|in 2001||in 1977|
A Historie of Rick Harper
by Tim Roberts
I. In which we are introduced to Richard (Rick) Harper and our Narrative finds footing
Rick Harper's belt buckle catches the stark porch light and glows like an oblong moon in the center of his body. On it is the Hindu symbol of OM, which looks like the numeral 3 followed by a cursive lower case "s". He had stepped out of his front door to meet me as I drove up his gravel driveway. His house is a squat A-frame on a blink-and-you'll-go-right-past-it street in Middletown, lined with trees and shy of a few streetlights. A brick chimney juts against the house, next to the white-frame porch. His blue Chevy van was parked facing the street. The house, he explained, is on a large chunk of property that used to be a farm. The land cannot be broken up or sold in pieces, nor can the structures be demolished, because it is held in a trust. It's a small reminder of a rural past in an area of Louisville where office condos and video rental shops sprout up once a month like Bermuda grass. The structures are simple, solid, grounded. They are robust, permanent, and constant without the attitude of dominance. Like the acclaimed Rick Harper and his music.
The Louisville native has been a professional musician - a bassist, specifically - in this city, Nashville, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and places beyond for almost thirty years. He's performed with other local stars like Steve Ferguson, Tim Krekel, Winston Hardy and The Roadmasters, Mickey Clark and The Cumberlands. He's played with Billy Swan (of I Can Help one-hit-wonder fame), met and played with Johnny and Edgar Winter, met Kris Kristofferson, Tom Waits and was once a substitute performer for The Kingston Trio. He's also been in original bands (The Breathers) and cover groups (Chopper and The Lonestar Band - at the beginning of the Urban Cowboy craze of the early 1980's). His recordings have been released on vinyl in Germany and New Zealand. And he spent eighteen months as a bassist in the TNT Showband aboard the Sovereign Of The Seas, a cruise liner operated by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. "I played Born To Be Wild as part of a medley, wearing a white tux," he said, more amazed than ashamed at the memory.
Rick Harper is a rocker, a folkie, a country crooner who uses wit and traditional sounds to get our attention instead of line-dance meathooks. He is one of Louisville's connections to the music world outside the city.
Rick and I first met at the Butchertown Pub last March, prior to a performance by Iko-Iko. His CD Rickenharper had been released a couple of months earlier. It had, according to Rick, been ignored by virtually everyone in town until Dan Reed started playing it during his morning show on WFPK. The release is a generous, more-than-70-minute collection of low and medium-fi songs mostly recorded using a handy portable studio recorders over 16 years and in various places - including his cabin aboard the Sovereign - either solo or with a band. Many of the tunes had been released already on Demo Teasers cassettes. The sounds and recording quality are consistent, belying the illusion that all 25 tracks were recorded over several months prior to release and not spaced over nearly two decades. He's followed that with HOOT, a collection of new music (including Gene Clark's So You Say You Lost Your Baby) due out this month. So his first full, major release is a greatest hits retrospective. How many performers can make that boast?
|Rick, 1957||Iroqois Amphitheater, 1971||Dusty, 1972: Rick, Mike Hutchison, Tim Krekel, Don Szymansky|
II. In which Rick describes his historie as a musician
Forty six, soft-voiced with dark hair and a wide smile, and a presence as relaxed as a pair of bedroom slippers, Rick Harper is in a position where many musicians find themselves: in between regular gigs or jobs. He has been playing bass with The Cumberlands for about two years, but not now. "Bluegrass season's over until summer," he says. "So it's been kind of hungry. I just left a day-job I've been working for the past two years, for a graphics company. It's even more than a little embarrassing because I can't believe I did it for so long".
The graphics stint, preceded by tending stressed-out thoroughbreds on a horse farm, seem to be two anomalies in a steady career of constant playing, from his first harmonica (a gift from local folk legend Johnny Feighan), his attempt at playing oboe, to his first guitar (a Zenon), his first bass (a Kimberly), and his first band (The Keyes). He later hooked up with Tim Krekel and his band called Dusty, an outfit that was into country, rhythm-and-blues, and simple good-time rock and roll.
A concert he saw at Iroquois Amphitheater in 1970 changed him. The band was NRBQ. "It was the first time I saw five really great players interlocked into one drive," he said.
Former NRBQ drummer Tom Staley became an influence on Rick, which led to his first work with a major label - which also led to a major disappointment. "He and [Steve] Ferguson left NRBQ at the same time," Rick said. "In 1974 they called me to come play with their new band, The Sacred Frowns, down in Fort Lauderdale. Frankie Gadler, the original singer in NRBQ, and Charlie Carmon were also in the band. We made an album for Capricorn Records. They didn't release it. In the sessions [in Macon], they wouldn't let me play my own bass, didn't want to spend any time at all getting a good sound. [Capricorn label head] Phil Walden said they already had a band like us: Wet Willie. We were very insulted.
"So [the band] blew apart. I never got to hear the final mix. The tape of rough mixes I have sounds so bland, and the material was really good. It was just wasteful. I had moved down there to Lauderdale lock, stock, and barrel. We were too young. I was just 21. They were naive about the way the scene had become down there. I'd spent the previous summer there working at a piano bar and pretty much knew it was gonna be difficult, and I was a little in awe playing with those guys."
Rick returned to Louisville to begin what he calls his "day jobs and bar bands" period, performing at places that are now part of the city's nightspot folklore: The Hillbrook Tavern, The Fishbowl, Jim Dandys, Harold's Club, The Great Midwestern, The Windmill, Woody's, Robert E. Lee's and many others. Included in this period was the stint with Billy "I Can Help" Swan and the chance to meet a few big names in music of that era, who far from impressed him. "Most all the hobnobs I've ever had with the bigwigs," he said, "have been so negative. There were some narcissistic musicians not delivering. Too much inebriation. I really got tired of watching it."
The Sacred Frowns, Miami, 1974: Steve Ferguson, Frank Gadler, Tom Staley (hidden), Rick, Charlie Carmon
at Allen-Martin Studio, 1979
at The Fishbowl, Louisville, 1975
w/ The Cumberlands, 1981: Dave Cosson (hidden), Sam Bush, Rick, Betty and Harold Thom
Lonestar Band '86: Gene Gilstrap, George Webb, Chopper Rousseau, Rick, Karl Slatour
Rick reconnected with drummer Tom Staley in Fort Lauderdale once again in 1981 to play with Chopper and The Lonestar Band, playing country hits during a brutal six night a week, 9pm to 4am session at a place called Club Dallas. The band was machined specifically for the two-stepping, mechanical-bull-riding set, who could recite entire scenes of dialogue from Urban Cowboy ("Whutcher name?" "Cissy. Whutchurs?" "Buuud."). However, it did become what Rick calls the nucleus of a new band called The Breathers, "a way of getting our rocks off musically and artistically and still try to keep The Gig," as he calls it, emphasizing the initial capital letters "T" and "G". Several songs they recorded were released in the U.S. as EPs on Rick's HiVariety label and in Germany on JaxPax, a label out of Hamburg. Three of those tracks, Coffee Table, a lovely ballad called Don't It Make You Feel, and make-you-wanna-twist, harmony-thick Got a Woman, appear on Rickenharper.
The sound snatches bouncy pop beats and soulful undertones back from the mid-1960's, which much New Wave did in the early 1980s. It also apparently snatched the attention of Miles Copeland of IRS Records, which was the hot label back then for bands tilted just a few inches away from the mainstream. Copeland wanted to release the Breathers' material and have them open for The Go-Gos and R.E.M. Rick was ready for it. Other members of The Breathers wern't interested. Rick let The Breathers die. "I'll never be able to completely forgive those guys."
some Breathers records
Breathers 1984: Tom Staley, Bob Zohn, Rick, Erich Overhultz
A few years later, after work on cruise liners and in other bands, Rick and Staley hooked up again to form Jangleband, which soon self-destructed but not before squeezing out I Bring Her Down, a track that appears on Rickenharper. After his house in Miami Beach was burglarized in 1992, in which he lost all his recording gear and instruments, Rick headed to the Caribbean. Not to write festive songs about Island life or perform reggae, but to suit up in a white tux and play cover tunes aboard The Sovereign of The Seas.
Jangleband, Miami 1992: Don Lubitz, Ken Gimmer, Rick, Tom Staley
III. In which we are told Tales of the Caribbean aboard The Sovereign of The Seas
For eighteen months during 1993 and 1994, Rick was the bassist for the TNT Show Band aboard the Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship The Sovereign of The Seas. It was, as Rick described it, "a surreal existence. You don't spend any time at home. You're out for seven days. Leave on a Saturday, come back the next Saturday, and you only have five hours on shore to conduct your business."
"Every night was a different theme," he continued. "There were 40s and 50s nights, a 60's night, a country-theme night. [Each set we played] was an hour-and-a-half long 'Stars On 45s'-type floor show trip." [Those lengthy medleys of hits wrapped up in a theme - all Beatles tunes, all Beach Boys, all James Taylor].
"We had different-colored shirts and cummerbunds each night, with our white or black tuxes. We really were just the straightest thing on there, and the last thing passengers would see every night after a day of intense Vegas-style entertainment. People would enjoy it and ask for your autograph. Some of those people acted like they'd never seen a good band live, before. Strange. I did meet some wonderful people, though."
With The TNT Show Band, Rick backed such luminaries as The Hager Twins, Charro (famous for her overripe curves, broken accent, and signature phrase "coochy-coochy") and The Captain and Tenille.
"People pick up on these big names," he said. "They go, 'Yeah, man, Harper played with Captain and Tenille.' I was only in the ship's band. They'd stick a part in front of me. I'd be playing in the balcony, their band and dancers would be down on the stage. Charro mimed her whole show except for the in-between-song 'Coochie Coochie' patter."
When he wasn't dodging his newest fans or backing the stars, Rick was in his cabin writing tunes and recording them with his porta-studio. He released a demo teaser cassette (one of three) titled Boat Drill, which included the Goldfinger theme played on harmonicas. One of the selections, Stumble Inn, co-written with Tim Krekel, appears on Rickenharper.
Rick left the ship in 1994. "Couldn't take it any more. Got into a shouting match with a few customs officials, didn't get along with a few of the Norwegian and British officers, and had some opportunities open up back home." He returned to live and work on a horse farm in Shelby County. It was there, at the astutely named Chateau D'bris, that he completed Rickenharper.
Buster sings, Rick plays Finchville, KY 1996
Rick on the Sovereign, 1993
IV. In which we encounter the Encyclopaedic Rickenharper
The critical praise has stacked up for Rickenharper, not only from local press but from indie periodicals and other media throughout the globe. Beverly Paterson of Twist And Shake in San Mateo, California called it "sheer joy, outstripping anything you'll hear on commercial radio these days." Lord Litter's Tapedepartment Radio Show in Berlin said it is "music for people who love true natural emotion." Canada's Sound Views gushed "a keeper, a killer, an all-round CLASSIC." Locally, its tracks get regular airplay on WFPK.
The title is a play on the Rickenbacker brand of guitars, right down to the imitation of the logo. "I was a Rickenbacker player for a long time," Rick reports, as was Paul McCartney, John Entwhistle, Chris Squire and others. Almost entirely self-recorded and produced, almost completely self-performed, Rickenharper is an audio encyclopedia of both a performer's career up to this point and the variety of sounds that have been mined from the history of pop and traditional music. It's also a resume of Rick's power as a songwriter.
It contains the kind of guitar-driven pop and tight harmonies The Beatles made famous in the mid 1960s, love songs about people so disparate in their personalities, a song about the devil coming into a bar looking to score some reefer - "that red devil with the horns on," Rick sings, not some Robert DeNiro lookalike in a suit and ponytail. There's also a spirited instrumental called South Florida, the kind of song that makes you want to cruise along the beach with your top down and radio blasting. Plus there's a good ol' train-driving song, Knee High To A Nehi. Throughout Rickenharper, Rick also deepens the textures of many of the tracks with harmonicas of different octaves, increasing the range of the instrumentation and giving a full, colorful sound to a sometimes low-fi recording.
Twice Told Coffeehouse Louisville 1998
Barnardsville, NC 2001
Rick w/ Dean Webb of The Dillards, 1997
V. In which we learn of the forthcoming HOOT
Like most of Rickenharper, HOOT is another self-produced effort that, according to Rick, makes more sense because it is more of an album than a retrospective. It is also unique in that it contains three songs he did not write. One of them, So You Say You Lost Your Baby, is to appear on a Gene Clark tribute recording. Plus, Rick emphasizes, it's only 41 minutes long.
It's origins, though, came from an influential outside source. Rick had sent a rough mix of So You Say... along with a lengthy droning piece called Mantra (Waiting For The End Of These Blues) to Dan Reed at WFPK, who played it one Thursday morning when he had Courier-Journal music writer Jeffrey Lee Puckett as a studio guest.
"I was getting over an illness and was taking massive doses of penicillin, feeling really bad." Rick recalled. "He plays this thing and in the middle he goes, 'This has five minutes to go. We'll fade it here, but Rick won't mind.' I was kind of aghast that he played the track. I'd sent it along with the Gene Clark song because I hate having CD's burned with just one track. He had been playing So You Say... but stopped because he knew it was going to be on the [Gene Clark] compilation.
"He then asked Puckett if he was a Rickenharper fan. How's he gonna say no? But he said yeah, and Dan said, 'I hope he puts out something new.' And I thought, aw, bloody hell."
So he rushed HOOT into production, including on it several remixes of songs he left off Rickenharper. He hopes to release it this month. "There are people around here who like my stuff," he said. "It'll be there for them if they want to get it. It's just nice to keep my name out there."
VI. In which Rick makes his feelings known and our narrative completes
In nearly 30 years as a professional musician, Rick has shown constancy in his work. He takes it seriously. To be concise: he loves to play. He is also, even at his relatively young age, one of Louisville music's senior performers. His opinions on the city's music scene are distinct and honest, based on a lifetime of playing and traveling. As for the city's mention as a Music Mecca in last April's Playboy, Rick is wary.
"It's maybe a mecca if you're a restaurant owner who wants good, cheap players, run a music store, run a studio, or if you can make some money in the [music] retail business. There are a lot of great players, here. Quantity. I guess what it really means is that it's a great place to work a day job and try to play at night. Problem is, it depends on what kind of day job you have, and whether or not you're too tired to do anything when you come home. But what do you do, impoverish yourself to try to do it full time?"
He leaned closer and spoke in a deliberately clipped tone. "Like it or not, Louisville has never been good to its artists. Never! And that's the truth."
Rick decries the decline of the Musicians Union, Local 11-637, stating he joined it in 1970 when it was a force, not a farce. "They don't even own their own building [on Bardstown Road]. They've had it since I joined and they sublet the front part out to a hairdresser? It ought to be for the use of its members. And musicians can't make any money in this town. Drink prices have certainly gone up, but players still get about 40 dollars a night. Club owners spend their money buying buildings and open more bars, not on quality presentations of the local artists. You are expected to pay taxes out of that 40 dollars and match Social Security. Figure it out."
Rickenharper's acclaim and HOOT have apparently become a basis for Rick to plow ahead. He's currently writing and recording demos for the next album, which will be recorded in a real studio, not on location. He also keeps busy starving as a freelance photographer and graphic artist. And once Bluegrass season returns, he'll be back on bass with The Cumberlands.
"I've always made a little money, somehow," he said. "I consider myself an artist. I know how to starve. I'm first and foremost a bass player with a minor in harmonica and a major in debt. I'm just trying to get somebody to cover one of my songs, get my foot in the door, and try to keep as much integrity about it as I can. And not be too derived."
adapted from Louisville Music News, March '99
|at Headliners, Louisville, 2002: Tim Krekel, Rick, Mike Alger|
Rick's long, strange trip
Rick Harper should write a book, or at least a warning label. "Warning: Making a living playing music will kick your behind."
Harper's behind has been kicked a lot in three decades of performing and writing. Sometimes it's almost been comical. Of course, it's a lot more funny from the outside looking in.
For example: He moved to Florida to join a band with Steve Ferguson and Tom Staley right after they quit NRBQ, but an album for Capricorn Records was scrapped in part because the band leaders spent more time arguing than recording; played bass in a country band that specialized in cruise ships, singing "Ocean Front Property" to overstuffed tourists; was in a band in which some members refused to open for R.E.M. and The Go Gos - at the request of IRS Records president Miles Copeland - because they thought it was beneath them; played bass in a cummerbund-wearing show band on board another ship, backing up Charro and The Hager Twins; played for Billy Swan at the opening of New York's Lonestar Cafe, only to watch a hopelessly drunk Swan fall apart and forget to perform his only hit, "I Can Help".
Lonestar Cafe, NYC 1977: Johnny Winter, Nick Sundberg, Edgar Winter, Rick, Billy Swan
But Harper, born and raised in Louisville, also has gotten his share of licks.
Most importantly, he's actually made a living as a musician, a nearly impossible feat that can't be overestimated. Plus, he's recorded and released two records, "Rickenharper" and the new "HOOT," both of which are showcases for his homegrown blend of garage pop, rock, folk, and country influences (roughly in that order). Although he's barely known in his hometown, Harper has a reputation elsewhere, albeit a mild one.
"There are people who know about me," he said in a voice that sounded as if it had a 5 o'clock shadow. "I've always been an underground kind of fella because I'm a bass player, and nobody notices bass players".
"My stuff is much better known in Europe than here, and it's not known there at all, really".
Harper laughed, but he's not exaggerating by much. When "Rickenharper" was released late in 1997, the local music scene's collective eyebrow raised. Who is this guy?
Harper, 46, got started in then late 1960s. His first band of note was Dusty, which featured Tim Krekel on guitar and vocals, and they did well. In 1974, Staley and Ferguson asked Harper to join their post-NRBQ band, The Sacred Frowns. Although Harper now says he "knew better," he moved to Fort Lauderdale long enough for the band to implode.
Another stint in Louisville with Dusty, including gigs backing up Swan, Harper found himself back in Florida with Staley. In the early 1980s, they rode out the Urban Cowboy craze in a cover band called Chopper & The Lonestar Band while maintaining an all-original band called The Breathers (this is the one that refused to open for R.E.M.).
Then came the cruise-ship years.
"It was right at the time when those cruises were starting to become popular," Harper said. "They were doing theme cruises, country and western theme cruises, and I played bass and sang in bands opening for the big guys. It was a pretty surreal existence. You leave Saturday afternoon and come back the next Saturday morning, load up another batch of passengers, and you're off again. It got old pretty fast, and I sometimes didn't get along with the Norwegians. It was like 'The Poseidon Adventure'. To me, it was the end of the line".
Harper followed a woman back to Kentucky, a decision he now laments, but he's been settled here since. Things are looking up. Both of his albums are getting airplay on WFPK (91.9FM); he opened last night for Georgia songwriter Vic Chesnutt; and he performs a rare solo show tomorrow night at Twice Told Coffee House.
Then again, he can't afford a band, has no sugar daddies to foot the bill for a band, and his songs need more TLC than is possible from the eight-track recording studio he's pieced together in his Middletown home. He jokes about giving it all up and settling on getting famous after he dies, but he can't stop now. He even called the cruise-ship people a couple weeks ago. "I actually put my name back on the list of available bassists," he said, not quite believing it himself. "There's no money in this town, and I've got to make some money."
He can make at least $8 if you and a friend go to his show tomorrow night at Twice Told Coffeehouse, 1604 Bardstown Road (9pm, $4). Niki Buehrig opens
-Jeffrey Lee Puckett, Louisville Courier-Journal Extra, May '99
The "Demo Teasers" cassette album series
So, what about an update. It's been about six or seven years...
Yeah, almost a decade.
Well, it's been mainly music. In 2002 I was trying to write, promote, and perform
my own music. I was getting airplay on WFPK, the local NPR station, and some others round the world, and was also playing bass and singing harmony with Tim Krekel. Finally got to make the record we'd always wanted to make with Dusty, really. Dusty was our band from Louisville, late 60s. Never got to make a good album. So in 2001 Tim wanted an aggressive bassist who could travel so I thought we'd try and do it one more time. The record was Happy Town, and was out on 2 or 3 labels but it got little support. 9/11 happened. It's a really good record but I know Tim and I weren't satisfied w/ the final mix. Few people know Tim's work as well as I do. He was the greatest guitarist in the world to me—only Richard Thompson can touch him. I expected to make alot more music with Tim. I miss him like nobody's business.
Anyway, I played bass with Blake Stamper for awhile, did a tour in Texas. A highlight in Dallas was I got a jay-walking ticket for walking across the railroad tracks at Dealy Plaza, where JFK was shot. ThenTim died, and so did Steve Ferguson, another great guitarist friend. They took a lot of my impetus with them.I think the last gig I played on bass was with The Cumberlands in '08, which was taped. They're always running that show on PBS. Wasn't fun playing bass any more.You get tired of anything after 35 years. Did a couple CD projects with my friend Tom Staley as Thenceforward. Most reviewers didn't understand them, said they sounded like demos. So what? Jeff Tamarkin was the only journalist who seemed to understand what we were doing. Got a Pro Tools recording system and learned to use it. Did other projects with Erich Overhultz in Florida and Alan Leatherwood in Cleveland. Did a campaign song for one of the Presidential candidates which was heard by millions and millions online.Was working on my next CD, called Lion's Roar, when...
"I have seen the Grim Reaper, and it is an idiot on a forklift."
Whilst working a stop-gap no brainer dayjob: I was badly injured in an accident, right ankle was crushed. A kook dropped a damaged security fence on me with a forklift. Then: surgery, rehab, blinding pain, surgery, rehab, lawsuits, appeals, surgery, rehab, melancholia and financial logistics nightmares. Life, interrupted.The firm pleaded guilty to making me disabled, which was a ruse to get round certain issues re: "safety violations". I have a neurological condition called RSD/CRPS. Basically that means I have good days, I have bad days re: walking, driving. Forever. It's been almost four years dealing with that, taking up most of my time. I pulled Lion's Roar from release and cancelled it – though I think it's a good record. I'd gotten a great Mellotron plug in and perhaps I got a little too Moody Blued with experimental sounds, but I'd always wanted to make a record like that, so I did. Little did I know nobody would much like it. Uh.... they can go eat a bug, if you know what I mean .Let 'em listen to Klassic Schlock or Lady HooHah. I'd never experienced that much apathy of my work. Karma will prevail.
Now I’ve finished some new songs and issued Turn It Down, Richard Lee in April, 2012. The title is what my mother was constantly saying to me when I was a kid, just learning oboe or bass, whatever it was. It's available as a download here, and as a physical disc you can hold in your hands if you're so inclined. The physical disc has 2 extra tracks not on the download version.
I think it's one of my best. Got some great players on it: Tom Staley on drums, Erich Overhultz on Piano, Dana Barbu, who I met on a cruise liner decades ago, plays piano and keyboards and sings on a track or two. Her parts were recorded by her husband in Romania at their home studio, and that's pretty cool I think. Three of the songs are co-writes with Tom. I'm back on track, feeling ok, wanting to play again, get the creations out to the world at large, if anyone's open minded enough to listen. I like it, so there'll be some others who will, too. Probably in Europe. Or on some other planet. Hey, I even made my acting debut recently in a movie trailer competition...
Copyright 2004 Rick Harper/HVGraf