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Remembering Harry the Hipster Gibson

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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.

Works:

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.

References:

Chris Erikson’s profile in the Daily News
Wikipedia

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About RJ Eskow

  • Chad

    Back in 1987, I sold Harry and his then wife my mobile home located near Brawley CA. At the time I was not aware of who he was. To say the least, he was a very eccentric individual. Shortly before his death he kicked his wife out and would try to ride his bike into town about 4 miles away. We would usually find him passed out or resting along the way and give him a ride.
    I wish I had known at the time WHO he was and made sure all the things in his house were saved. He had a computer and was writing a autobiography. I remember alot of rough draft copies in his house.

  • Barry F. Bealick

    Until now I never thought about doing an online search for “Handsome Harry ‘The Hipster’ Gibson” because I thought that he was “lost to time.” My 84-year-old mom in Delray Beach, Florida (I’m in New York City) was watching a MUSIC CLASSICS video that included his signature song, “Handsome Harry The Hipster.”

    She remembered meeting him through my dad — her late husband — at a Hiram Walker [Liquor] Distributors function at Manhattan’s Hotel Pierre on Fifth Avenue. It was 1944 and Harry recognized my dad from other clubs where my dad used to meet Hiram Walkers’ Eastern Sales Directors Moynihan and Oakley for sales meetings.

    These sales directors preferred to conduct their liquor sales meetings at hotel bars such as The King Cole Bar at The St. Regis Hotel and at the bars of supper clubs like Leon & Eddie’s and Mike Menusche’s. My mom still recalls the matchbox cover for the latter: “Meet Me at Menusche’s.”

    My mom often accompanied my dad at liquor conventions and related events. She loved the music and the dancing. Harry again greeted my parents, as my mom recalls, at The Gotham Hotel, 55th Street and Fifth Avenue (across the street from the above-mentioned St. Regis Hotel).

    Remembering her name, he ad-libbed a “Sister Sarah the Sipster” verse in which he creatively crafted a lineup of beverages for her. He merged several ad-libbed verses into a song about “Drinking and Drugging, Whatever Keeps You Bugging and Hugging.”

    My mom thinks “Handsome Harry” liked my dad because they were about the same age, were both Jewish, were both from New York City, “hung” with the City College ‘crowd’ a few years earlier, and loved stride-piano impresarios like James P. Johnson and Thomas “Fats” Waller, as well as ragtime pianists like Scott Joplin.

    My late father frequently took my mom to jazz clubs on 52nd Street. Harry was quick to recognize my parents and my mom can’t help but wonder how Harry so very quickly spotted THEM before they spotted HIM.

    Perhaps Handsome Harry The Hipster also had “an eagle’s eye” in addition to his quick wit, quick musical ad-libs, and — of course — his speedy fingers whenever he had them jumping atop a piano’s keyboard. A joy to remember, according to my mom Sarah who, at close to 85-years-old, remembers a lot from way-back-when.

    Sarah asked me to post this tribute to someone who was so cheerful and pleasant to her and her late husband — my dad — whenever their respective paths crossed in the music-filled clubs of New York City’s 1940’s when my late dad had to always meet his Hiram Walker Distributors bosses, Messrs. Moynihan and Oakley, in some of the nicest hotel and supper-club bars in the city!

    Barry F. Bealick

  • Larry Murillo

    I met Harry a couple of times in the late 50s and early 60s in San Francisco. He was a friend of my mom’s friend and former light-heavyweight champ, Kenny Oberlain. I was around 13 or 14 and although he was zany and really creative, the one thing I remember is a poem that he did called, “We are the youth you crummy bastards, we are the youth”. That evening with Harry is one of those events that I have always remember with the fondest of memories.

  • Betty Hopperstad

    I met Harry “the Hipster” Gibson and his wife in the early 1970s, and stayed at their home for a week. At that time, he lived on a small horse ranch in Mariposa CA, it was quite a beautiful place. Harry taught me to ride a horse that week, something I had never done. I was just 21 or 22 at the time and had never heard of him, prior. However, he left a life long impression on me. Harry and his wife were both warm, loving, easy-going, and fun people. Harry’s antics and his strong, entertaining personality were riviting. He was certainly engrossed with himself and talked non-stop of his past celebrity, in a fun-loving way that was in no way obnoxious.

    Harry and his wife loved to go out and did so at every opportunity. I sadly watched watched a moment of his decline one evening (having never seen his incline) when he volunteered to perform at a local school benefit. He sang, playing the piano, his “Harry the Hipster” song. It was a poor performance and out of tune, but Harry was, in that moment, on top of the world. I have carried that one week friendship and experience in my memory for the past 40 years. I only recently did a google search and am so happy that there are some of us who are delighted to carry on his memory and continue to recognize his great talent.

    Interestingly, then I thought he was a very old man and remember him as being about 70 yrs. old, at that time. Obviously my own youth distorted that memory, as he must have only been in his late 50s. I only recently did a google search on him and am so happy that there are some of us who are delighted to carry on his memory and continue to recognize his great talent.

  • Frank Miller

    I remember Harry’s arrival in Coconut Grove Fl (with his indian Wife at the time) he had broke his leg in AZ and she had helped him heal .
    Harry was playing in a bar owned by by Ma & Pa Geer located on Coral Way ( his tip bowl was full of pills) it was a wonderful experience to know Harry

  • Bryan

    You can now find a few things of his on youtube, including the documentary, Boogie in Blue. A live album from his later year (1996) is on the free music site Spotify. ~ As a musician myself, Harry has made a remarkable impression on me, more then anyone of that era certainly. I’m attracted to good humor and fun-spirited music, and that’s what he delivers in his genre better then anyone else I’ve seen so far. It’s great to hear how he touched peoples lives here. Very glad I found this article ***