Like A One-Eyed Cat…
Wynonie Harris and The Birth Of Rock ‘n’ Roll
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
“I’m Mr. Blues! The man’s threat, and the woman’s pet, and I got enough money to air-condition Hell!”
“The crooners play the Great White Way where they are swamped by Coca-Cola drinking bobby soxers. I star in Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, and Missouri, and get those who have money to buy stronger stuff and the money to buy my records while they drink it.”
Have You Heard The News?
It began with “After Hours.” In the early forties, black artists started incorporating the raw, “gutbucket” rhythms of blues and barrelhouse into their playlists. The big band era was in freefall due to gas rationing; it had become prohibitively expensive to carry twenty-piece bands, along with the large numbers of musicians called up for military service, and slowly evolving public tastes. Louis Jordan was one of the first to profit from these external factors. He trimmed down his band, and Jordan and his “Tympani Five” were entertaining audiences of all races with songs about “Caledonia” and the ‘Saturday Night Fish Fry.”
It was a new sound, heck, they didn’t even have a name for it at first, it was fun to dance to and was played with razor-sharp precision. Of course it was despised by “educated” musicians, critics, and designated defenders of morality.
Meanwhile, Jordan had a major label deal with Decca and outsold everyone. To this day, he is still ranked ahead of James Brown and Stevie Wonder as the top black recording artist of all time. With his records lasting an incredible total of 113 weeks in the #1 position, Jordan didn’t even have a name for this “new” music, but when he left Chick Webb and formed his own group, his stated intentions were to produce music that was fun to listen and dance to.
Along with a reduction in the size of the groups, he ushered in an all-important change in the predominant rhythm.
For the past several years, the big bands played a straight 4/4 rhythm. Beginning with Jordan, a 2/4 rhythm began to show up. It was a rhythm with a backbeat that hit below the neck, actually, below the belt. Everyone from youth leaders to ministers, to music industry hacks began to warn against it. This new “big” beat had in fact, been around under the radar, for years, in strip joints, holiness churches, and places either unknown, ignored or occasionally whispered about.
Let’s Rock Awhile
By the mid-forties, small-band combos with that “big-beat” were cropping up in the South and Midwest and selling lots, and lots, and lots, of records. Lucky Millender, often credited with having one of the best bands of that era (also the first leader to hire Dizzy Gillespie), was playing some dates in Chicago and heard a brash young blues shouter from Omaha named Wynonie.
Wynonie Harris, born in 1915, broke into the entertainment business as a dancer and singer in the Thirties, first around Omaha, then Los Angeles, and finally Chicago, where Lucky hired him. Harris had no delusions about his abilities or appeal. In an interview with Jet magazine: “The woods are full of blues singers, some who are good, some who stink, but I wanted to be the greatest of them all. I didn’t play drums or piano, so I had to work out a new approach.”
His new approach produced “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well?’ and rocketed him to stardom.
A short time later, he and Millender had a falling-out over money and went their separate ways.
Lucky would continue to have hits over the next decade; meanwhile, Harris recorded for Apollo Records (with Illinois Jacquet featuring Charles Mingus on bass), Bullet Records, and a couple of other small labels. In 1947, he signed with Syd Nathan’s King label in Cincinnati, and all Hell broke loose.
Mr. Blues Is Coming To Town
Wynonie Harris was an unrepentant one-man army of every quality that detractors of the new music (now known as Rhythm and Blues) warned against. In 1947, he fused gospel rhythms with secular lyrics and unleashed “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” The song had originally been the tame story of a dance party, but in the hands of the Omaha Wild Man it was a bombshell. Using handclaps on the backbeat it swung like a gospel shout, while the lyrics suggested church folks like Elder Brown and Deacon Jones would be at the party doing a different kind of rocking. Described as “blasphemous,” “crude,” “suggestive,” and “Wild, Animalistic, Ni—gg-r Bop,” it launched a style of music that would tear down the ropes at segregated dances in the South, and ultimately become known as Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Mr. Blues was now the hottest act in the country, with the exception of Count Basie he sold more tickets than anyone. He drove women crazy and took full advantage of his star status. Years ago I read an interview with him in (I think) Sepia magazine. The headline read: “Women Can’t Keep Their Hands Off of Me.” In it, Harris suggests that for the safety of his fans he may have to give up singing. He cites the case of a preacher’s wife in Georgia who threw herself off of a balcony at him, and the numerous jealous husbands he has to avoid on a daily basis. Even with all the negative press, he continued to sell a shitload of records, and despite public appeals to decency from the press and the pulpit, Nathan and the folks at King refused to reel him in. The A&R people decided to stick with a winning formula and let Harris sing about matters uppermost in his mind. His favorite subjects were:
Drinking: “Who threw The Whiskey in the Well?,” “Bloodshot Eyes,” “Quiet Whiskey”
Screwing: “All She Wants To Do Is Rock,” “Wasn’t That Good?” “Keep On Churnin’ Till the Butter Comes”
Underage Girls: “Good Mornin’ Judge”
His Dick: “Papa Treetop,” “My Lovin’ Machine”
And, of course:
Pus- , (sorry) Girl Parts:: “I Like My Baby’s Pudding,” “You Kept On Sittin’ On it.”
His offstage behavior was every bit as entertaining as his music:
I Googled “Wynonie Harris + magazine” and here’s only a few of the best ones:
- Jet magazine, May 1953:
“Wynonie Harris turned down several theater dates in Virginia because Richmond cops have a warrant out for his arrest. He was indicted on charges of having Larry Darnell’s valet beaten up.”
- Jet magazine, August 12, 1954:
“Wynonie Harris redecorated his swank Long Island home and told the interior decorators that he wanted his toilet seats trimmed in mink.”
(I think I have just found a new hero)
- Jet magazine, November3, 1955:
“Because of neighborhood pressure, singer Wynonie Harris changed the name of his Brooklyn bar from “House of Blues and Booze” to the Star Tavern.”
- Jet magazine, February 24, 1955:
“Wynonie Harris put a sign on the lawn of his Long Island home that lights up at night and flashes ‘The World’s Greatest Blues Singer Lives Here.” Neighbors are said to be displeased with it.”
“I Feel That Old Age Comin’ On”
By the mid-fifties, Harris was approaching forty and too old to cash in on rock ‘n’ roll. In 1955, he told Sepia magazine: “I originated that style ten years ago. The current crop of shouters are rank imposters, they have no right to call themselves the kings of rock ‘n’ roll.”
In the sixties, he would re-record some of his hits on other labels and attempt a couple of comebacks, and then it all caught up to him. At the young age of fifty-four, he died of on June 14, 1969, of esophageal cancer.
Wynonie Harris kept rocking all the way to the end. When he knew his time was up, he invited all the musicians, pimps, hustlers, old runnin’ buddie,s and working women he could recall, and invited them to Los Angeles to say goodbye. They partied 24/7 non-stop for a solid week, and when it was time, “Mr. Blues” went upstairs, and called it a night.
…And finally: While researching this article, I came upon a collection of photographs in the Indiana Historical Society. They came from a black photographer named Emmett Brown, Jr. He had a photo shop in Indianapolis in the Fifties. Family members donated his photos to the society. There are pictures of church groups, jazz musicians, and, at the very end I found this:
(This picture is from the mid-fifties, probably around 1954-55)
There is an absolutely incredible four-part documentary on Youtube: “Flip Flop and Fly: Rock ‘n’ Roll before Elvis,” where you can hear Wynonie, Jordan, and the others).
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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