Maybe the culture warriors are right about the corrupting influence of popular music. I was no more than ten years old, watching old movies as I used to do obsessively, when I came across the 1946 classic "Junior Prom" with Dodie Rogers. Suddenly in the middle of the hip-talking teen action a lanky-looking white guy was singing and playing the piano. His body was interacting with his instrument in a fashion not prescribed by Mrs. Mayberry, the family music teacher. And he was singing about crime, sex, and drugs. Roll over, 50 Cent, and tell The Game the news.
The song was "Handsome Harry the Hipster," and the performer was Harry 'The Hipster' Gibson. Harry sang of things I had vaguely heard discussed by my ex-hipster elders - "chicks," "mellowness" (being stoned), and of that mysterious thing called "jive." That's the way I had been told that "vipers" (drug users) talk. "Handsome Harry" - described in the song not only as a "hipster" but as a "flipster" and a "clipster" - "digs those mellow kicks." He's a gangsta who'll "hype you for your gold," is "the ball with all the chicks," and is "frantic and fanatic, with jive he's an addict." And with an addict's natural evasiveness, Harry ended each verse with a shrug and verbal denial: "Well, I don't know, I was only told."
I learned later that Harry, like my own relatives, was a Jewish New Yorker who discovered and melded with the jazz-fueled world of hipsterdom. His guide into that alternate reality was supposedly saxophone great Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, who played with such greats as Basie, Louis Armstrong, Cootie Williams, and Lucky Millinder. Harry started playing piano at a speakeasy run by Lockjaw, who became his jive mentor.
The former Harry Raab was soon cranking out tunes like "Get Your Juices at the Deuces," "Stop That Dancing Up There," and the future Dr. Demento favorite, "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine." To think of him as just a novelty act, however, is to do him an injustice. He was, like many artists, a breaker of taboos and a shatterer of invisible walls. His life was part of his art, and excess was part of that life. It wasn't just the tunes that made Harry Gibson a star, it was the new and fashionable anarchy they - and he - represented.