True Blues

Story by Marc Sheforgen for The Salina Journal.
Photo by Peter Damroth

He heard a photographer was coming, so Harry Hypolite dressed to the nines. Wearing a light blue, silk button-down shirt, navy blue suit over the top with the matching silk handkerchief and polished black shoes, Hypolite put out his cigarette and turned down the television volume. He cranked the volume on a tape deck blaring his songs and smiled slyly as those in his Salina motel room began tapping their feet, nodding their heads. Harry "Big Daddy" Hypolite might well be the blues. He lives nearly dirt poor in Louisiana – until recently without a car. He is the quintessential bluesman – the dress, the talk, the talent, the stories, the nickname. But at 63 years old, he doesn't have the fame or money. He's representative, APO Records Owner Chad Kassem has said repeatedly, of the scores of richly-talented and southern-cultured bluesmen yet to really be discovered. Kassem found Hypolite on a return visit to his native Louisiana. Hypolite for more than 40 years played as a backup musician, most notably with Cajun swamp bluesman Clifton Chenier, and later Chenier’s son C.J. "I've never come out to the front to do my thing," Hypolite said as he eased into a motel armchair. "I'm just doing mine now." He's finally been recorded, and Hypolite holds tight and optimistically to his dream. "I don't want to be no rich guy, I just want to live comfortable, Hypolite said. "That's all. And to love people and to have people to love you." At last, Kassem and his crew at APO Records and Blue Heaven Studios have made Hypolite a front man with his debut release Louisiana Country Boy. "This is like a dream to me," Hypolite said. "It really is." Starting at about age 12 while cutting sugar cane for $1 a ton in St. Martinville, Louisiana, alongside his parents, Hypolite said he started to feel, not listen to, the blues. Hypolite dropped out of school to work after the fourth grade and didn’t learn English until about age 14, speaking until then Creole French. He picked up the guitar. At a roadhouse one night, an underage Hypolite climbed atop stacked wooden soda crates and peered through a barroom window to see the late Guitar Slim on stage. "He'd been drinking some liquor, and he got drunk and couldn't pick his guitar," Hypolite said. "Didn’t nobody know who I was, and I snuck around to the side. I went into the dressing room, and I saw that guitar and I played it. Didn't nobody know I knew how to play guitar." Now, he's on his own, writing and performing songs, he said, about his life, the old times, the current times – the blues times. After telling stories for about an hour, Hypolite sat back, lit another cigarette, smiled broadly and said the bluesman life is the life for him.

Posted by Acoustic Sounds on 03/01/2001 at 4:03 PM | Categories: General