Born Homer Ray Harris, 7 September 1927, Mantachie, Mississippi
Ray Harris was one of the pioneers of rockabilly music. He made a brief if momentous appearance on the Sun label with two wild singles. But he didn't see himself as a singer, decided that he was "on the wrong side of the mike" and became a producer, co-founding the successful Hi label in Memphis.
The son of sharecroppers, Ray Harris was born in the rural community of Mantachie, Mississippi, a few miles north of Tupelo. He grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry. "We didn't listen to colored music. We just kept the radio tuned to Nashville". By 1953, Harris had married his childhood sweet- heart, Mary Nell, and moved to Memphis where he worked nights at the Firestone Tyre Company. Also employed there were Bill Black and his brother Johnny. One day in September 1954, Bill invited Harris to attend the recording session where Elvis Presley cut "Good Rockin' Tonight". This kind of music was quite novel to Ray, who had never been exposed to rhythm & blues, but before the end of the session he was hooked on rockabilly. "Hell, that Presley boy ain't doin' anything that I can't do", he thought.
Harris recruited a band led by guitarist Wayne Cogswell, who had moved to Memphis from Connecticut. They rehearsed every night and began to write songs together, which they pitched to Jack Clement at Fernwood and Lester Bihari at Meteor. Not finding the reaction they'd hoped for, Harris and his songwriting partner then approached Sam Phillips at Sun. Knowing that he couldn't sell Harris to the mass market, Phillips nevertheless responded to his maniacal energy. ("He was so intense.") The first Sun single, "Come On Little Mama"/"Where'd You Stay Last Nite", was recorded on June 20, 1956 and released on September 24. Colin Escott decribes "Come On Little Mama" as follows (in his book "Good Rockin' Tonight") :
"It was a definitive statement of supercharged rockabilly : a world apart from country, but not identifiably R&B or pop. The lyrics were virtually unintelligible, the musicianship limited, and the production sparse, but the performance was irresistible". Billboard described Harris's vocal as "extreme" and "emotion- packed". Apparently the record sold well locally, so Harris was invited to cut a follow-up in the spring of 1957. A rocked-up version of the old folk standard "Greenback Dollar, Watch and Chain" became the the A-side of Ray's second and last single. There was a contagious party atmosphere on the record, high- lighted by whistles and hollers during the instrumental breaks. The Harris- Cogswell composition "Foolish Heart" on the flip was given a more inhibited treatment, complete with doo-wop chorus. Also recorded were "Lonely Wolf" (rockabilly) and "I'm Winning Now" (country), which remained in the vaults until the second half of the 1970s. Unfortunate for Ray, by the time "Greenback Dollar" came out, Sam Phillips was devoting almost all his attention to Jerry Lee Lewis (who does NOT play on "Greenback Dollar", as Ray has suggested), and with no noticeable promotion, the record sank without a trace. Seeing no future for himself as a singer, Harris felt that he could be a producer and wanted to start his own label, but he didn't have the capital. Together with two other Sun alumni, Bill Cantrell and Quinton Claunch, he visited record store owner Joe Cuoghi, which eventually led to the founding of the Hi label. The first Hi release, in December 1957, was "Tootsie"/"You Are My Sunshine" by Carl McVoy, a cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis. It stirred up more interest than the fledgling label could handle. Orders came flooding in, but payments did not and Hi soon found itself in a cash-flow bind. In April 1958 the record was turned over to Sam Phillips (for $ 2,600), for rerelease on his Phillips Inter- national label. Until mid-1959 it was uncertain if Hi Records was a viable operation. Then Ray's old mate Bill Black, who had been fired by Col. Tom Parker, told him that he wanted to start his own combo. Together Harris and Black recruited personnel for Bill Black's Combo, an instrumental outfit. The combo's first single, "Smokie (Part 2)", produced by Harris, was an immediate success (# 17 pop, # 1 R&B) and the beginning of a total of 19 chart entries (pop) for the group. With Hi now operating on a sound financial basis, Ray went on to produce and engineer many hit records for the company during the 1960s, by Ace Cannon, Gene Simmons, Jerry Jaye and others. But after ten years in the control room, Harris was sick of the record business and sold his share in the company to Willie Mitchell in 1970, just before the emergence of Hi's biggest star, Al Green.
Ray went back to Tupelo, bought a farm, then set up a construction company. In the mid-1970s Harris and Sam Phillips built the Trace studio in Tupelo with a commitment from Playboy Records, but the deal went sour and Harris lost a considerable amount of money. By this point, Harris's daughter had married Phillips' younger son, Jerry, but the failure of Trace Recording gave Ray little enthusiasm for another partnership with his new in-law.
Around 2002 Ray recorded his only album, "Raw-n-Rockin'", on his own label, for Internet sales. At the time of his death in November 2003 he was assembling a package of Sun and Hi artists for tour dates in the UK. Harris himself never appeared live before a European audience, though.
More info :
Discography : http://www.rocky-52.net/chanteursh/harris_r.htm
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins, Stuart Colman (NDT obituary), Adam Komorowski.
Dik, July 2014
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