Every Saturday morning as a kid, Justin Harper woke up to Motown playing on the stereo and chores waiting to be done. “We had to clean, but it got us through the day,” says Harper, who was born into a heavily music-oriented family. The moving, grooving bass lines of those soulful classic songs burned into his soul, though he didn’t realize it at the time.
Harper’s grandfather taught his parents and their siblings to play instruments, and the tradition carried down to the next generation. Those talents were nurtured and developed in church, a central element to Harper’s upbringing, which determined his gospel roots. However, Harper first wanted to pick up the sticks rather than a pick. “When I wanted to play drums, my brother was way better at drums, so I would never play at any church engagement we had. But in choir, I was basically the only dude, so I wanted to play an instrument,” says Harper.
That led him to take up the bass around age 14, following in the footsteps of his uncle Jerome Griffin, who also made a name for himself in the local music scene playing bass for various bands. However, during his high school years, sports won out over band practice, and Harper put bass on the backburner until his senior year. At that point, he started listening to more jazz and funk artists, drawing inspiration from John Patitucci, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten. He found a story in their playing that he wanted to write himself. So, when he graduated from high school, he joined a band that his cousin and uncle had started called New Image.
That turned into a series of Lowcountry gigs that caught the attention of David Higgins and Tyler Boone, and Harper soon started playing with the bar-hopping singer-songwriters. “My favorite spot used to be Johnson’s Pub. That was a while ago. It’s a pizzeria now on East Cumberland,” Harper reminisces. His current favorite joint is Surf Bar on Folly Beach. “I love that place. People are friendly; it’s a whole lot of energy always, and there’s never a dull moment,” he says. “Even if there’s seven people in the room, there’s so much energy.”
Harper currently plays mainly with the David Higgins Band and Eric Penrod Trio, though he just started a side project with Joshua Holmes and Quentin Ravenel called Square One. “We all branched off and did our own things, but now, we’re coming together,” says Harper. As a full-time musician, Harper is usually found either playing gigs at bars or in church, though he does make time for playing basketball or creating music on the side with his friends. He also plays a few other instruments, including piano and even the drums — his brother couldn’t quite shut down his percussion dreams.
Harper compares playing the bass guitar to eating a really good hotdog, specifically one from the late Gary Alameda of Gee’s Infamous Hotdogs & More. “His hotdogs were the best thing ever,” he says. “And he always kept us out of trouble, though we still had some crazy nights with him.”
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