Last month I was browsing through my copy of Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, 1955-2002, wandering through the ‘H’ section. My last name is relatively common, so it’s not too surprising there have been several acts over the years that share it. I’ve known for a while there are nine solo acts listed with the surname Harris, and that they all charted between 57 and 86. One thing I have noticed is that while eight of the nine did make the Top 40, exactly zero of them scored more than one such hit.
I figured that it might be cool to do a little digging and find out more about these folks, even though my interest is strictly driven by our respective accidents of birth. Seven men and two women. A couple are well-known (though in one case, not for singing); another has a troubling (understatement alert) story. I’m hoping to do write-ups about them and their hits in a series that I’ll come back to from time to time. I think it should be fun on the whole. Today, I’m taking a look at Tony Harris, not just the first to chart in the rock era, but also the only one who never made it as high as #40.
Tony Harris had a single chart appearance. “Chicken, Baby, Chicken” spent three weeks on the Top 100 and peaked at #89 on the 8/31/57 survey. A little searching on the web doesn’t reveal much about our subject other than this pair of articles from the British magazine Blues & Rhythm: The Gospel Truth. They appear to be based virtually exclusively on the author’s conversations with Tony. Basic outline: Harris, born in 1934, got his start in gospel quartets in the Los Angeles area while still in his early teens. This led to touring on the gospel circuit (as part of a group called The Traveling Four) around the western and southern US in the mid-50s before going solo and switching to R&B. He wound up cutting just a few singles over the years; the lack of traction he experienced beyond his one minor hit kept him on the outside looking in. He did stay involved in the music business around LA, at least into the 80s.
It’s an interesting, if minutely detailed and occasionally rambling, story; it almost reads like the transcript of a tape recording at times. Sam Cooke, Darlene Love, Dick Clark, Mighty Clouds of Joy, Bumps Blackwell, the Rivingtons, and Little Richard all make appearances, though some only on the very fringes of the tale. The most fascinating detail revealed is that Harris did a couple of tours posing as Little Richard after the latter found religion and left promoters holding the bag. There are a few pictures of him in the linked articles—I haven’t found any elsewhere. I don’t know if he’s still living; he’d be 84.
The pieces appeared over twenty years ago. The author, Opal Louis Nations, is originally from England and clearly has a longstanding, deep interest in US gospel groups of yesteryear. I assume he’s still around—information on the internet for him outside his own website, while not quite as sparse as it is for Harris, still doesn’t amount to a whole lot. I’m certainly glad to have found the articles.
“Chicken, Baby, Chicken” sounds a little rough around the edges to me, but it’s still a pretty sweet R&B number about the famous dance craze. If you’re curious, take a listen. Ebb was a short-lived LA R&B label in the late 50s; I see that there are two compilations of its releases out there. Tony has three songs on Volume 2, and “Chicken, Baby, Chicken” is its lead track.
By the way, Harris said he wrote this song. The “O” below tells me that I don’t know his actual first name.