Born October 28, 1969, in California; raised in Inland Empire region of California; son of Leonard (a percussionist) and Ellen (a singer and guitarist) Harper. Addresses: Record company--Virgin Records, 338 North Foothill Rd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
On the strength of only two albums--and successful concert tours undertaken in support of those albums--Ben Harper emerged during the mid-1990s as a musical artist of notable talent and vision. In certain respects, his quick ascent was an unlikely one, for as Acoustic Guitar contributor Ben Elder noted, Harper's music "defies easy categorization because of its diverse sources: the Carter family, Woody Guthrie, Jimi Hendrix, and a melting pot of acoustic blues, reggae, country, hip-hop, rock, and classical styles."
But while Harper's music eludes classification, there is no mistaking the moral urgency that burns through many of his songs. The passion of Harper's socially conscious songwriting stems from his apprehension about America's spiritual direction. "Everything is so out of control," Harper told Pulse! writer Dan Ouellette. "I want our mothers to be able to walk the streets and be safe. Instead of learning from history, whether it's slavery or the Holocaust, we're allowing history to repeat itself."
Harper was born on October 28, 1969, and raised in the Inland Empire region of California, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. His grandparents, Charles and Dorothy Chase, were the founders of Claremont's Folk Music Center. The center, which opened in 1958, is a store and museum that includes a wide range of music, books, art, and instruments for music enthusiasts, and it was an important place during Harper's childhood years. The store's myriad totems of musical beauty and genius contributed greatly to his early affinity for music. Harper's parents (who have since divorced) were musically inclined as well. Leonard Harper, his father, was a skilled percussionist, while his mother, Ellen, was a singer and guitarist.
Harper thus grew up in an environment of passion about music. It wouldn't take long until most of his waking moments became occupied. Surrounded by a forest of musical instruments, paraphernalia, and recordings, he devoted increasing amounts of his time to studying and playing the blues, a musical genre of which he grew particularly fond. "I'd play those records at night," Harper recalled in an interview with Jas Obrecht for Guitar Player. "Then I'd go to school and hear them in my mind. I'd zone out and the teacher would rap on the desk and say, 'Hey! What are you doing?' And I couldn't very well tell her what I was hearing and feeling. When I got to about 16, I was able to express myself on the slide guitar."
The fledgling musician immersed himself in the recordings of such country blues giants as Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson, teaching himself to play the slide guitar. (Harper does not read music.) Still, he was not oblivious to the more contemporary musical contributions of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Taj Mahal, and others, and he counts these artists among his biggest influences. As Harper's proficiency on the guitar grew, he began to experiment with different sounds and techniques, searching for the combination that suited him best. "I started playing lap-style," he told Elder, "and it really freed me up. I started really being able to say what I had to say."
Shortly thereafter, Harper turned to the Weissenborn guitar, an acoustic Hawaiian model that had been popular more than a half-century ago. When he heard the unique resonant qualities of the classic guitar's sound, he knew that his search for a suitable instrument to display his musical vision was over. "The Weissenborn is the sound that is in me," he told Obrecht. "Nothing else can channel the spirit of my music. I love everything about them.... I own quite a few Weissenborns, and each one definitely has its own voice."
Harper began to perform his music at local venues, and he acquired a small following. But it was not until he attracted the attention of blues artist Taj Mahal that his career began its ascent. Taj Mahal recalls that he was taking an afternoon nap before a scheduled show at Claremont when he was awakened by the shivering notes of Harper's slide playing downstairs. "There was something about this sound that you only hear every now and then in a slide player," he said. "Finally my curiosity got the best of me and I came downstairs to see who it was. These guys thought they were disturbing me. I said, 'The only thing that disturbs me is how come we don't hear anybody else play like you!'"
The two musicians quickly established a rapport, and Mahal convinced Harper to join him on his concert tour, which included an appearance on Austin City Limits. They then collaborated on the soundtrack for The Drinking Gourd, a documentary on the life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. It was around this time that Harper met J. P. Plunier, who became his manager. Plunier convinced Virgin Records to sign the young slide guitarist.
Early 1994 saw the release of Welcome to the Cruel World, Harper's debut effort. The acoustic-based album immediately triggered a swell of appreciation from critics, who lauded his smoky singing voice and his haunting slide guitar work. Some reviewers found his lyrics overly simplistic at times, but others contended that they "packed a clear and uncompromising social wallop," according to Elder. Songs such as "Don't Take That Attitude to Your Grave," "Like a King," and "How Many Miles Must We March" provide powerful warnings about America's fraying social fabric. Conversely, such tracks as "I'll Rise," which features lyrics adapted from a Maya Angelou poem, champion themes of spiritual hope and triumph over adversity.
Harper's concern with issues of social justice and race relations are evident throughout Welcome to the Cruel World, a fact that his white mother attributes in part to his upbringing. Noting that Harper's father is black, she contends that her son's keen social consciousness is due in part to his mixed-race heritage. Indeed, Harper admits that his exposure to both black and white bigotry during his childhood helped inform his views.
In 1995 Harper released Fight for Your Mind, a worthy successor to his debut album. It features a greater variety of musical textures and electronic amplification (although the album is still anchored by Harper's slide guitar work) and another batch of incisive social commentary in such songs as "Excuse Me Mr.," "People Lead," and "Oppression." He subsequently embarked on tour dates with such diverse musical talents as Pearl Jam, PJ Harvey, John Lee Hooker, and Gil Scott-Heron.
Harper, who is well aware that his music does not easily fit into any single section of the 1990s regimented radio environment, remains a little amazed at the quick success he has experienced. But he makes it clear that his success is secondary; being true to his musical vision is his primary goal. "Music comes straight from the heart, and people's hearts are in their eyes," he told Elder. "You can look right at a man and know if he's about music--or if he's just a pirate."
by Kevin Hillstrom
Ben Harper's Career
Toured with Taj Mahal, 1992-93; signed with Virgin Records, 1993; released debut album, Welcome to the Cruel World, 1994; released Fight for Your Mind, 1995.
- Selective Works
- Welcome to the Cruel World, Virgin, 1994.
- Fight for Your Mind, Virgin, 1995.
November 28, 2004: Harper and his fiancee, actress Laura Dern, welcomed the birth of their second child, a girl. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, December 6, 2004.
February 13, 2005: Harper won two Grammy Awards, including best pop instrumental performance for "11th Commandment," and best traditional soul gospel album for There Will Be a Light with the Blind Boys of Alabama. Source: Grammys.com, www.grammys.com/awards/grammy/47winners, February 14, 2005.
December 23, 2005: Harper married actress Laura Dern in Los Angeles, California, at the former home of Gregory Peck. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, December 31, 2005.
- Acoustic Guitar, February 1996.
- Billboard, November 11, 1995.
- Guitar Player, June 1994, p. 65; December 1995, p. 27.
- Pulse!, June 1994, p. 34.
- Vibe, June/July 1994.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Virgin Records promotional material, 1995.