Ben Harper (b. October 28, 1969) grew up in the Inland Empire region, between Claremont, and Pomona, California. Ben's family has a strong musical tradition: his father is a luthier and percussionist, his mother a singer and classical guitar player. But his interest for guitars and music was also fueled by his maternal grandparents, Dorothy and Charles Chase who are considered local celebrities in the Inland Empire region: they are the founders of the Folk Music Center, a musical instruments shop and museum. Ben's parents took their children to various concerts, including Taj Mahal when he was only six. At age seven, he received his first guitar. This immersion in music at a young age shaped Ben's musical style tremendously.

Ben's music is influenced by a large number of musical styles: Delta blues, folk, reggae, rock... Blues people like Robert Johnson, Son House, and Mississippi John Hurt left strong impressions on the musician. But no artists played a greater role in Ben's musical career than Jimi and Bob.

The first record Ben would buy was one by Jimi Hendrix, the guitarist who played the legendary Woodstock performance in the year Ben Harper was born. Jimi's music is important to Ben, but not just because of his revolutionary guitar style: "imagine Jimi's music without electricity, and you will see that he is a blues man like the greatest."

At age nine, Ben and his father went to see Bob Marley at the Starlite Bowl in Burbank, CA (July 21, 1978). It was a moment that forever changed Ben Harper's life: from that day on he knew that he would be a musician. Bob Marley's influence is reflected in many of Ben Harper's songs, and spiritual lifestyle. As an aside, the Burbank show was noteworthy for another fact: during the final encore, Peter Tosh joined his former bandmate on stage. It would be their final reunion.

Ben worked for five years at his grandparents' store, the Folk Music Center, restoring guitars. From this work, he gained a passion for all forms of antique and modern string instruments, and finally the adoption of his signature instrument, the Weissenborn guitar.

But initially, Ben Harper was drawn to the acoustic guitar and, influenced by players such as Robert Johnson, Son House, and Blind Willie Johnson, the bottleneck slide guitar and the lap steel guitar. His blues-influenced guitar play landed him his first gig at age sixteen, at the Patrick Brayer's Starvation Café in Fontana, CA. Ben's first gigs were typically solo, without vocals or amplification.

Eventually, Ben moved away from playing the bottleneck slide: the instrument limited him to a style close to the Delta blues. He needed an instrument that allowed him more musical expression. As a result, he picked up the Weissenborn guitar. The Weissenborn is an acoustic lap slide guitar, made by Hermann Weissenborn between 1920-1930. The instrument is made from Hawaiian Koa wood, with a hollow neck and body. The instrument is fretless, and thus playing the instrument has similarities with playing the cello. The construction of the guitar generates a wonderful, dynamic sound with tremendous sustain. It is a unique sound that doesn't sound like any other acoustic guitars, nor that of electric guitars. With this instrument, Ben can generate a musical style that is deeply rooted in the blues, yet sounds unique and very personal.

The Weissenborn is still at the heart of Ben Harper's music, and he owns several of these antique instruments. But Ben also collects and plays many other guitars including acoustic-, lap slide/steel-, and since The Will to Live also electric guitars. Unfortunately, the old Weissenborns have a lot to suffer from all the travelling and temperature changes, and are too fragile. Therefore, Ben also has several custom built Weissenborn-style guitars that have a semi-solid body and selection of acoustic and electric pickups.

Another important person in Ben's musical career is his manager/producer, J.P. Plunier. Ben met J.P. as a youngster, working for the Folk Music Center. Early on in Ben's career, there was a lot of commercial push from record labels to change his music to a more marketable mainstream audience. J.P. recognized the musical direction Ben Harper had chosen and convinced him to stay on that path. He has been the producer of every Ben Harper album, and is also responsible for some of the photography.

The first album Ben Harper recorded consisted of only 1500 copies on vinyl, and it was called Pleasure and Pain (March, 1992). It is a blues album, with several covers including Chris Darrow's Whipping Boy, but it also contains Ben's first true song, the title track. Soon after recording the album, in the fall of 1992, Ben got his major break. While he was playing at the Folk Music Center, blues legend Taj Mahal was in the audience, and asked Harper to join him on tour. The tour lasted until the beginning of 1993, and resulted in many invitations to open for well established artists such as John Lee Hooker, concerts in which Ben headlined, and ultimately a record deal with Virgin.

It is difficult, if not impossible to categorize Ben Harper's music. His range of musical styles, even on one single album, is so great that it would not do him any justice to label him as a blues artist, nor as a reggae-, folk-, or rock-artist. This is evidenced by the wide array of artists that Ben has played with, or opened for. Not many artists could open for both John Lee Hooker and Marilyn Manson, yet Ben Harper did just that. Other artists that Ben Harper has toured with are Ray Charles, The Fugees, Dave Matthews, Pearl Jam, Spearhead, Beastie Boys, and Luscious Jackson. Shows in which Ben Harper headlines, either solo or with his band The Innocent Criminals, are spiritual events. Ben harper seems to evoke a strong mutual bond with his audience. Through his music, he is able to touch almost any audience.

Ben Harper has recorded the following albums:

  • Pleasure and Pain (1992): The aforementioned blues album. It is released on vinyl only, and only 1500 copies were made. The album is in fact a release by two artists: Ben Harper and Chris Darrow. Some of the songs of this album were re-recorded on his first release with Virgin.
  • Welcome to the Cruel World (1994): This album is generally considered Ben Harper's debut. It is a well received folk album with strong acoustic and Weissenborn guitar tracks. The album has several old blues songs, but Ben Harper also sets his marks as a strong lyricist. But most of all, Ben shows that he is a highly versatile singer: he can pour out a gut-wrenching blues, but seemingly without effort change to folk, or even gospel. Listen to Waiting on an Angel to sense how much emotion Ben put into his music. Pleasure and Pain shows Ben's skills on the Weissenborn. An important spiritual song on this album is I'll Rise, a song about racial injustice based on Maya Angelou's poem And I still Rise.
  • Fight for your Mind (1995): Ben Harper's second major album, and shows an evolution towards a more diverse range of musical styles. There are strong influences from Hendrix, Marley, and also Dylan. The album greatly benefits from the strong percussion by Leon Mobley. Ben opens all vocal registers on the wonderful Ground on Down, accompanied by his powerful play on the Weissenborn: don't forget to crank the amp up to eleven. The reggae influenced Burn one Down is a crowd favorite during live gigs: the reason should be obvious from the title. The album also has several beautiful acoustic tracks, such as Another Lonely Day, People Lead, and Power of the Gospel.
  • The Will to Live (1997): This album is a major breakthrough in musical development for Ben Harper, successfully embracing a wide range of musical styles. This is perhaps the first album a prospective listener should buy since it shows the full range of Ben Harper's musical talents as a writer, singer, and guitar player. For the first time, Ben incorporates the electric guitar into his repertoire, in the impressive Glory & Consequence (again, turn it all the way up, and for a moment don't think about your neighbors). But Ben does not abandon the Weissenborn. For instance, on he emotional Roses from my Friends, Ben Harper incorporates the sound of a dozen Weissenborns tracked backwards, overdubbed by a low-end slide played forwards. Despite the wide variety of styles, ranging from delta blues (Homeless Child) to reggae (Jah Work) to funk (Mamma's Trippin'), this album really comes together through its blues foundation combined with Ben's strong guitar play and vocals.
  • Burn to Shine (1999): Ben's fourth release with Virgin shows a further diversification in musical styles. This album perhaps turned away a few of the more blues/folk inclined fans of Ben Harper, but the album seems to continue on a musical direction that was started with Fight for your Mind. Burn to Shine is a bit of an musical rollercoaster, going from the emotional Alone and The Woman in You, through the grungy Less, towards the spiritual Two Hands of a Prayer. But perhaps the most remarkable stylistic excursion is in Suzie Blue, an old time New Orleans shuffle recorded with the Real Time Jazz Band. Steal my Kisses received significant airtime, although it seems hardly representative for the entire record (although this is perhaps true for any song on the album); the song is an interesting fusion of musical styles overdubbed with a hip-hop beat. On the title track, Harper puts down an impressive country-rock tune. Overall, the record is his most spiritual and diverse album to date.
  • Live from Mars (2001): This album is a compilation of several live shows: disc one contains Ben Harper's work with his band The Innocent Criminals, and disc two features Ben solo. The album tries to convey the strong spiritual message that Ben Harper tries to convey during his shows, although the interaction between artist and audience is of course lost on the album. The album contains songs from his past studio albums; the development of the songs through live performances over the years interesting. Disc two contains emotional performances of Waiting on an Angel, Roses from my friends and Please Bleed. Ben Harper includes a few covers on the album: The Verve's The Drugs don't Work is perhaps the most interesting of these.
  • Diamonds on the Inside (2003)
  • There will be a light (2004) together with the Blind Boys of Alabama
  • Both sides of the gun (2006)A double cd that would have been better if it had been trimmed down to a single one. However, the fact that it hasn't been is perhaps an indication that these songs simply aren't solid enough to meld together like they did in Ben's previous albums. The songwriting comes of as a bit cliche. And finally, Ben Harper and his label continue to punish their paying audience by implementing copy control on the work (at least in their european release).

sources:

Ben Harper's albums
http://perso.wanadoo.fr/swer
http://www.virginrecords.com/ben_harper/main_about.html
http://www.benharper.net
http://www.offbeat.com/ob9911/backtalk.html
http://www.allmusic.com
http://www.tweak.com/phonetag/harper/
http://www.hiponline.com/artist/music/h/harper_ben/

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