First time I heard about Wynonie Harris, it was as the subject of a column by pop music historian Nick Tosches (responsible for killer bios of both Jerry Lee Lewis and Dean Martin) in Creem magazine. Entitled “Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘N’ Roll,” Tosches’ column (later collected into book form) focused on those blues shouters and vocal groups who pushed the door open for early rock ‘n’ roll. Per this obsessive chronicler of hard-rockin’ excess, the majority of these musical pioneers were one whacked-out bunch of high-rollin’ lunatics – and Harris was at the front of the pack. When he belts out his first big hit, his version of Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” you know it’s gonna be a wild night.
Harris’ best tracks were loud jump blues songs devoted to sex, drink and all manner of illicit behavior. Hits in the late 1940s and early ’50s on the so-called “race charts,” they were not immediately meant to be appreciated by a teenaged audience but instead a more mature group of blues hounds: not so much a celebration of youth as they were a call to rock out in the midst of life’s tribulations. Unabashedly ribald, it was decidedly grown-up party music. Not too surprisingly, during the nineties proto-swing revival, Harris’s songs were regularly covered; Buster Poindexter made Harris’ oeuvre a cornerstone of his repertoire.
I’ve been playing Wynonie a lot recently – along his contemporaries like Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner – and getting quite a charge out of it. This isn’t a nostalgic exercise for me since the music by and large predates my radio-listening youth, but clearly something there has been recently speaking to me. Harris shows up on a lot of jump blues collections from the nineties, but the best American overview of his hits is Rhino’s Bloodshot Eyes: The Best of Wynonie Harris (1994): eighteen tracks of rollickin’ R&B from King Records. (Unfortunately missing from this set: “Who Threw the Whiskey Down the Well?,” which he sang for Decca as part of the Lucky Millander Orchestra.) Clappin’ rhythm, hard-boiled sax and a dynamic belter are the basic elements to great jump blues, and Wynonie had ’em to the max on these King sides. Listening to the chorus to “Sittin’ On It All the Time,” with its irrefutable drumming and squonking sax punctuations, you can’t help but be won over to a song that’s essentially a taunting putdown of a lifelong virgin.
Harris’ pebbly bellow was perfectly suited to this stuff: it was the sound of a guy you knew had himself experienced both the joys and regrets of a too-fast life. In addition to the regular exhortations to let the good times rock ‘n’ roll, he also specialized in comic warning songs: in Hank Penny’s “Bloodshot Eyes,” he chastises a hung-over beauty whose eyes “look like two cherries in a glass of buttermilk;” in “Good Morning, Judge” (also a showstopper for David Johansen’s Buster P.), his misspent ways repeatedly bring him up before the title adjudicator. Even at his funniest, there’s a clear hint of rue in these tracks: jumpin’ it all may be, but it still remains rooted in the blues.