JAN 18, 2023 - 8:05 AM
Johnny Palazzotto’s 20-year quest to document the life of Slim Harpo culminates next week with the premiere of “The Original King Bee.”
A documentary about James Moore — the blues star from Baton Rouge who performed as Slim Harpo — the film screens Thursday, Jan. 26, at the Manship Theatre.
Local music business veteran Palazzotto began work on the full-length documentary in 2003, the same year he produced the first Slim Harpo Music Awards, the annual event that honors local, regional, national and international musicians.
Moore’s nationally charting songs include the country-funky “Baby Scratch My Back,” a No. 1 R&B hit and No. 16 pop hit in 1966. His aching 1961 ballad, “Rainin’ In My Heart,” reached No. 17 on the R&B chart and No. 34 on the pop chart.
The uniquely atmospheric recordings Moore made at producer J.D. Miller’s studio in Crowley blurred the lines between blues and country music, pairing his unmistakable nasal-toned singing with his piercing harmonica. More than 250 artists have recorded Moore’s songs, including his British fans the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, the Kinks and Pink Floyd. American artists the Grateful Dead, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Hank Williams Jr., Jimmie Vaughan and Neil Young also have remade his songs.
Next week’s “The Original King Bee” screening is bittersweet for Palazzotto. Moore’s stepson, William Gambler, one of the film’s major participants, died in November. A few months before his death, Gambler, his wife, Dorothy, and their children Alonzo Gambler and Tynita Howard, watched the newly completed documentary.
“They thanked me and congratulated me, which made me feel really good,” said Palazzotto, who codirected the film with Steve Zaffuto, the Southeastern Louisiana University faculty member who also edited “The Original King Bee.”
Because no film of Moore has yet to surface and few photos of him exist, William Gambler’s insight and interviews were essential for the film, Palazzotto said.
“He was the last family member who lived with Slim Harpo on a day-to-day basis. No other living members of the family experienced that.”
Palazzotto first contemplated making a film about Moore in 2001, shortly after he met William Gambler.
“William thought it was a good idea,” he recalled. “My thoughts about it have always been that Slim didn’t get the recognition that he deserved. Of course, his career was short. He released his first record in 1957 and he passed away in 1970. So it was 13 years (of recording).”
First-time filmmaker Palazzotto didn’t anticipate how challenging the project would be. The fact that no film of Moore is known to exist could have been a deal breaker.
“It really blew my mind that the ‘American Bandstand’ footage of Slim had been destroyed,” he said.
A breakthrough came when Palazzotto learned of an audio interview with Moore, conducted in 1968 in New York City by Sue Cassidy Clark, a music journalist and photographer who specialized in soul, gospel and rock during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Moore’s conversation with Clark serves as the documentary’s de facto narration.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do the documentary without it,” Palazzotto said of the Clark interview. “In recent documentaries from Louisiana, Buddy Guy and Irma Thomas talk about their lives and careers. In Slim’s case, his interview was done 55 years ago.”
Fortunately, Palazzotto began work on “The Original King Bee” in time to interview many who knew the musician, including his wife, Lovell Gambler Moore Casey; band members Rudy Richard, James Johnson and Jesse Kinchen; and such musician contemporaries of Moore as Raful Neal, Lazy Lester, John Fred Gourrier and Lynn Ourso. Also featured are Harpo Awards honorees Ray Davies (of the Kinks), Dr. John, Jimmie Vaughan and Lou Ann Barton.
An interview with Moore’s wife, who died in 2004, is another central part of the film. Her recollections include stories of how the couple met, their life together and the origin of the song that’s become an unofficial Louisiana anthem, “Rainin’ In My Heart.”
“It’s wonderful to hear Miss Lovell talk about that and then hear Slim recognize her as his manager, his songwriting partner, his confidante and his wife,” Palazzotto said. “I’m humbled that Will and Miss Lovell trusted me to make the film.”
Palazzotto hopes “The Original King Bee” brings more recognition to Moore, who died at 45 years old, shortly before what was to be his first European tour.
“He’s not in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame,” Palazzotto said. “He was recognized by the Grammy organization for only one song (1957’s ‘I’m a King Bee’). But in the short period of time that he was in the music business, he became an accomplished artist.”
‘The Original King Bee’
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26
Manship Theatre, 100 Lafayette St.