The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street is getting a lot of spin due to its recent reissue. Originally released in 1972, Exile includes two blues covers: a Robert Johnson song and “Shake Your Hips” by Slim Harpo, a Louisiana bluesman whose songs appeared on the pop charts in the sixties just a few years before those of the Stones. Both Johnson and Harpo died young (Johnson at 27 and Harpo at 46). While Johnson’s blues legend status developed posthumously, Harpo’s notoriety has waned since his death in 1970.
Recently on the local show “All Blues,” I heard the Stones’ version of Harpo’s 1966 hit. Softening the song’s crisp edges, the Stones crafted a bluesy slurry. Jagger, curling his voice around another man’s words, concocted a southern American accent a little too contrived for my taste. While I enjoyed hearing the Stones’ take, the cover didn’t move me as other Stones’ songs do.
Or like Harpo’s original version, which makes me dance. “Don’t move your head / Don’t move your hands / Don’t move your lips / Just shake your hips. ” Harpo sings these lyrics cleanly, pronouncing each syllable, and this precision is echoed in the rhythm guitar riff that grounds the song. Only the harmonica and lead guitar wail. Swinging around the clean baseline, these flourishes create a bluesy sexuality appropriately penned in by the rhythm guitar.
According to many sources, Harpo lifted the baseline riff from John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen,” (a musical touchstone for many blues and rock artists). Like much of the blues, Harpo’s song is derivative too. But his composition strikes a great balance between sentiment and structure, making his original a hard version to best.
(To explore more of Harpo’s music, The Best of Slim Harpo on Hip-O records is considered the best collection of his work.)