What’s In A Name: Thurston Harris, “Little Bitty Pretty One”

A couple of Sunday mornings ago I was walking the dog, listening to a stream of the 5/13/72 AT40 being rebroadcast by Premiere, on a station in Halifax (as one does—the upside being that one is not subjected to the Noxitril ads that are in the pre-packaged commercial load sent to U.S stations). Toward the end of hour two, Casey spun the Jackson 5’s cover of “Little Bitty Pretty One,” sitting at #17. On the intro, he noted it’d made the charts four times before, listing artist and peak position (more on that later). The most successful version was by Thurston Harris, which reached #6 in late 1957 on both the Best Sellers and Top 100 charts; this reminded me I’m overdue for another installment in the series where I highlight the biggest hit by folks with whom I share a surname (as I’ve mentioned before, there were only nine such solo acts through 2002, eight of whom hit the Top 40 but none more than once).

I’ve spent some time since then trying to learn what I can about Thurston Harris. There’s not a lot readily available, mostly a few short biographical sketches centered around his big hit and an obituary in the Los Angeles Times that appeared right after his passing in April 1990. The basic outline of Harris’s life: born in Indianapolis in the summer of 1931 (less than three weeks after my father’s birth), did time in the Army, worked his way to LA by the early 50s, joined and recorded with a vocal group called the Lamplighters, went solo, cut “LBPO” and tasted success briefly, spent a few years futilely chasing additional glory, died frustrated and bitter at age 58.

A few observations and elaborations might be worth making.

–Harris was a volatile man who lived hard, suffering addictions to drugs and alcohol (reportedly overcoming the first but not the second). He made very little money from his big hit, apparently having naively signed an unfavorable contract with Aladdin Records.

–I found mention of and brief quotes from interviews with Goldmine and People magazines. I would love to get my hands on one or both.

–“LBPO” was written by Robert Byrd, known to the world as Bobby Day. Harris recorded his version of the song (backed by his old Lamplighter friends who now called themselves the Sharps) very soon after Day had; both were quickly released as singles. Listening to them back-to-back, I understand why the public sent Harris’s take into the Top 10 while Day could only muster a #57 peak—I think Harris just took a more spontaneous approach to the vocals (and his background support is better, too).

(Aside: I gained quite an appreciation for Day in putting this together. His other primary writing credits are for “Over and Over,” later a #1 hit for the Dave Clark Five, and “Buzz-Buzz-Buzz,” a #11 hit by the Hollywood Flames, of which Day was a member. They’re both great songs—I first encountered “BBB” via its cover on Huey Lewis and the News’s album Picture This. Of course, Day may be best known for singing “Rockin’ Robin,” a song he didn’t write. As fate would have it, Michael Jackson had his version of “Robin” on the 5/13/72 countdown that inspired this post.)

–Harris soon followed up his hit with “Do What You Did,” a song he penned himself. Subject-wise it reminds me of Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You,” but it’s a MUCH more rousing number. It did reach #20 on the R&B chart and #57 on the Top 100. Other than a one-week appearance on the Hot 100 in August 1958 with “Over and Over,” he never reached a pop chart again.

–The Sharps later changed names one final time, to the Rivingtons. Under that moniker they experienced chart success with “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” (#48, 1962) and “The Bird’s the Word” (#52, 1963) and later songwriting royalties when the Trashmen combined the two into “Surfin’ Bird.”

–Despite “LBPO” being lyrically slight (two short verses placed in and amongst a lot of mmm-ing and ah-ing), it’s quite a catchy piece, an irresistible lure for others to cover over the years. You can imagine I’ve been checking many of them out. Frankie Lymon made it to #58 in August 1960 with his only charting solo single, adding a syncopated “WO-WO-WO-WO-WO” going into the between-verse ahs. Almost two years later, Clyde McPhatter reached #25 with an arrangement not unlike Lymon’s, with background horns joining in throughout. The Jackson 5’s take is effervescent and polished, with Jermaine, Jackie, and Michael taking turns at the lead—it was on its way to #13 in that spring of 1972.

Two non-pop-charting versions by well-known acts come from Cliff Richard and Huey Lewis and the News. Richard recorded the song in 1983 as part of a special disk marking his 25th year in the music biz; he retains the Lymon “WO” but changes some of the lyrics (for instance, “come sit down on my knee” is now “I never want you to leave,” as maybe was appropriate for a forty-something to do). Lewis and company did it for their Four Chords and Several Years Ago, a natural fit given their affinity for the songs of that era. They do it a cappella, with Huey tossing in the occasional “heh” as the only embellishment (and it did make the Adult Contemporary chart).

–But back to Thurston Harris. He recorded a few singles in the early 60s that went nowhere. My secondary sources (which clearly have access to primary sources I can’t find) discuss extended homelessness, bouts of institutionalization, work as a tour bus guide, and the above-mentioned alcoholism and drug abuse. While much of his unhappiness appears to be self-inflicted, I can’t help but wonder how things might have gone differently had Harris gotten a fair shake from his record company.

–The Times obit says Harris died of a heart attack in a “rest home,” while other sources say his death occurred at his sister’s house. The Times also mentions a scheduled performance at the Greek Theater that would have taken place in October 1990. It’s clear that despite all his issues, he harbored hopes through the years of mounting a comeback.

–The irony: a happy, snappy tune, sung across fifteen years by four Black men (Harris, Lymon, McPhatter, Michael Jackson) who all struggled mightily with this thing called life. I’m not finding any references to similar issues for Bobby Day; however, his life was cut short by prostate cancer, just months after Harris had died.

This Is My Story (tims.blackcat.nl/messages/thurston_harris.htm)
Way Back Attack (www.waybackattack.com/harristhurston.html)
Jon Kutner (www.jonkutner.com/little-bitty-pretty-one-thurston-harris/)
Los Angeles Times (www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-04-15-mn-1907-story.html)
One Hit Wonders (onehitwondersthebook.com/?page_id=2893)

American Top 40 PastBlast, 5/14/88: Times Two, “Strange But True”

Martha Lutz spent her first year after graduating from college in Hamburg on the German equivalent of a Fulbright Award, mostly studying the history of mathematics (she’d double-majored in math and German). She knew she wanted to do graduate work in math but arrived back in the States too late for the 1985-86 academic year; in August 1986, she enrolled in the master’s program on a teaching assistantship at the University of Louisville, across the river from her hometown of New Albany, IN. Martha received her degree in a ceremony held at Freedom Hall thirty-five years ago today, on May 14, 1988. In attendance were her parents, her sister, and her then-boyfriend (the picture above was taken just after she’d received her diploma). That summer she began a job at Midway College (now University), a two-year women’s college in the process of converting to a bachelor’s-granting institution, with the intention that eventually she’d return to school to get a doctorate.

During those twenty-one months, my future wife and I were charting the same course (unbeknownst to each other, of course).  I was three-and-a-half hours northwest of Louisville, at the University of Illinois, and my master’s ceremony, held in a hall of the fine arts center, was just eight days after hers. In attendance were my parents and my sister (I wasn’t dating anyone at the time). I would be staying to work on a Ph.D., but a number of folks in my initial cohort were departing Urbana-Champaign, some to teach at a community college, others to take a position that required quantitative chops, and a couple or so to pursue doctoral work elsewhere. I also have a photo from the day of the ceremony, taken as I’m about to enter the apartment near downtown Urbana I shared with friends John and Jim. Note the cheesy mustache and scraggly growth on my cheeks and chin; that was the last time I made any sort of attempt at facial hair, and I’m pretty sure I got rid of it within a few days.

What to do for this slightly odd tale of two math nerds doing the same thing at the same time in different places for a couple of years who then met two-thirds of a decade later and really got a thing for one another? I’m going with the only Top 40 hit for a duo out of California. Times Two released one album and one EP before splitting in the early 90s. “Strange But True” is sitting at #23 on this countdown, two slots shy of its peak. (They tried to follow it up with a Club Nouveau-ified cover of “Cecilia,” but the public voted against it.) Be warned: the video contains a severe case of late 80s fashion.

At some point—it was before I came on the scene—Martha let go of the idea of going back to school. Inertia may have played a role. That decision clearly paid off, for both of us, in one big way.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 5/1/71: The Fuzz, “I Love You for All Seasons”

I’ve said it before, and likely will say it again someday: one of the greatest things to come from listening to old AT40s over the past decade has been discovering Soul hits from the first half of the 1970s (when I was between six and ten years old) that failed to make the pop canon. This weekend, Premiere is playing the 5/1/71 show, and fully a quarter of its tunes went Top 10 on Billboard‘s R&B chart. A few are still well-known today; perhaps others deserved to be. Let’s investigate. (Note: any omissions are due to less-than-crack research on my part.)

33. Brenda & the Tabulations, “Right on the Tip of My Tongue” (peaked at #10 R&B)
An all-time great group name, notable enough to receive mention in Reunion’s fall 1974 stream-of-consciousness hit “Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me).” (Trivia question: in checking “Rock”‘s lyrics for mentions of other acts, I discovered that indeed there’s another group in this post who got name-checked in it–do you know which one?)

32. Honey Cone, “Want Ads” (#1)
I learned a lot when Casey started recapping the #1 songs of the 1970s in October 1978, but not enough. While I’m pretty sure I was passingly familiar with “Want Ads” by then, I didn’t know the name of the performers–my chart from 12/9/78 shows I thought they were called “The Honey Combs.”

29. King Floyd, “Baby Let Me Kiss You” (#5)
I did not know until writing this: 1) King was Floyd’s given name; 2) he and I share(d) a birthday. As was the case for Brenda & the Tabulations, we’re being treated to the second of two forays onto AT40.

25. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “I Don’t Blame You at All” (#7)
The 27th and final Top 40 hit by the Miracles while Smokey was with them.

23. The Fuzz, “I Love You for All Seasons” (#10)
Like Honey Cone, the Fuzz was a female vocal trio. I should have known this song well during the 70s. One deeply abiding mystery from that period is why I rarely flipped over K-Tel’s 20 Power Hits Volume 2 after side one (which I listened to frequently) finished. Had I done so, I’d be singing along this weekend instead of trying recover from a lost opportunity.

13. Stevie Wonder, “We Can Work It Out” (#3)
One great cover of a former #1 song…

12. Aretha Franklin, “Bridge over Troubled Water/Brand New Me” (#1)
…deserves another.

9. The Temptations, “Just My Imagination” (#1)
Another final turn for a legendary vocalist before striking out on his own: Eddie Kendricks bowed out from the Temps after recording this classic.

4. Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” (#1)
I’ve never tried to rank my favorite 70s songs that peaked at #2; my initial reaction is that it’d be hard to pick anything over “What’s Going On.”

3. The Jackson 5, “Never Can Say Goodbye” (#1)
“Mama’s Pearl” had also broken their streak of #1 R&B hits; “Never Can Say Goodbye” temporarily righted that ship, though it’d be another three years before they had another #1 R&B (“Dancing Machine”).

Doing penance for past sins by embedding “I Love You for All Seasons.” It took a 12-position leap in this show, perhaps suggesting it might also go Top 10 Pop. The early 70s Hot 100 was a capricious place, though, one in which a song’s momentum could quickly prove ephemeral. From here, it’d go 22-22-21-28-33-off the chart. The Fuzz disbanded the following year.