Wynonie Harris - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


            When it comes to high-impact shout blues, few can rival Wynonie Harris. With a gale force set of pipes and a penchant for material that almost exclusively celebrated chasing women and living the high life, Harris' mixture of not-so-subtle double entendre and whiskey-drenched shenanigans made him one of the most popular Rhythm & Blues stars of the feverish post-war era. Born August 24, 1915 in Omaha, Nebraska, Harris grew up dirt poor, sang in the church choir and by the time he was in high school, already had two children. The big, good-looking kid wanted to be an entertainer, and appeared with local combos around the area before forming a dance act with another hoofer and by 1935, had a regular job at Omaha nitery the Harlem Club, where Harris first began seriously singing the blues.


            Harris dug the Kansas City scene, where his idols Big Joe Turner and Jimmy Rushing were based; these cats were the ones who started the shout blues school--simply because it was necessary to really bellow a lyric lest the vocals be drowned out completely by the large, brassy jazz bands who accompanied them. By 1940, Harris went West and settled in Los Angeles, and after he landed a gig at the fabled Club Alabam, he came into his own; Harris' exuberant roar earned him the title "Mr. Blues" (the first of many nicknames--he was also billed variously as Peppermint, the Mississippi Mockingbird and perhaps most appropriately, the King of Rhythm & Blues), and with a now solid rep, he fell to working the road (like every other musician, black or white, Harris was unable to record due to an ongoing Musicians Union strike that banned any studio dates).


            After a stint with Kansas City pianist Jay McShann's band, Harris found himself in Chicago, where a 1943 encounter with bandleader Lucky Millinder resulted in Millinder's hiring the singer. The following year, Harris made his first recordings, with Millinder, resulting in the Decca-issued "Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well?". Delayed by a wartime shortage of the shellac needed to press 78s, by the time the disc came out, Harris had long since quit Millinder, but it shot to number one on the R&B chart in April 1945 (and stayed there, in various positions, for the next five months) and also went to number seven on the pop chart. It was perfect timing; by the time the Japanese surrendered in August, "race records" as the trade designated them, were exploding in sales, and could scarcely be pressed fast enough to meet demand. Harris' vibrant, lusty style perfectly suited the publics taste and he began recording a series of records for various indies (“Hard Riding Mama" at Aladdin, the Bill Haley-anticipating "Blues Around the Clock" at Philo, "Dig this Boogie" at Bullet, "Hey-Ba-Ba-Re-Bop" at Hamp-Tone), and he was soon heartily denting the R&B chart again.


            Using the influence of Kansas City greats Turner and Rushing, the sly, slick appeal of Louis Jordan and his own, natural showman’s instinct, Harris developed an irresistible shout sound, usually opening his songs with a hoarse, big-toned sustained cry of  "Well . . ." (an affectation that became the standard kick-off for a thousand rockabilly records ten years later), then charging through the lyric with a mad, momentous assault that his equally hard-hitting band would try to keep up with. Harris had organized his own band, the Wynonie Harris All Stars, in 1947, an aggregation that often boasted R&B spearheads like Illinois Jacquet and Hal Singer and top-flight jazz cats like Dexter Gordon, Red Prysock, Hot Lips Page and Charles Mingus. He and Big Joe Turner faced off for a thundering two-sided 78, “Battle of the Blues Parts I & II” and his own records now began to habitually make the R&B charts. Signed to King Records, Harris scored ten hits between 1947-1951, but his first certifiable smash was 1949's "Good Rockin' Tonight," and while it was a cover of R&B singer Roy Brown's own recent hit (weirdly, Brown was directly inspired by Harris to start singing ), Harris’ volcanic version flew out of the bins, selling some half a million copies within a week of its release (one of them, doubtless, ending up on the turntable of a young Elvis Presley who himself would record the song at Sun Records in 1954). In 1951, Harris cut the song most popularly associated with him, “Bloodshot Eyes” (written by the Los Angeles-based country performer Hank Penny), a swinging, fast-paced and fascinating amalgam of hillbilly, jazz and pure Rhythm & Blues that also became a number one R&B hit.


            While Harris was an artist capable of delivering a ballad with all the nuance and sensitivity of a straight-ahead jazz singer, his specialty was rousing (if not downright rabid) songs focused on booze and women; such titles as “Quiet Whiskey,” “Down Boy Down,” “Rot Gut” and “Drinkin’ by Myself” ably covered the former, while licentious ravers like “I Like My Baby‘s Pudding,” “Sittin‘ On It All the Time,” “Luscious Woman,“ “Keep on Churnin’ (Till the Butter Comes),” and “Lovin‘ Machine” admirably addressed (or undressed) the latter. Always delivered at full-throttle, Harris’ barely controlled aptitude for excess translated into some of the most electrifying R&B vocal performances ever captured on wax, and his musicians kept loyal pace with their leader‘s drastic, almost otherworldly zeal.


            The steel-tonsiled Harris, who wrote many of his songs (or created them on the spot), was a live-wire showman, often pounding a pair of tom-toms center stage as he gave throat to his brilliantly raunchy tales of ghetto life, and his accompanists played their role as ambassadors of R&B deliverance to the hilt, rolling on the floor, going offstage to blow crazy solos amidst the audience, creating an overall presentation of kinetic, untrammeled and flat-out thrilling magnitude. Ironically, Harris was just too raw, too earthy and too vulgar to survive in the rock & roll era, and by the late fifties his career had slowed to a crawl. He dropped from sight, occasionally re-surfacing for recording sessions, but, between the British Invasion and the rise of Motown, Harris never duplicated his post-war success. A 1967 appearance at Harlem’s Apollo Theater’s annual blues night saw the 52 year-old shouter flabbergasting everyone in the room--no small feat, considering that the bill also featured T-Bone Walker, Joe Turner ,Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. It was a beautiful return to form, but no one at the time knew the singer was “booked to go”--just two years later Harris was gone, felled by esophageal cancer in June 1969.

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