After taking a shot of vodka to loosen his vocal cords, Curly Joe Harper takes the stage at Bear’s Breath Bar and Grill and begins to do what he does best: play harmonica.
As the Curly Joe Harper Blues Band launches into its first song, Curly slowly starts moving to the blues beat. Taking his first solo, Curly’s right leg begins to shake as his wrists slide his harmonica back and forth.
Swaying his head to each note, he seems to connect with everyone in the room.
“Curly Joe just speaks to me,” said fan Pat O’Keefe. “His music says ‘Hey, I’m fine, let’s have fun.’ ”
In between singing and playing, Curly acknowledges his fans as they dance, whistle and lip-sync to the music.
“When I’m on stage I can hear people out in the crowd yelling, ‘Curly Joe, Curly Joe, you go man!’ ” Curly said. “The best that I have ever felt in my entire life is when I am on stage in front of people that are enjoying my music, because it makes me enjoy it and that’s good enough for me.”
One of the highlights of Curly’s career was playing with Harry Connick Jr. After Connick’s concert at Jesse Auditorium, he asked where he could hear a good blues band. Curly suggested the club Deep Blues — now called Mojo’s — where, it so happened, Curly and his band were playing that night.
After his second set, Curly invited Connick to join him onstage. According to Curly, Connick said, “They sounded so good, I just had to jam with them.”
As Curly recalled, “It was nice to know somebody with his fame and talent was such a regular, down-home guy.”
Curly has had the opportunity to play with other distinguished musicians, after a group of his friends convinced him to try his luck in Chicago. While at Kingston Mines, one of the oldest blues clubs in Chicago, Curly met backstage with the legendary singer Casey Jones. After Curly played a few harmonica licks from him, Jones asked him to come onstage and play a song.
By the end of the night, Curly said, Jones told the crowd that “Curly Joe Harper is one of the finest ‘harmonicats’ and singers of our time.”
Curly appreciates the compliments, but he doesn’t take them too close to heart.
“I don’t claim to be the best,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot of great harmonica players and a lot of great musicians, and I think each is good in their own right.”
Curly, who carries at least one harmonica at all times, admits that he had a difficult time grasping the concept of the instrument. “Out of all the instruments that I’ve played in my lifetime,” he said, “it’s the one instrument I never realized I’d be able to play.”
Curly, who comes from three generations of singers and piano players, learned how to play classical piano from his grandmother. He was willing to practice every day and learned how to read sheet music so quickly that he was considered something of a prodigy by age 13.
Four years later, Curly dropped out of high school to join a regional road band that played all over Texas.
“I didn’t feel that I needed to pursue a regular day job,” he said. “I thought I would just play music. I did, and I still am.”
Curly has self-produced two albums, including 1989’s self-titled album and 1991’s Urban Scuffle. One of Curly’s most popular songs, “Who Needs the Blues?” became such a hit around town that people would yell the lyrics to Curly from car windows.
While Curly promotes the band and handles all the bookings, he also has taken a keen interest in painting. A self-taught acrylic painter, Curly has sold three paintings. One piece, a bar scene, was on the cover of an album by Parking Lot Slim, Southern Slide. Curly also contributed harmonica and some vocals for the album. Curly has also collaborated with Legendary Naked Dave Brandy, the Pontiacs and Wayne Castleman.
But whether he’s in the studio or on stage, one attitude has remained constant for Curly Joe Harper.
“I just want to keep playing music till I can’t play it anymore,” he said.