“Scratch My Back”
A classic by blues musician Slim Harpo, who does so much with so little.
Sometimes it doesn’t take much to make a song — a little groove, a couple chords, and a catch phrase, and you’re home free. Slim Harpo, a man with two nicknames and a lot of soul, knew that, and did so much with so little. I chose this particular song from his spectacular catalog because it was a huge hit and illustrates how open the music business was back in the ‘60’s. A small label out of Louisiana could have a song noticed by one or two influential disc jockeys and some sort of tipping point would be passed and, voila — a smash!
However rare this was back then, it’s all but impossible now. But that might be changing as things once again go viral without mountains of money and relentless promotion. Back then, Slim could certainly see how swamp boogie/blues, which he largely created, was taken up by artists from Tony Joe White and JJ Cale to Sonny Landreth. It was a simple formula: Deep and insinuating bass and drums with a touch of vibrato guitar and harp. No need for a big studio or big studio budget, just strike the first (and in many cases, the only) chord and ride it for a while, like a flat-bottomed boat across the bayou.
The Rolling Stones, perennial students of regional American styles, did one of their more credible covers on Exiles On Main Street, tearing ferociously into Harpo’s “Hip Shake.” While they often fell flat attempting songs by far greater singers, the casual and good humored Harpo was easy enough for Mick Jagger to emulate.
When Slim wore glasses, he looked like a classic black nerd, but when they came off he was anything but. Depending on what picture you are looking at, he’s either menacing or shy. But his music was very welcoming, with very earthy themes and lots of built-in swagger and sex. As soon as he made it on to juke boxes, white boys in the south were imitating him. Here in Milwaukee, blues harmonica great, Jim Liban, does a fine Slim Harpo, playing a killer version of “Raining In My Heart.”
The classic 12-bar blues is usually two repeated lines of lyrics and then a third, acting as a summary or kind of punch line, to tie up each verse. It’s one of our most brilliant inventions. Repeating the first line adds a little emphasis, in effect saying, “Did you hear me? I’m gonna say this once more just to be sure.” By the time you get to the third line, you are ready for the capper. It uses the concept of delayed gratification in a clever way and will probably be around a thousand years from now. On Scratch My Back, Slim Harpo keeps the 12 bar changes, but disposes with that lyrical formula. Instead, he glides over the form with this light double entendre. The lyrics are almost placeholders, entering after two verses and a full minute; this is as much an instrumental as it is an actual song:
Aah, I’m itchy
And I don’t no where to scratch
Come here, baby
Scratch my back
I know you can do it
So baby, get to it
Aah, you’re workin’ wit’ it now
Ya got me feelin’ so good
A li’l bit to the center now, baby
This little girl sho’ knows how to scratch!
Now you’re doin’ a chicken scratch
Aah, it’s lookin’ good, baby!
Just go ‘head an scratch it!
That’s what I’m talkin’ about
© James Moore
James Moore was Slim Harpo’s real name. His wife Lovelle Moore was an often uncredited co-writer. One of them wrote one of my all time favorite first lines: “Aah, I’m itchy!” Listening to this track I am reminded of my first drummer, Cy Costabile, who favored the temple blocks, perhaps a little too much. Now I know where he got the idea!
It’s amazing that something this relaxed and casual ever made it to the radio in 1966, let alone got to #16 on the pop charts. It was an anomaly then and unthinkable now. Slim Harpo kept his day day job — he owned a trucking company. He probably didn’t need to after a while, because a lot of the top British Invasion bands like The Rolling Stones, The Pretty Things, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, Pink Floyd and Them, had caught on to his thing and were doing their versions, selling tons and certainly (I hope), fattening up his bank account.
Slim had a sweetness about him I find utterly charming. It’s on a level with Mississippi John Hurt, perhaps the sweetest of them all. Harpo was called one of the cleanest living blues artists, yet he died suddenly just before his first European tour in 1970. Poor Slim, he never made it there — but his music and influence most certainly did.