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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Episode 43 - Sterling E. Harrison: "E" for Electrifying

After the publication of this column in early October 2007, I received an email from Sterling Harrison's sister, who felt that I wrongly and unfairly implied that Sterling was "working clubs for dollars, change, and tips."

Ms. Harrison, who mentioned she traveled with Sterling from age 15 to the early `80s, pointed out that Sterling regularly performed to packed houses in Richmond and its surrounding counties throughout his career.

As I wrote to Ms. Harrison in my reply,the furthest thing from my mind was any disrespect to Sterling and that if I had given that impression I sincerely apologized.

We never write in a vacuum, and there are real people with real feelings out there reading what we're writing. This column is a way of painting Sterling Harrison's life with a few broad brush strokes. But the thing is that Sterling's life was his life, not my art, and nobody's life can - or should - be reduced to just a few brush strokes. Sterling worked the M&M Soul Food in L.A. He also worked clubs in Richmond, VA. where people had to be turned away from the doors when he performed. As Ruth Harrison wrote, there was so much more to Sterling's life as both a person and entertainer, his love and dedication to his family, and his love for children and his fans. That's worth remembering, too. - fhb.


"... a man named Sterling Harrison, who never got his due. He used to sing demos for Holland, Dozier, and Holland, but never had a hit of his own. Before he died, he was singing for dollar tips in a barbecue joint at 82nd and Western.

There is great music happening all over the country. Sometimes you got to seek it out. And if you don't seek it out, it's just going to disappear." Bob Dylan, on Sterling Harrison, TTRH, "Days of the Week"

Listen now with the Dreamtime Player

[A Nickel and a Nail - Sterling Harrison]

That was Sterling Harrison with A Nickel and a Nail, from his 2007 CD, South of the Snooty Fox. A CD co-produced incidentally by Theme Time Radio Hour producer Eddie Gorodetsky together with the saxophonist from Los Lobos, Steve Berlin.

The Snooty Fox is a real place, a combination motor inn and bar located near 41st and Western in old South Central L.A. where Harrison sometimes performed. South of the Snooty Fox takes you even deeper into the heart of South Central and eventually to M&M Soul Food at Manchester and Western, which was Harrison's home base towards the end of his career and is the "barbecue joint" that Dylan is referring to, even though he gets the address slightly wrong.

Harrison is something of a poster child for all the artists who never get that one break, and whose luck, if it didn't exactly run bad, never ran all that well either. But, maybe the difference between Sterling Harrison and me is that he probably would have disagreed with that assessment. Sterling Harrison thought he was a lucky man, because he did exactly what he loved to do for over 40 years.

“I’m an entertainer,” advised Harrison in a 2001 interview, “so I entertain — sing, dance, impressions, comedy. Whatever it takes to entertain these people, I’m gonna do.” Outside of soul and rhythm and blues, Harrison entertained his audience with jokes so blue they would have made Redd Foxx blush, and impressions of celebrities ranging from Moms Mabley, Al Green and Ray Charles to Ed Sullivan, Paul Lynde and Richard Nixon. And all the while he milked the room for those dollar tips Dylan refers to, giving the crowd their money's worth.

Born in 19 and 41, Harrison was a proud son of Richmond, Virginia, where he would return to die 64 years later.
"All ll I wanted to do from age eight was be a singer," Harrison said. According to family legend, Harrison got his start when a local promoter heard the boy singing The Lord's Prayer on his front lawn and booked him to open for various acts - Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett among them - as they came through town.

In 1955 or `56, the 15-year-old asked his mother for permission to travel to New York City, where he cut his first single,
The Devil’s Got a Spell on Me, for Vim Records. During the late `50s through the `60s, Sterling was a popular act on the chitlin' circuit, touring from Long Island to Nashville, playing at the Apollo, working the same bills as James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding. Club owner Bill Jones started calling Harrison "Sterling E." around this time, the "E" for "electrifying," because Harrison had so much on-stage energy.

But as he would throughout all of his career, Harrison had much more success with live performances than he would recording. During the same period he cut two more singles - both of which disappeared without a trace - and would even try capitalizing on the `60s craze for novelty dances. Among the more than 400 new dance steps introduced in the `60s - numbers such as the Batusi, The Freddie, The Dog and The Funky Broadway - was The Wobble, with Mr. Sterling Harrison as "King of the Wobble."

The Wobble faded into perhaps deserved obscurity, and by 1977 Harrison had landed in L.A. and eventually met up with
the songwriting/production team behind the Four Tops’ and the Supremes’ ’60s hits, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian Holland and Edward Holland, Jr. The trio penned a song for Harrison - Roll Her, Skate Her - which was released on the Motown label. According to reports, it was a very good single even with its unlikely title, but it went nowhere, as did an album that Harrison released on Atlantic in 1980.

And for the next 20 years, it was pretty much south of the Snooty Fox for Sterling Harrison, with the occasional trips back home to Richmond and gigs everywhere from Las Vegas to the Virgin Islands. He became M&M Soul Foods house entertainer, churning out soul standards and rhythm and blues, telling dirty jokes, doing a dead-on Moms Mabley, entertaining the Saturday night crowd and collecting his dollar tips. That's where LA deejay, Allen Larman, found him and spread the word about Sterling E. eventually bringing our Eddie G. down to South Central to hear him. Eddie Gorodetsky loved his sound, booked Harrison to play the Dharma & Greg wrap party, and began making plans to cut a Sterling Harrison album to finally bring his sound to the world at large.

South of the Snooty Fox was recorded in 2001, but apparently never attracted any label interest until it was released six years later by Hacktone this August, two years to the exact day after Harrison's death on August 21, 2005. He probably laughed up in heaven about the irony of it all; Sterling Harrison was a good-natured man, happy to have lived his dream.

“I never smoked a cigarette," Sterling Harrison once said. "Never got high, don’t drink nothin’ stronger than cranberry juice... I know you gotta be patient in this business, but it’s just as important to be ready.”

He was always ready.

I could play another track from South of the Snooty Fox, but with only 11 cuts on the album, it's not fair to Harrison's memory I think. I'd rather tell you to go buy the music, which you can find on both Amazon and on iTunes. Personally, I'd go for the CD. It includes an extra track not available through iTunes, Harrison's Funny Life, a 1965 single. Almost all the cuts on Snooty Fox are great - I think Seven Days, which Theme Time played, of course, might be the weakest song on the album. More representative of Harrison's style is A Nickel and a Nail, and there are a couple of standouts: A 7-minute+ version of Bobby Bland's I'll Take Care of You, and a great cover of Tom Waits' The House Where Nobody Lives, which I'm hoping Theme Time will play if they ever do a "Covers" episode.

I'm closing out tonight's Dreamtime with a song played at Sterling Harrison's memorial ceremony. Here's The Original Five Blind Boys with Sending Up My Timber.

Thanks for listening, and we'll be back soon.

Sources: Shining from the South; Sterling Harrison memorial page; Roll with Me, Sterling; Dance Crazes of the `60s

If you want to see Sterling Harrison in all his glory at M&M Soul Food, check out this 9-minute+ clip over at our sister site. The video's quality is extremely poor, but nonetheless gives a taste of what the live Sterling Harrison act was like.


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pamela hitchins said...

Fred, your ability to dig out priceless nuggets of music history never ceases to amaze me.

fhb said...

Thanks, Pam! Always a pleasure to hear from you.