Too Much Love, the critically acclaimed debut from the mysterious Harlan T. Bobo, was originally supposed to be titled The Fall of the Bobo Empire. It’s a step by step walkthrough of the breakdown of his romantic relationship with Memphis artist Yvonne Bobo. Imagine a gravel-voiced Beck recording an album with all the elements of both country and soul, and meeting somewhere in the middle. Hailed by The Memphis Flyer as the best record to come out in the decade of the aughts, the success of the album caused lots of interest in the 40-ish singer from parts unknown.
Bobo is notoriously closed-lipped about his earliest years, only relaying a funny story from his childhood involving a tree, a ukulele, and a sock monkey, preferring to perpetuate his mystique. When describing himself in his teenage years, it’s hard to determine if he is being sincere or pulling your leg.
“I wore a dashiki, had long hair and was a big fan of Malcolm X at a time when Molly Hatchet ruled the earth,” says Bobo. “I got beat up a lot; I was very much into the hippie civil rights movement long past its prime.”
While he doesn’t often give up his place of birth or his given name, he will admit that at some point he went to college and studied art, which makes sense with the consistent inclusion of props, murals, paintings and the like in his live shows. Any given performance might include Bobo dressed as a clown, angel or Christmas tree.
It was not until the period when he lived in San Francisco in the late eighties that he becomes more forthcoming. After spending some time living on the streets, racking up a significant criminal record and a nasty heroin addiction, he registered with the local police as a drug offender and ended up in a half-way house. He was able to convince the authorities to allow him to go out at night and make his living playing pedal-steel guitar in a drag band that played spooky country music in local bars. It was in one of these bars where the Ballad of Yvonne and Harlan began.
“I was making a mechanical monkey from egg beaters and chicken skin, I would cure skin off chickens, and sew it, and it was named Bobo. And so Yvonne was sitting by herself looking at a candle, and I invited her to my table as a friendly gesture,” explains Bobo. “It turned out that her last name was Bobo, and so was my monkey’s. So I offered to show her my monkey.”
A month later they were on their way to Mexico to get married. However, an unfortunate accident involving a barbecue grill and Yvonne’s ankle made the couple rethink their hastiness. Instead, Bobo renamed himself in tribute to his new love and followed Yvonne to Waynesboro, TN where she started a woodworking apprenticeship, and he went about setting up a recording studio.
“I was ready for a different kind of adventure and Yvonne was full of adventure,” says Bobo. “We lived in a shoebox in the middle of the woods for a year and a half. I had taken an old shack and tried my best to turn it into a recording studio with the worst equipment you could buy at a flea market, I was trying to give it up (music), but it was always still there.”
Eventually, Bobo did give up and quit playing altogether.
“Playing just didn’t seem vital to me – just musically there were a lot of people, I mean there was a lot of shtick going on, I should talk, but there were a lot of people trying to become rock stars.”
After Yvonne’s internship had come to a close, the couple moved to Memphis and Bobo took a job at Memphis Scenic building installations for play and movie sets. It took almost three years of soaking in the music of local musicians like Jeff Evans, Jack Yarber, and Nick Ray before Bobo decided to throw his hat back into the ring and give music another try.
“I stalked Nick Ray when he worked at the thrift store” confesses Bobo. “His stage presence was very rock and roll without being ridiculous, and he was certainly putting on a show.”
After meeting Shawn Cripps at a party, he was invited to play with him and Ray in The Limes. This led to his inclusion in the Ray fronted band and his eventual reputation as the go-to bass player for everyone in the close-knit midtown music community. It was during this time that his relationship with Yvonne began to crumble. While they found themselves in a perpetual state of limbo, Bobo discovered that his out-of-sync relationship gave him something that he hadn’t felt like he had ever had before: a story to tell.
“I had always written music but never written lyrics or sang – for some reason, I just never felt that I knew what I wanted to say,” says Bobo. “Then I went through an extended period of doing everything I was afraid of and singing and writing songs was part of that.”
So, in 2002 Bobo began documenting his complicated relationship with Yvonne in song.
“I put it under my bed for about six months and wouldn’t let anybody hear it because I didn’t like it,” says Bobo. “It was hard to hear myself. Eventually, it just trickled out to friends who asked to hear it and so I would burn them a copy and make them a cover.”
As Bobo received more and more positive reaction to the music in the fall of 2003, he decided to try to sell the album in a few local record stores like Goner, Shangri-la and Last Chance. He continued to burn each CD himself and make individual covers. The record stores could not keep the albums in stock and after around 700 handmade covers, he determined that the record had taken over his life and he might need to seek some outside help.
“I think I lost my eyesight making those covers,” laughs Bobo. “I have to wear bifocals now.”
Goner Records released Too Much Love in the spring of 2005. A simple internet search pulls up countless websites citing it as one of the best records of 2005, classifying it as a “classic” and “masterpiece.”
A new record was recorded called “I’m Your Man” and Bobo stayed loyal to his muse. While Yvonne and Harlan are no longer romantically involved, he insists that they are family and
even spent some time working for her, their lives staying intrinsically entwined for some time, even though the couple became romantically involved with others. Bobo’s fascination with loyalty has always seemed to propel him.
“When I tried to put myself in other relationships that had potential, but it was my unwillingness to separate myself from Yvonne that’s caused 75 percent of my failure,” admits Bobo. “Part of the whole problem with love is that we start out thinking that it’s something that is supposed to make you feel good, but it’s not a lollipop – it’s a bleeding heart in a beaten bag, it’s meant to teach you a lesson, it’s gonna take you through life, it’s not just gonna pacify.”
Since the conversation happened a few years ago, Bobo has been able to move on, becoming married, having a son and moving to France. But you can still catch him playing the occasional solo show in Memphis, like the packed house he played to a few weeks ago at Otherlands.
Even with his newfound purpose, Bobo still continues to struggle with demons from the past and what he feels is a lack of humanity among men. While his songs may chronicle the sadness that comes along with failure, he still believes in the power of relationships and considers himself an optimist.
“I would hate to believe that the value of loyalty doesn’t have any validity to it, but it may not,” laments Bobo. “I do feel like a failure in my relationship with Yvonne, but I’m the comeback kid.”