Wynonie Harris (August 24, 1915 - June 14, 1969), born in Omaha, Nebraska, was an American blues shouter and rhythm and blues singer of upbeat songs, featuring humorous, often ribald lyrics. With fifteen Top 10 hits between 1946 and 1952, Harris is generally considered one of rock and roll's forerunners, influencing Elvis Presley among others.
Early life and family:
Harris' mother, Mallie Hood Anderson, was fifteen and unmarried at the time of his birth. Harris' paternity is uncertain. Harris' wife, Olive E. Goodlow, and daughter Patricia Vest, have said that Harris' father was a Native American, named Blue Jay. Harris had no father figure in the house until 1920, when his mother married Luther Harris, fifteen years her senior.
In 1931 at age 16, Harris dropped out of high school in North Omaha. The following year his first child, daughter Micky, was born to Naomi Henderson. Ten months later, Harris' second child, son Wesley, was born to Laura Devereaux. Both children were raised by their mothers. Wesley became a singer in the Five Echoes and The Sultans. Later he became a singer and guitarist in Preston Love's band. Eventually, Wesley's grandson (Wynonie's Great Grandson), Jourdan Devereaux, under the pseudonym "L Oquence" began a music career in the genre of Hip-Hop.
In 1935 Harris, age 20, started dating 16-year-old Olive E. Goodlow (Ollie) of neighboring Council Bluffs, Iowa, who came to Omaha to watch him perform. On May 20, 1936, Ollie gave birth to daughter Pattie (Adrianne Patricia). On December 11, 1936, they married. Later they lived in the Logan Fontenelle projects in North Omaha. Ollie worked as a barmaid and nurse; Wynonie sang in clubs as well as taking on some odd jobs. Wynonie's mother, Mallie Harris, was Pattie's main caretaker. In 1940, Wynonie and Ollie Harris moved to Los Angeles, California, leaving Pattie with Mallie in Omaha.
With dance partner Velda Shannon, Harris formed a dance team in the early 1930s. The team performed around North Omaha's flourishing entertainment community, and by 1934 they were a regular attraction at the Ritz Theatre. It was not until 1935, however, that Harris was able to earn his living as an entertainer. While performing at Jim Bell's new Harlem nightclub with Velda Shannon, Harris began to sing the blues.
He also began traveling frequently to Kansas City, where he paid close attention to the blues shouters including Jimmy Rushing and Big Joe Turner. Harris became a local celebrity in Omaha during the depths of the Great Depression in 1935. Harris' break in Los Angeles was at a nightclub owned by Curtis Mosby. It was here that Harris became known as "Mr. Blues".
With Lucky Millinder:
Due to the 1942-44 musicians' strike, Harris was unable to pursue a recording career. Instead, he relied on personal appearances. Performing almost continuously, in late 1943 he appeared at the Rhumboogie Club in Chicago. Harris was spotted by Lucky Millinder who asked him to join his band's tour. Harris joined on March 24, 1944, while the band was in the middle of a week-long residency at the Regal in Chicago. They moved on to New York City, where on April 7 Harris took the stage with Millinder's band for his debut at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. It was during this performance that Harris first publicly performed "Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well" (a song recorded two years earlier by Doc Wheeler's Sunset Orchestra).
After the band's stint at the Apollo, they moved on to their regular residency at the Savoy Ballroom, also in Harlem. Here, Preston Love, Harris' childhood friend, joined Millinder's band replacing alto saxophonist Tab Smith. On May 26, 1944, Harris made his recording debut with Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra. Entering a recording studio for the first time, Harris sang on two of the five cuts that day, "Hurry, Hurry" and "Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well", for the Decca record label. Although lessening, the shellac embargo had not yet been removed, and release of the record was delayed.
Harris' success and popularity grew as Millinder's band toured the country. He and Millinder had a falling out over money. In September 1945 while playing in San Antonio, Texas, Harris quit Millinder's band. Three weeks later, upon hearing of Harris' separation from the band, a Houston promoter refused to allow Millinder's band to perform. Millinder called Harris and agreed to pay Harris' asking price of one-hundred dollars a night. The promoter re-instated the date, but it was the final time Harris and Millinder worked together. Bull Moose Jackson replaced Harris as the vocalist in the band.
In April 1945, a year after the song was recorded, Decca released "Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well". It became the group's biggest hit; it went to number one on the Billboard R&B chart on July 14 and stayed there for eight weeks. The song remained on the charts for almost five months, also becoming popular with white audiences. an unusual feat for black musicians of that era. In California the success of the song opened doors for Harris. Since the contract with Decca was with Millinder (meaning Harris was a free agent), Harris could choose from the recording contracts with which he was presented.
In July 1945, Harris signed with Philo, a label owned by the brothers Leo and Edward Mesner. Harris' band was assembled by Johnny Otis, and the group recorded the 78rpm record "Around the Clock". Although not a chart-topper, the song became popular and was covered by many artists, including Willie Bryant, Jimmy Rushing and Big Joe Turner.
Harris went on to record sessions for other labels, including Apollo, Bullet and Aladdin. His greatest success came when he signed for Syd Nathan's King label, where he enjoyed a series of hits on the U.S. R&B chart in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These included a 1948 cover of Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight", "Good Morning Judge" and "All She Wants to Do Is Rock". In 1946, Harris recorded two singles with pianist Herman "Sonny" Blount, who later earned fame as the eclectic jazz composer and bandleader Sun Ra.
In 1950, he released the double-sided hit, "Sittin' On It All the Time" b/w "Baby, Shame On You" (King 4330) and in 1951, he covered Hank Penny's "Bloodshot Eyes" (King 4461).
Harris transitioned between several recording contracts between 1954 and 1964. In 1960 he cut six sides for Roulette Records that included a remake of his hit "Bloodshot Eyes" as well as "Sweet Lucy Brown", "Spread the News", "Saturday Night", "Josephine" and "Did You Get the Message". He also became more indebted, and was forced to live in less glamorous surroundings.
In 1964 Harris resettled for the last time in Los Angeles. His final recordings were three sides which he did for the Chess Records label (in Chicago) in 1964: "The Comeback", "Buzzard Luck" and "Conjured". His final large-scale performance was at the Apollo, New York in November 1967, where he performed with Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton, Jimmy Witherspoon and T-Bone Walker.
On June 14, 1969, aged 53, Harris died of esophageal cancer at the USC Medical Center Hospital in Los Angeles.
He was the subject of a 1994 biography by Tony Collins.
Since the end of the twentieth century, there has been a resurgence of interest in his music. Some of his recordings are being reissued and he has been honored posthumously:
1994 Inducted into the W.C. Handy Blues Hall of Fame by the Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tennessee.,
1998 Inducted into the Nebraska Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Lincoln.,
2000 Inducted into the High School Hall of Fame at Central High School in Omaha, Nebraska.,
2005 Inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame,
In 2011, Harris' song "Quiet Whiskey" was listed number 9 on AskMen.com top 10 Drinking Songs list.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license