No R&B blog can be complete unless it takes a look at the works of Wynonie Harris, blues shouter extraordinaire. A guy who lived the life portrayed in so many of his songs – booze, broads, partying, gambling, more booze, more partying and so on. His series of hard rocking, salacious sides recorded for King in the late 1940s and early 1950s are among the greatest R&B records ever recorded and were an important step in the evolution of early rock and roll.
Wynonie was born in 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska. His showbiz career started with spots as a dancer (with dance partner Velda Shannon as seen on the front cover photo of this LP) and MC in local theatres and clubs. Omaha is only two hundred miles from Kansas City and it was to the booming music scene of KC that Wynonie made several trips. There he heard two leather-lunged blues shouters, Jimmy Rushing and Big Joe Turner and decided to take up singing the blues.
In 1940 Wynonie relocated to Los Angeles where the Central Avenue scene was taking off. He became established at the Club Alabam as MC and singer. In 1944 he got his big break when Lucky Millinder invited him to join his band as replacement vocalist for Trevor Bacon who was leaving to join the new Tab Smith outfit. Now Wynonie was fronting one of the leading big bands in the country at venues such as The Apollo Theatre and The Savoy Ballroom. He made his recording debut for Decca on the Millinder sides “Hurry Hurry Baby” and “Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well?” The latter was a huge hit in June 1945, reaching number one and spending twenty weeks in the race chart.
Just as “Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well?” was racing up the charts, Wynonie made his solo recording debut for the new Los Angeles based indie label Philo (which would later become Aladdin), backed by a small band (including bebop trumpeter Howard McGhee) organised by Johnny Otis. “Around The Clock Blues” saw some good sales locally and was covered by Jimmy Rushing and Big Joe Turner, among others. It was a big influence on the later rock and roll hits “Rock Around The Clock” and “Reelin’ and Rockin’.”
Wynonie spent the rest of 1945 recording four sessions for Apollo, backed by bands led by Illinois Jacquet, Jack McVea, Oscar Pettiford and Johnnie Alston. Two of the recordings broke into the race chart in 1946: “Wynonie’s Blues” and “Playful Baby”, reaching number three and number two respectively.
There was a session for Lionel Hampton’s Hamp-Tone label at the end of 1945 or beginning of 1946 which included a two part version of “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop!” with backing from Hampton sidemen including Arnett Cobb, Joe Morris and Milt Buckner. A few months later Wynonie cut a session in Nashville for the new Bullet label. Sun Ra made his recording debut at this session.
In late 1946 Wynonie signed for Aladdin, recording three sessions for the label between November 1946 and July 1947. None of the records released on Aladdin saw chart action and Wynonie’s contract was not renewed, even though he had failed to record sixteen sides as called for in the original contract. Although he was still a popular live performer, Wynonie’s chart career had flatlined and drastic action was needed to revive it. This was soon forthcoming – he relocated to New York (where he would stay until 1964), he got himself a new agent (Jimmy Evans), and most importantly of all he signed a contract with King Records.
Wynonie began recording for King in December 1947, cutting four sessions as the company stockpiled sides to see them through a looming AFM strike. It was at the fourth of these sessions on December 28th that Wynonie recorded two sides which would restore his chart fortunes – “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Lollipop Mama.”
“Good Rockin’ Tonight” was a rocked-up cover of Roy Brown’s chart hit. It went on to easily outsell the original, becoming Wynonie’s biggest hit by reaching the number one spot and spending twenty five weeks on the chart in mid 1948. Of course to many fans of early rock and roll this is the holy grail – the record that launched dozens of R&B discs with “rock” or “rockin’” in the title and which was eventually covered by Elvis at Sun. It also kicked off the most successful spell of Wynonie’s career – he had a total of thirteen R&B chart hits on King between 1948 and 1952.
Backed by musicians usually drawn from the bands of Lucky Millinder, Todd Rhodes and Sonny Thompson, these King sides blasted forth from the juke boxes and into the charts. Sex and booze were the staple subject matter with a little gambling on the side. There was good natured innuendo aplenty in sides like “I Want My Fanny Brown”, “Sittin’ On It All The Time,” “I Like My Baby’s Pudding,” and “Lovin’ Machine.” Let the good times roll and to hell with the consequences was the message that Wynonie proclaimed.
Then suddenly the success wasn’t there any more. His last chart hit was “Lovin’ Machine” in early 1952. Record sales fell, Wynonie was slipping down the concert bills and venues were getting smaller. He was still turning out some great records at King all the way through to late 1954. “Keep On Churnin’,” “Night Train,” “Greyhound,” “Rot Gut,” “Quiet Whiskey,” “Down Boy Down,” “Shake That Thing,” “Git To Gittin, Baby,” and “Git With The Grits” are all brilliant R&B stompers, but they weren’t what was selling to the younger fans who now preferred the vocal group sound.
Wynonie’s contract with King ended in 1954. In 1956 he recorded some sides for the Atlantic subsidiary Atco, including the Leiber-Stoller song “Destination Love”, but nobody was buying. In 1957 he cut a few more sides for King that went nowhere. In 1960 and early 1961 he recorded for Roulette. These sides were mostly bowdlerised versions of some of his old R&B hits, aimed at the rock and roll crowd, but who the hell was gonna buy? Three sides cut for Chess in 1964 remained unreleased during Wynonie’s lifetime. And that was it as far as recording was concerned.
He was never a man to save for a rainy day and as his star dimmed, he scratched a living running clubs, promoting musicians and tending bar. In 1963 he returned to LA for a residency at the Hideaway Club and stayed out West for what remained of his life. He ran clubs and did a little illegal bookmaking on the side. It all ended with his death in June 1969 from cancer of the oesophagus.
The suddenness of Wynonie’s fall from the top was surprising. The contrast with the later careers of his fellow blues shouters Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Rushing and Jimmy Witherspoon is startling. Within a few years Wynonie was a forgotten figure while his three rivals enjoyed careers which extended over decades. In his superb book “Rock Mr. Blues: the life and music of Wynonie Harris”, Tony Colllins points out that while Turner, Rushing and Witherspoon found an audience among jazz fans, Wynonie was being promoted as a potential rock and roll singer, a move which with hindsight seems to have been misguided to say the least. Through most of his career Wynonie had worked alongside top jazz musicians (look at the backing bands back in 1945 and 1946, especially) and surely he could have recorded in that style again.
As it was, Wynonie’s reputation gradually revived as interest in real rhythm and blues grew again in the 1970s and 1980s. But of course the man himself was in no position to benefit when his records were re-released, but perhaps, leaning against the bar in the great after hours joint in the sky, he was able to raise his glass to his new fans down below.
“Oh Babe!” released on Route 66 in 1982. Liner notes include a memoir by Wynonie’s lifelong friend Preston Love.
Ripped from vinyl at 320 kbps.
with Johnny Otis’ All Stars, Los Angeles July 1945:
1. Around The Clock parts 1 & 2 (Philo 103) 2. Cock-A-Doodle-Doo (Philo 104) 3. Yonder Goes My Baby (Philo 104)
with Oscar Pettiford and his All Stars, Los Angeles, September 1945:
4. Time To Change Your Town (Apollo 378)
Wynonie “Mr Blues” Harris and his All Stars, New York City 1947:
5. Hard Ridin' Mama (Aladdin 208) 6. You Got To Get Yourself A Job, Girl (Aladdin 208)
“Rock Mr Blues: the life and music of Wynonie Harris” by Tony Collins, Big Nickel, 1995.
Wynonie Harris – Rockin’ The Blues (Proper 4CD set). A superb collection which covers all of Wynonie’s pre-King sides, plus his King recordings up until late 1950. The accompanying booklet has in depth notes by Joop Visser.
Wynonie Harris – Lovin’ Machine (Ace CDCHD 843): a selection of King sides from 1951 to 1957. Essential rockin’ stuff from the master tapes.
Wynonie Harris – Women, Whiskey & Fish Tails (Ace CDCHD457): more King sides from mainly 1953 and 1954. Includes “Greyhound” and “Shake That Thing.”
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