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.
Harry Raab created “Harry the Hipster” and then, like Whitman, celebrated and sang himself into being. It was Whitman who first quivered into “a new identity” on “the smoke of my own breath/steep’d amid honey’d morphine,” “flames and ether making a rush for my veins … my flesh and blood playing out lightning to strike what is hardly different from myself.” The Hipster? Well, “every night you’ll find him round the clubs/playing and singing so wild.” Yet, for all the hopped-up intensity, while he “plays piano like mad, his singing is sad.”
Harry the Hipster is gone, but he left tracks. His theatrical way with a piano led the way for the wild keyboard showmen to come, like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. His jive-talkin’ poetry laid the groundwork for the lyrics of Mose Allison and Chuck Berry. But artists take big risks when they make themselves the canvas. For every Charles Bukowski, who thrive by making “decadence” a cottage industry and a branding concept, there are a dozen more who fall under the sword of excess. They become the victims of their own anarchic image.
In Harry’s case, addiction led to a predictable but nonetheless tragic decline. He wound up driving a cab, making a couple of vain attempts to revive his career (once with an ill-conceived Christmas album), and dying by suicide at the age of 76. Yet his best work, and his mark on history, still stands. Whitman said “the smallest sprout shows there is really no death.” I don’t know, I was only told.
There is very little in the way of either information or performance available currently for Harry the Hipster, even in this digital age. A CD collection of his best-known songs, Boogie Woogie in Blue, is out of print, although you can try finding it on Amazon. The CDs that are available were recorded late in life and are not worth getting. You can also buy used copies of a short biographical film in VHS format, also called Boogie Woogie in Blue, which I have not yet seen.
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