Born 24 August 1915, Omaha, Nebraska
R & B singer. Nicknamed “Mr. Blues”.
Black music has known a vast number of larger than life characters. Few came larger than Wynonie Harris, the loud-talking, fast-living, womanising, hard-drinking and witty son of a gun. But he was a true original and arguably the greatest of the blues shouters. From 1948 until 1952 he was one of the biggest selling recording artists in the jukebox dominated rhythm and blues market.
Wynonie Harris was born in Omaha, Nebraska, to an unwed 15-year old mother and an American Indian father that he saw only once in his life. Despite accounts that Harris spent two years as a pre-med student at Creighton University, he was actually a high-school dropout who broke into showbiz as a dancer and a club emcee. He sang in Omaha nightclubs and was a bit of a local celebrity, but it wasn’t until he moved to Los Angeles in 1940 that his musical career began to gain some momentum.
After his “discovery” in 1944, Harris joined the Lucky Millinder orchestra. A blues shouter in the Kansas City style of Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing, Wynonie sang on Millinder’s Decca hits “Hurry Hurry” and “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well” (# 1 R&B, # 7 pop in mid-1945). The latter song was released almost a year after it was recorded. By the time it charted, Harris had left Millinder and embarked upon a solo career. The first record under his own name (Wynonie ‘Mr. Blues’ Harris) was the two-part single “Around the Clock” (Philo 103), recorded in July 1945 with the Johnny Otis band. It would provide the inspiration for Chuck Berry’s R&R classic “Reelin’ and Rockin’” (1958). Later in 1945 he cut six singles for Apollo, with chart success for “Wynonie’s Blues” (# 3) and “Playful Baby” (# 2) in 1946. Subsequent recordings for Hamp-Tone, Bullet and Aladdin failed to sell though and when Harris signed with King Records in late 1947 he was desperate for a hit. It would turn out to be the beginning of a very lucrative decade for both parties.
Four sessions were held in December 1947, anticipating a recording ban by the American Federation of Musicians that took effect on January 1, 1948. The second King single to be released was “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, written and originally recorded by fellow blues shouter Roy Brown. Harris’s version rocked much harder and shot to the top of the R&B charts in June 1948. It started a trend of records concerned with “rockin’”, not only by Harris himself but by many other artists. Also influential was Wynonie’s “Hoy hoy hoy” call, which was copied on several other records to generate excitement. Elvis Presley would record “Good Rockin’ Tonight” for his second Sun single in 1954, starting off with the question “Have you heard the news”, whereas Brown and Harris emphasized that they had heard the news. Many others have recorded the song over the years.
After “Good Rockin’ Tonight", Harris was rarely absent from the R&B charts for the next four years. His 13 Top 10 hits on King include “All She Wants To Do Is Rock “ (# 1, 1949), “Sittin’ On It All the Time” (# 3, 1950), “I Like My Baby’s Pudding” (# 5, 1950) and “Lovin’ Machine” (# 5, 1952, his last chart entry). Those titles indicate Harris’s penchant for double-entendre songs, often of a ribald nature. Harris also covered several country hits, usually by fellow King artists. He had big hits with “Good Morning Judge” (originally done by Louis Innis), “Bloodshot Eyes” (Hank Penny), and “I Feel That Old Age Coming On” (Homer & Jethro), as well as more moderate success with “Adam Come and Get Your Rib” (Wayne Raney) and “Triflin’ Woman” (Moon Mullican).
Though the quality of his recordings was undiminished, Harris’s star dimmed significantly with the advent of rock and roll. He helped to create the new music, but, try as he might, Wynonie could not sustain a career in rock & roll. At 40, he was just too old to be a rock and roll star. Teenage audiences saw him as a dirty old man singing dirty old songs about sex and alcohol. But as late as October '54, Harris still had the arrogance to claim “I’m the highest-paid blues singer in the business. I’m a $1,500 a week man. I started the present vogue of rocking blues tunes.” (Interview with Tan magazine).
After one Atco single in 1956, he briefly returned to King in 1957. In the 1960s he recorded for Roulette and Chess, with no success. He was a sick man by then, but he kept on drinking and carrying on. His last known appearance was at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem in 1967, where he stunned the audience with his power- packed performance. On June 14, 1969, Wynonie Harris died of esophageal cancer at the USC Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was only 53.
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Acknowledgements : Joop Visser, Jon Hartley Fox, Tony Collins, Dave Penny, Nick Tosches.
Dik, January 2016
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