By Joe Lee
The spirit of the late Mississippi blues legend B.B. King seems to hover above Zac Harmon not only as he plays 200 shows a year across the country, but also in the way the Jackson native carries himself. Now 59, Harmon, who’ll play at Mississippi State University (MSU) in September, met King during childhood and toured with him years later.
“My dad was a harp player from Yazoo City and was the first registered African American pharmacist in Jackson,” Harmon said. “He sold Marine Band harps to Sonny Boy Williamson. I was exposed to a lot of blues – Little Milton, Bobby Bland and Bobby Rush were all friends of my dad.”
Harmon learned to play the violin at age six but soon gravitated to the guitar and began playing with bluesman Skip James when he was 14. King was already a national figure when Harmon’s dad opened his pharmacy on Farish Street in 1953.
“I was around B.B. King a lot,” Harmon said. “My very first national tour was with Dorothy Moore (the Jackson native who had a major pop hit with “Misty Blue” in 1976). I was her guitarist, and we opened for Bobby Bland and B.B. King all over the country. It was a really great learning experience being on the road with him. He was a super human being and taught me a lot about being a gracious bluesman.”
Harmon left Jackson at 21 for Los Angeles, intent on launching a career in music. He was encouraged by his father, who told him that if music was the life he was choosing, to go for it and make it happen. But success came about much differently than Harmon ever anticipated.
“I started as a studio musician and ended up being a writer/producer,” he said. “I worked with everyone from Bob Marley to the O’Jays. This was at the height of the music business, so the record companies were making tons of money – from 1985 to about 2000 I was booked out three years in advance. I worked directly for Michael Jackson for four of those years.”
Harmon stayed connected to the blues and often sat in at Babe and Ricky’s Inn, a famous Los Angeles blues club (which started by a woman from Vicksburg in the 1950s). But a turning point was when he was working on a movie soundtrack and was asked to contribute some blues.
“I started doing the music, and it hit me like a ton of bricks – that was what I came out there to do,” Harmon said. “My first blues record was made in 2002, “Live at Babe and Ricky’s Inn.” I didn’t want to do a studio record because by that time people outside Mississippi wouldn’t buy it because they knew me as a producer.”
Harmon played the Farish Street Blues Festival in 2003, and the following year he became the first Mississippian to win the International Blues Challenge (IBC), earning the crown in nearby Memphis. Almost immediately there were offers to play all over the world.
“The money was drastically smaller, but playing the blues was not about the money,” Harmon said. “This was a dream come true, a chance to fulfill something I thought I was put here for. It opened so many doors and gave me a chance to become an advocate for something personal to me – Mississippi blues.”
“I knew of him because he was Eddie Cotton Jr.’s guitar teacher (the Mississippi bluesman who won the 2015 IBC), and Eddie and I are friends, and he was always talking about Zac,” said Grady Champion of Canton, who won the 2010 IBC and met Harmon at the competition. “He produced my (2011) CD ‘Dreamin’ and co-wrote some of the songs. He’s an unbelievable guitarist and bluesman.
“He’s also a big brother in rough situations, always ready to talk if I need anything. It’s an up and down business, and he keeps an eye on us.”
“Eddie Cotton and Grady Champion and Jarekus Singleton (from Clinton) are like my little brothers,” Harmon said. “We’re all campaigning, and one day I hope the state of Mississippi will embrace its legacy. The one thing I preached to all of them is ‘keep preaching Mississippi blues.'”
Harmon promises a “lowdown throwdown” at Lee Hall’s Bettersworth Auditorium on Wednesday, September 28. His shows typically run about 90 minutes and will include a little of everything from his blues records, including several tracks from his 2015 Blind Pig Records release, “Right Man Right Now.” That recording features stalwarts like Anson Funderburgh, Mike Finnegan, Lucky Peterson, and Bobby Rush – one of Harmon’s heroes.
“My touring band has Chris Gibson on bass, who toured with Buddy Miles and Waylon Jennings; Ralph Forest on drums, who played with Sisco; rhythm guitarist Texas Slim, who played with Freddie King, and Corey Carmichael on keyboards – I got him right out of high school. If you come see it, take a breath – you won’t be able to exhale until it’s over.”
Harmon’s music can be purchased through Amazon and iTunes, with his early releases available through CD Baby. He moved to Texas a number of years ago and lives in Mansfield, which he describes as a little country town that reminds him of Mississippi. Until his last breath, the bluesman from the Farish district will preach Mississippi blues and mentor today’s young bluesmen – the way B.B. King offered guidance and led by example decades ago.
“Blues didn’t come from Chicago,” Harmon said. “It’s Mississippi born and bred. They went to Chicago for economic reasons, but what they were doing was Mississippi. The folks they idolize – like Howlin’ Wolf – is from (West Point) Mississippi. I get mad every time I go to the Chicago Blues Festival because it’s in Chicago and not Mississippi.”
“I’m really happy that four other guys have gone on to win the International Blues Challenge, and all of them are from central Mississippi, not the Delta. My thing (for young players) to understand is that it’s the music business – but business comes first. Love what you do. If what you do is only about the money, you won’t do it well, and you won’t be around too long.”
An MSU Lyceum Series event, Harmon’s performance is September 28 at 7:30 p.m., with doors opening at 6:30. To order tickets, visit events.msstate.edu.