Born Wilbert Huntington Harrison, 5 January 1929, Charlotte, North Carolina
R&B singer, songwriter, pianist, multi-instrumentalist.
'Perceived by casual oldies fans as a two-hit wonder (for his 1959 chart-topper "Kansas City" and a heartwarming "Let's Work Together" a full decade later), Wilbert Harrison actually left behind a varied body of work that blended an intriguing melange of musical idioms into something quite distinctive.' Thus begins Bill Dahl's AMG biography of Wilbert Harrison - an adequate characterization.
Though he learned to play the piano as a youngster in Charlotte, NC, Harrison didn't take a professional interest in music until 1951, after his discharge from the Navy. The first style of music that he performed was calypso ; his first group was called "The Calypso Four". He taught himself guitar and entered many talent shows. Miami entrepreneur Henry Stone signed him to his Rockin' logo in 1952. Harrison's first single (also issued on DeLuxe) was "This Woman Of Mine", which used the same tune and rhythm as his later reading of "Kansas City". The other side, "Letter Edged in Black", was essentially C&W. Not all that surprising, given his exposure to hillbilly music as a kid in North Carolina. A second session for Rockin' plus another one for Stone's Chart label, both in 1953, preceded a move to Newark, NJ, where Harrison was signed to Savoy Records by Fred Mendelsohn. His first session for the label, in August 1954 (with Mickey Baker on guitar), yielded the single "Don't Drop It", a cover of a recent Terry Fell country recording. It sold well locally and was later cut by Jerry Lee Lewis (1960, but unreleased until 1987). While recording for Savoy, Harrison was backed by some of New York's top session men, like Buddy Lucas on sax, Kenny Burrell on guitar and Panama Francis on drums. Fred Mendelsohn acted as producer, while Leroy Kirkland was responsible for most of the arrangements. All sorts of things were tried on the Savoy sessions (1954-57), but no hits ensued. Not because there were any qualitative deficiencies in the sides, but because the luck factor didn't take hold. That didn't come into play until 1959. At the beginning of that year Harrison signed with Bobby Robinson's Fury label in New York. He told Robinson that he wanted to record a song that he had been featuring in his live act, "Kansas City", written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 1952 and recorded that same year by Little Willie Littlefield under the title "K.C. Loving". Though it wasn't a hit, the song was picked up by several other artists, including Little Richard, who recorded it for Specialty in November 1955. Wilbert's version was cut on February 25, 1959, at the tail end of a session by his brothers, Jim and Bob (the 'Harrison Brothers'). Jimmy Spruill played guitar, while Harrison accompanied himself on piano. "Kansas City" reached the top spot on the Billboard charts (both pop and R&B) in May 1959. Not bad for a $ 40 session! A plethora of cover versions appeared all over the place and those by Rocky Olson, Hank Ballard and Little Richard (finally issued by Art Rupe) also made the Hot 100. Federal reissued the 1952 Willie Littlefield version with overdubs and Savoy tried again with Harrison's "Don't Drop It" from five years earlier. Savoy boss Herman Lubinsky claimed that Harrison was still technically under contract to Savoy, which led to all sorts of legal wrangles. This had a negative effect on Robinson's Fury label and subsequent Fury singles by Harrison failed to sell, though the average quality was quite good. Saxophonist King Curtis played on most of the Fury sessions, but not on "Kansas City".
His last single for Fury was "Let's Stick Together" (1962), after which Wilbert recorded for a multitude of small labels throughout the 1960's, trying to adapt to the new sounds in black music. He became a virtual one-man band, playing guitar, piano, drums, harmonica and sometimes tambourine. After "Kansas City", Harrison didn't have another chart hit for ten years. In 1969 he reworked "Let's Stick Together" into a two-part single "Let's Work Together", which reached # 32 (pop), on the Sue label. A cover by Canned Heat did even better (# 26 US, # 2 UK) and Bryan Ferry would score a # 4 UK hit with the song in 1976 (as "Let's Stick Together"). In April 1970, Harrison performed in London (Royal Albert Hall) with Creedence Clearwater Revival.
One more chart entry would follow for Harrison, "My Heart Is Yours" (# 98), on SSS International in 1971. He recorded three albums with new material in the early 1970s. After two singles for Brunswick in 1974-75 and a final LP for Chelsea in 1976, Wilbert's recording career came to an end, though he continued to perform as an unaccompanied solo act. In 1983 he moved from Newark to the Los Angeles area to see if work was more plentiful there. Deteriorating health forced him to retire from music in the late 1980s and he moved back to his native state of North Carolina. Allegedly, Harrison was financially destitute when he died of a stroke in a nursing home in Spencer, NC, in 1994, aged 65.
In 2001, his recording of "Kansas City" was given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award and has also been named as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
CD : Kansas City. His Legendary Golden Classics. (Collectables, 1994). 25 tracks from 1954-1969. Still in print.
Discography : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/wharrison.htm
Acknowledgements : Peter B. Lowry (liner notes for the 1987 LP "Listen To My Song", Savoy Jazz SJL 1182), Bill Dahl (All Music Guide), Fred Bronson, Wikipedia.
Dik, December 2013
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