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)

What’s In A Name: Emmylou Harris, “Mister Sandman”

At long last, the third installment of what’s turning into a very occasional series about the nine solo artists named Harris who hit the Billboard pop charts over the first thirty years of the rock era. (At this rate, I’ll finish about the time I turn 70, which suggests I should speed things up a bit.) As I’ve noted previously, the odd thing is that none of them hit the Top 40 more than once. This time around, it’s the most highly regarded (not to mention successful) musician of the nine, country legend Emmylou Harris. The source of inspiration? “Mister Sandman” is at #39 on this weekend’s 4/11/81 Premiere offering, embarking on a three-week ride that peaked at #37.

My write-ups about Tony Harris and Major Harris attempted to provide a bit of biography because of their relative obscurity, and also because there just wasn’t much out there. Since this isn’t the case for Emmylou Harris, I’ll largely content myself with a few choice passages about her courtesy of Stereo Review, since that’s where I would mostly have learned about her. A quick perusal of the SR archives reveals an article by Carol Offen in December 1975 (which summarizes Harris’s life and career up to her breakthrough LP Pieces of the Sky, including her serendipitous introduction to and work with Gram Parsons) and at least a half-dozen Best of the Month, Recordings of Special Merit, and featured reviews, all courtesy of Harris mega-fan Noel Coppage.

From the Offen article, a quote: “I’d rather have somebody come see me and, instead of going out and buying my album, go buy a Louvin Brothers album and experience what I experienced the first time I heard it. I would really get off on that.”

As for Coppage…
–on Pieces of the Sky (BotM, 6/75): “Emmylou’s voice is smooth, it has good range and a lovely tone that shimmers on the high notes, and she complements all this with a folksinger’s straightforward phrasing.”
–on Elite Hotel (RSM, 5/76): “..she simply doesn’t need quirky songs or chestnuts everyone knows by heart, just a few that really say something she can wholeheartedly connect with…”
–on Blue Kentucky Girl (BotM, 5/77): “Harris has prodigious talent as a singer, and more than enough style to make her the absolute owner of a song once she’s recorded it. She also has good instincts about what kinds of songs go together…”
–on Evangeline (BotM, 6/81): “…she is one of the few singers around now who give the (probably accurate) impression that they won’t do songs they don’t identify with, let alone don’t like, even if it means going without hits.”

Coppage died in late 1982, and his final reviews appeared in the March 1983 issue. Appropriately, those include one for Late Date, a live Harris album.

Despite the high praise from Coppage, despite rave reviews of later albums such as Wrecking Ball and Red Dirt Girl, I remain almost completely ignorant of Harris’s body of work. My excuse back in the late 70s/early 80s was that country music outside of Waylon Jennings wasn’t much my thing. Later, though? Now? It’s just an outright unforced error that I’m more familiar with “Emmylou” by First Aid Kit than any of the real Emmylou’s songs. I expect that to change, and soon.

I feel certain that Casey mentioned on one of those April 1981 shows that Emmylou first recorded “Mister Sandman” with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. For years I didn’t realize that the take on the single was all Emmylou, harmonizing with herself–Ronstadt’s and Parton’s record companies wouldn’t allow the trio’s version to be released on a 45. It was on Evangeline, however; I’m thinking Kasem played the album cut at least once?

See which one you favor.

What’s In A Name: Major Harris, “Love Won’t Let Me Wait”

Almost two years ago, I wrote up the first of what I claimed would be a nine-part series on the solo charting acts of the rock era with whom I share a surname. The curious thing about this collection of singers was that eight of the nine hit the Top 40 exactly once (the ninth, Tony Harris, the subject of that first piece, was the one who didn’t hit at all). It’s taken too long, but I’m finally getting around to a second installment; the impetus was the artist’s appearance on last week’s 5/24/75 rebroadcast.

Major Harris is best-known for that one song, “Love Won’t Let Me Wait.” It’s a not-so-quiet-storm jam, as Harris pleads for (and by song’s end, apparently obtains) a night of ecstatic explosiveness with the woman in his company. It reached #1 on the Soul chart, and made #5 on AT40 (it was #13 when I listened last week).

But finding out very much more about Harris’s life and times has proved somewhat elusive. Searches on Google and Bing lead mostly to obituaries posted soon after he passed away in November 2012 (by about the eighth page, search results begin including references to the late 80s quarterback from West Virginia University with the same name). These articles usually have similar skeletons.

Major Harris was born in Richmond, VA, in 1947. According to his Wiki page, both of Harris’s parents had connections to and interest in music. He sang with several groups you’ve heard of, but invariably after they were done generating their big hits: the Jarmels (also from Richmond), the Teenagers (post-Frankie Lymon, of course), and most notably, the Delfonics (he went back to them after his solo career faded).

Harris put out a couple of singles in the late 60s that went nowhere, although “Call Me Tomorrow” is pretty tasty (the B-side is a decent cover of “Like a Rolling Stone”).

His early 70s work with the Delfonics got him a solo deal with Atlantic, and his debut album My Way (yes, it includes his take on the Paul Anka-penned classic) produced his big hit, as well as “Each Morning I Wake Up,” which made #3 on the Disco chart. Jealousy came out a year later; the first single, “I Got Over Love,” almost sounds like it’s surveying the scene from the morning after “Love Won’t Let Me Wait,” opening with (the same?) woman crying, “Major, don’t go.” It barely crawled into the top 25 on the Soul chart and couldn’t crack the Hot 100 (though two singles from Jealousy–the title cut and “Laid Back Love”–did). Atlantic then dropped him, and it appears he later released two other albums that didn’t go anywhere. Beyond that, the record out there on the Internet is pretty thin, until we get to his death at age 65. One tribute did mention four children.

I don’t have any recollection of “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” getting radio play on WSAI during its run on the pop charts (which may or may not mean anything). I probably learned of its existence from a late 80s Joel Whitburn book; the first time I can recall hearing it was almost exactly eight years ago, when Premiere played 6/7/75. That happens to be the show that got me hooked once again on AT40.

(This is the 300th post with the PastBlast tag.)

What’s In A Name: Tony Harris, “Chicken, Baby, Chicken”

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.