The Harlem Hamfats Would Be Riding High

The FCC has been in the news lately because of the repeal of net neutrality, but in California it might turn out that a lot more attention is being paid to the BCC, the Bureau of Cannabis Control. Nope, you’re not dreaming, folks; bureaucracy has caught up to marijuana, which becomes legal for personal use in California on January 1st. (Massachusetts follows suit in July.) Even though it’s already been legalized in various other locations in recent years, this appears to be a big step in the march to full acceptance.156

I’ve never tried it and I can’t say that I’m likely to do so at this point in my life, but I guess I do accept that it’s similar to alcohol in the sense of being a relatively mild intoxicant, and of course it’s been proven to have medicinal properties. But how I feel about it now is a boatload of difference from what I once felt. As a conservative teenager in small-town Indiana in the late Fifties I didn’t even think it was around, and if it was then it was scary stuff and definitely to be avoided. With hindsight I now realize it might have been present at some of the wilder parties — the kind I was too square to attend. (Or be invited to, for that matter.)

So other than seeing weed demonized in movies or on TV — one memorable Dragnet portrayed a disgusted Joe Friday handling a dealer as if he was a leper — the only thing I remember from those days was in relation to musicians. Everybody knew that when they took their breaks they all lit up ‘reefers’ and soon became very mellow. In fact, some made headlines when they got caught. Gene Krupa, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles (who was also nailed for heroin possession) and many others were arrested at one time or another. And of course a lot of the edgier music groups had songs in their repertoire that winked at the smoking of happy weed, all of which brings us to the Harlem Hamfats.

jazzhounI’ve run across the music of the Harlem Hamfats a time or two in the past and always intended to explore the story behind the band with that unforgettable name. Turns out the group — which flourished for a few short years in the late Thirties — was actually based in Chicago, and none of the members were from Harlem or even New York. You could also say that none were ‘hamfats’; the word was a popular slang term in the black community for anything mediocre — as in the fat being the worst part of a ham — but the Harlem Hamfats definitely generated some choice music. It was a mixture of blues and dixieland jazz and a lot of it was playful and risque, like the song below about the subject of today’s post. (This original version includes the phrase ‘why don’t you do now‘ and the melody might sound familiar to you. It was later rewritten with tamer lyrics and given the title “Why Don’t You Do Right” — a huge hit for Peggy Lee with Benny Goodman.)

The group might have been the first instance of what would become a common practice in later years; the band was put together just to go into the studio and make records. In 1936 a producer named J. Mayo Williams brought together an assortment of talented c692d7479feaa113b95d3fa960d25ed3musicians, some of them Chicago natives and others from the deep south, named them the Harlem Hamfats, and turned them loose in a studio. The result was several years of solid record sales that also led to some popular live shows. Like most bands it was an amorphous group, varying at times in personnel and size, but led by Kansas Joe McCoy on guitar and trumpeter Herb Morand, both of whom handled the band’s vocals. Later the group also provided backing for better-known singers like Rosetta Howard and Johnnie Temple.

Because of the subjects of much of its music — drinking, reefer, and sex — the Harlem Hamfats never became a mainstream favorite. Within a few years the band broke up and its members went on to other things. But even though the life of the group was relatively short and its name is mostly forgotten now, the music was good. And it was also an influence for the later ‘jump blues’ style of guys like Louis Jordan, and of course that subsequently led into the early roots of rock and roll.


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