2020-04-27 17:15:14 UTC
Reviewed by Bill Dahl, a Chicago writer whose Bluesmakers column appears in the Tribune's Friday section
Rock Mr. Blues:
The Life & Music of Wynonie Harris
By Tony Collins
Big Nickel, 180 pages, $25
Booze, women and partying were the favorite lyrical fare of raucous blues shouter Wynonie Harris.
His rollicking, slightly hoarse, devil-may-care vocal delivery translated into massive record sales during the post-war era. Harris was one of the most popular rhythm and blues artists of the late 1940s and early 1950s, greatly influencing the birth of rock 'n' roll with his torrid brand of horn-fueled jump blues.
Tony Collins' exceptionally well-researched and extremely readable paperback examination of the late singer's life makes it clear that Harris practiced precisely what he preached on the risque grooves of those fragile 78s.
Harris drank hard, caroused harder and died relatively young (at age 53 in 1969). Along the way, fame eventually slipped through his charismatic fingers as the advent of rock all but wiped out the generation of R&B royalty that preceded it.
Loaded with rare photos and printed on glossy stock, "Rock Mr. Blues: The Life & Music of Wynonie Harris" does a masterly job of presenting the singer's foibles without seeming judgmental.
Born in Omaha, Harris parlayed a natural talent for dancing into a series of gigs at local bars, where he began singing. Influenced by Kansas City greats Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing, he left for Los Angeles in 1940, establishing himself as a potential star along the city's bustling Central Avenue nightlife strip.
Harris joined the popular big band of Lucky Millinder in 1944. His first recording with Millinder's outfit was the rousing R&B chart-topper "Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well?" A year later, Harris was on his own, recording for Apollo, Bullet and Aladdin before landing at Cincinnati-based King Records in 1947 (where he remained for the next seven years).
Between 1948 and 1952, Harris scored 13 R&B hits for King. His storming cover of Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight" ranks as a seminal recording of the pre-rock era, attracting subsequent versions by, among others, Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson. Harris innovatively turned the country tunes "Good Morning Judge" and "Bloodshot Eyes" into R&B smashes and cut countless amusing odes to liquor's effects (both positive and negative).
Harris consistently pushed the lyrical envelope with double-entendre gems such as "Keep On Churnin"' and "I Like My Baby's Pudding." His live performances and offstage demeanor were apparently even more ribald.
During the hitmaking years, Harris lived the high life. He bought a house in an affluent New York neighborhood (where he allegedly entertained women while his wife was in residence). He toured extensively, playing top theaters such as the Apollo in Harlem and Chicago's Regal.
But "Quiet Whiskey" (to quote one of Harris' wildest rockers) took its inevitable toll. After a couple of abortive attempts to adapt to the mid-1950s rock 'n' roll boom and a few too many burned bridges, Harris sadly faded from sight. His bigger-than-life persona was relegated to occasional low-profile club gigs.
During the early years of serious blues research, photos of Wynonie Harris were as scarce as hen's teeth. Now, in addition to a wealth of illustrations, we have a biography of this vastly underappreciated R&B pioneer that's as vivid and memorable as his best recorded work-and that's reason enough for a party right there.