp Harris

Kemp Harris
A multi-faceted bluesman

By Bill Copeland
June 2007

Seasoned blues men do not always stick to playing the same style they’ve known for decades. Boston blues singer and piano player Kemp Harris has been a professional musician for 35 years. Yet his style has grown over the years, and he feels comfortable taking influences from whatever plays around him at any given time.

On his new release, Edenton, he even abandons his piano for most of the songs. This approach got him closer to a blues sound he’s been digging at.

"We wanted to go for a real blues and roots kind of feel," Harris said. "So it’s really rare that I get a chance to stand and deliver. It was fun to do. We went for a real gravelly, growlie sound. I just went for it. It was a little bit like being unleashed."

Harris learned blues and gospel in the small North Carolina town where he grew up.

His mother was always singing. She was in the church gospel choir, and she brought him along with her. It was simply what he heard. "I was lucky I had much to listen to," he added.

On the new record, Harris chose the blues-roots approach for his vehicle of expression to showcase his social awareness in the emotional context of blues.

"This time around, we really want to go for an art concept album. What I wanted to do was not so much politically preach, but just politically rant for a while. A lot was social conscious-relevance stuff. I’ve got some things I see in the world that aggravate that hell out of me. And we wanted it to be delivered in a gruff way. I really do know how to sing pretty. I don’t want to sing pretty this time around," he said

If Harris relates well to roots, country, blues, and gospel, it‘s because he‘s done it all.

"I’m 54. I went through every musical phase there is. I had my folk phase. My gospel phase.  An opera phase. A country-and-western phase. I would hear and just play anything.  You hear something and you channel it back up," he said.

The new disc, Edenton, thematically returns to that North Carolina town where Harris grew up. His songs dive into family and home, past and present. Harris tried to shed adult light on the racial discrimination that he lived with during his childhood, but did not understand at a tender age.

"When you’re a kid, your parents shield you, so you don’t really know exactly what the racism stuff going on is. You know you go to the movies and you go to the balcony. We did that. I thought we went to the balcony because it was cool. No. You went to the balcony because that’s where you had to go. My mother started telling me all these other things," Harris said.

She also tried to remind him of the ‘white only’ signs, but he did not remember any signs that stood out.

"It was like looking back to how innocent it seemed to me at the time," he began. "Then you’re an adult, and you look back at the child stuff through different eyes. You realize that was a time. I want to go back there and rant to these people now.  I’m not going to fault you. I’m not going to persecute you for it. I just want to remember we come from a different place," he said.

Harris’ songwriting style and sound have evolved since his debut disc was released five years ago.

"I think that right now, I don’t want to write the happy love song. I want to write about what I see happening. I hope I never sound preachy. I just want to ask questions of people. I just want to put this out here for you to see. I see this, and if you see it too, then we have things to talk about. If you have no idea what I’m singing about or looking at, I’m not going to fault you. I hope you enjoy it. I just want to know, ‘Do you see what’s happening with our government? Do you see what’s happening with all of this?’ I just want to keep making sure the questions are still on the table. You don’t have to agree. But I just had to put them out there for you to hear," he said.

Harris said he was blessed to have the Holmes Brother make an appearance on three of his songs.

"The guitarist on the album, Josh Stoltzfus, was the road manager for the Holmes Brothers," Harris explained. "The music I was writing had a throwback to an older sound. We thought it would be great to get an old sounding men’s gospel chorus. Josh said, ‘Well, you know, I could ask the Holmes Brothers.’ We were like, ‘Get out!’ He said, ‘No, I’ll check it out.’ They just said ‘Yes.’ I was stunned," Harris said.

As it turned out, Sherman and Wendell Holmes could relate to what Harris was writing about.

"We met in New York one day at friend’s studio. It was like hanging out with your uncles, but cool. We just laid everything down. Three songs they did in one day. They loved the stuff. I heard their music from seeing them play when Josh was managing them. It was just that sound that I wanted. It was a wiser and a more seasoned sound. They delivered exactly what I was trying to get," he said.

The Holmes Brothers also related to the racial discrimination that Harris described in Edenton.

"I felt good that I connected with them. They said ‘this song, I remember it was just like that.’ They connected right away," he said.

Harris also covers Donny Hathaway’s "Tryin’ Times" on the new disc. It was one of his regular standards during his live shows.

"I used to do that song way back," he said. "I heard it first done by Roberta Flack years ago. Then I did a really funk version of that. But we wanted to do a take-off blues version. To me, these times are still trying, so the song is still relevant. I swore I would never sing that song again as soon as the world got right. And the world ain’t right yet."

Harris recorded it at 5 a.m., so his voice would be as raw as Janis Joplin‘s.

"I think I scared the guitar player with the Janis Joplin ‘airrrrrrrrrrrr.’ When I first heard the play back, my own album scared me. It’s not a sound I’m used to hearing myself do. It was really edgy and raw. I sing the blues, yeah. But the more I listened to it, I got comfortable in my own skin because it was a sound that I needed to put across what I wanted to say," he said.

Harris brought in a gospel classic called "Didn’t It Rain" that his mother, Mable Marshall, and his aunt, Eleanor Mapp, both sing on. He grew up with it in his church choir, and ended up letting his mother sing the lead vocal.

"My mom’s 73 and my aunt is 74. My mother sings the lead on that, actually. When I was a kid I remember hearing them singing that song in church all the time. I always liked that song. So when I came up to doing this disc, I said, ‘I’d love to get together with you and do this song. I’d love to have you and Aunt Ellen do the back up vocals.’ My mother said ‘Yeah, child, we sing it in church on Sunday. I’ll tear it up for you.’ I was like ‘Great, Ma. For me?’ So, we did two versions. We listened back and we just agreed right away she’s going to sing it. So, she got the lead. She pulled rank and just did the lead," Harris said.

Likely to be a hit on blues radio is the social-conscious-with-enticing-groove tune, "Sweet Weepin’ Jesus:" In that song, Harris said, he was praying to Jesus to do something about people who might be using his name for malicious or selfish purposes.

"Can you send a lightning bolt or some locust or something to stop them?" he asked, facetiously.

The title of the song "Sweet Weepin’ Jesus" came to Harris after his friend Adam got yelled at by a barmaid.

“The guy who plays harmonica on that piece, Adam; we’d gone to this club in Cambridge called The Cantab. There’s an older bartender there. My friend Adam was just grilling her about the history of the bar. ‘How old’s the bar? When did this bar open?’ And she was finally so sick of the questions, she went ‘Sweet weepin’ Jesus! Stop asking me questions!’ I remember looking at Adam and saying, ‘that’s a song.’ I wrote down on a matchbook ‘sweet weepin’ Jesus.’ I just put it in my pocket, and I was like: that’s going to be a tune some day," Harris said.

His tune "Day After Day" opens with a bowed bass. The low notes inform the listener that there will be tension in the song. The song captures the theme of being stuck in the same rut. Harris was thinking about the day Mary came home and said to Joseph, "Look, we’re going to have a kid. It’s not yours. It’s God’s. Don’t worry about it.’

"I thought that must have been a tough day for Joseph. So I wrote that song ‘Day After Day’ to reflect how hard it was for Joseph. It was from Joseph’s point of view. I wanted to have that sense of what his drudgery must have felt like," Harris said.  "And again, I’m not being irreverent. I’m just asking the question, ‘Did anybody ever think about poor Joseph?’"

Harris recorded “Mother Earth," by Memphis Slim for the disc, and it segues into his own modern "Miles Between Us."

"I heard that song "Mother Earth" done by Tracy Nelson way back in the 70s. Tracy Nelson’s voice always slayed me," he said. "It was just a clear, straight ahead voice. I loved the way she did it."

Harris used to play piano on his live version of "Mother Earth." But his drummer Jim Lucchese and his guitarist Josh Stolzfus had another idea.

"Jim and Josh said ‘Let’s just do like banging drums and raging guitar and screaming’,” he said.

Harris has a colorful history in the Boston blues scene. He has hob-knobbed with many notables over the years. He opened at the Paradise for Gil-Scott Heron and Taj Mahal in the late 1970s. He also found himself on stage with Koko Taylor, at her request. Harris was singing with an opening band before her band came on. After Taylor came out, she said, "Where’s that boy that was singing the blues? C’mon up here, boy" And Harris just meekly said, "OK, Ms. Koko."

"If Koko Taylor tells you to come up and sing for her, you go up and sing for her," Harris said.

After that night, Harris had a hard time convincing people that he sang with Taylor. Nobody would ever believe him.

Besides music, Harris is involved with education and the performing arts. He worked out a deal between the Wang Center and Berklee College Of Music that allowed him to teach kids to write songs, and then record them at Berklee’s studio.

"We helped them to complete a song. We took them from the process of writing, getting it down instrumentally, going to the studio, laying it down, and give all the kids a CD. It was a good process for me to see where writing comes from, specifically in very young people. It was good for me as a teacher," he said.

He recounted how one kid walked in and said, ‘Yeah, I want to be like punk-thrash religious rock.’ I’m like, ‘Fine. Let’s go. See what happens.’

A Boston University graduate with a degree in education, Harris has been teaching kindergarten and Grade 1 for 36 years, and would like to retire after next year to give a young teacher out there the same chance he has had.

Harris also performs in musical theater. Through odd circumstances, Harris came to compose a piece of music for the Alvin Ailey dance company.

"A friend of mine who was in the company at the time had done this piece called ‘Frames.’ He had one last section to go, which was the male solo dance piece. He had five pages of free form verse poetry to get done. He said, ‘Do you want to try it?’ And I said, ‘Ya.’ He gave me these five pages. I sort of gleaned through. It was the line ‘If Loneliness Was Black’ that grabbed me. He thought it was just a throwaway line. But to me, that sunk. I built the piece around that. Within three hours he came back in. I said ‘I’ve got a piece for you to hear.’ It’s almost like a stark piano vocal art piece," Harris said.

His friend wants him to go to New York to write material for a new dance company.

His dabbling does not stop there: Harris had a role in the Miramax sleeper movie Next Stop Wonderland, which was filmed in Boston. He also wrote a children’s book, with a second book planned, and he attends storytelling festivals.

Harris has been a Jack-of-all-trades in the performing arts. Much can be said about a person who uses the written and vocalized word to entertain everyone from school children to beer guzzling blues bar patrons.

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