Ben Harper was immersed in rock, folk, blues and everything in between from a young age. The singer-songwriter and slide guitarist started playing in local venues as a teenager and went on to enjoy cult status in Australia and Europe during the 1990s. During the next decade, he won over American audiences, taking home two Grammys and reaching the Top Ten on the Billboard charts. A musically restless soul, Harper continues to expand his remarkable range while remaining steadfast in delivering a socially conscious message.
Born on October 28, 1969 in Southern California, Benjamin Chase Harper grew up in a family of avid music makers and lovers. His grandparents, Charles and Dorothy Chase, founded the Folk Music Center in Claremont in 1958, a cultural and educational beacon for musicians. His father, Leonard, was a percussionist, and his mother, Ellen, a singer and guitarist.
Harper began playing the guitar as a child and soon turned to the acoustic slide guitar, which would become his trademark instrument. After seeing Harper perform, veteran bluesman Taj Mahal invited the emerging musician on tour. The pair worked together on the soundtrack of documentary The Drinking Gourd.
Having secured a deal with Virgin Records, Harper released his debut Welcome to the Cruel World in 1994 to solid reviews. He wrote or co-wrote every track on the album but one, setting the politically charged tone that continues to figure prominently in much of his work with songs like the Maya Angelou inspired I'll Rise.
That same year, the artist made his first trip to the Festival (and first ever appearance at a jazz festival) as the opening act for Canadian guitarist Colin James. Upon his return in 1996, the 26-year-old musician had earned a headlining spot.
In 1995, Harper released his sophomore effort Fight for Your Mind, which featured his signature Weissenborn slide guitar on tracks like God Fearing Man. The album went on to reach gold status and became a college radio favourite.
Two years later, Harper broke out a grittier blues sound punctuated by flights of uplifting Gospel on The Will to Live. He also introduced his backing band the Innocent Criminals (bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Dean Butterworth and percussionist David Leach).
Solo no more
Armed with a new album and his maverick musicians, Harper made his third visit to the Festival in 1997, playing alongside Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside. At that point, he was becoming a respected musician in North America and was already a bestselling star in Europe and Australia.
His fourth album, Burn to Shine (1999), brought him into the mainstream with hit singles like Steal My Kisses and Suzie Blue. Melding traditional 1920s jazz with urban beatboxing, Harper yet again showcased his versatility. By then, he had appeared as a guest on the albums of everyone from Beth Orton to John Lee Hooker, and toured with equally diverse acts such as Radiohead, Marilyn Manson and The Roots.
After releasing the double disc Live from Mars in 2001, Harper followed up with Diamonds on the Inside in 2003. The next year, he collaborated with legendary Gospel outfit the Blind Boys of Alabama on There Will Be a Light. With the exception of a Bob Dylan cover and a traditional prayer, all the songs were written or co-written by Harper.
In 2006, he issued the double album Both Sides of the Gun, which debuted at number seven on the Billboard charts. During the recording, Harper worked with guitarist Jason Mozersky (whom he had first met in the late 1990s), drummer Jordan Richardson and bassist Jesse Ingalls. The session produced the explosive eight minute closing track Serve Your Soul,and led to the formation of Relentless7.
Accompanied by his new backing band, Harper released White Lies for Dark Times in 2008. The following year, he closed the 30th edition of the Festival with a free outdoor concert that showcased the venerable live performer's explosive new sound. The recording of this memorable event was released as a CD/DVD package the following year.
2010 also saw Harper teaming up with Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison - son of George - under the name Fistful of Mercy. The three men recorded an album and played a string of concerts.
For the recording of 2011's Give Till It's Gone, the guitarist reconvened with Relentless7. Famous guest stars Ringo Starr and James Taylor also lent a helping hand.
In 2012, as part of the Jazz All-Year Round series, the artist delivered a solo acoustic performance at Maison symphonique de Montréal. 2013 started with the release of a collaborative effort with harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, Get Up!