By Jim Schutze
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"Most everybody out there singing has got a bit of me snuck up in them," Harris told Anthony Heilbut, who wrote the essential reference book The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. Harris also liked to remark that most of the people imitating him didn't even know his name. This lack of recognition bothered Harris to the point that he would often overcompensate by making outlandish claims. In a 1987 interview on behalf of the Texas Music Museum, Harris took credit for inventing the falsetto and later teaching the style to Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots, writing the first true gospel song (at age 7), inspiring vocal arrangements by Duke Ellington, and inadvertently teaching Tex Ritter how to yodel. He said he'd been offered blank checks by record labels wanting him to sing pop and R&B. But he considered his talent a gift from above, so he thought it only fair to devote his voice solely to the Lord.
He could be telling the truth, but Harris' boasts stretch thin over the course of the hour-long interview. There's really no graceful way to atone for 50 years of being overlooked.
Although he claims that his subsequent groups--the Christland Singers, the Gospel Paraders, and the Masonic Quintet--"ascended the heights of popularity," Harris was never able to duplicate the furor he created with the Soul Stirrers. After leaving the group he became president of the National Quartet Association and worked for a florist to help support his first wife, ex-Golden Harps singer Jeannette Harris and their four children. But his singing continued to impress the likes of critic Tom Smucker, who named 1972's Precious Lord, a gospel compilation featuring Harris, his choice for a desert-island album. In the book Stranded, Smucker writes that Harris' impassioned reading of "Peace in the Valley" tops a more famous version, "outstripping Elvis Presley's fervor with his urgency, commitment and desperation."
Despite his miss with the masses, gospelheads know all about the prematurely bald dynamo who quit the Soul Stirrers too soon because he tired of a life on the road overrun with swindlers and Jezebels.
"His was a vocal sound never before heard in gospel--nor has it been heard since," wrote Horace Clarence Boyer in How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel. Boyer, a singer himself, offers that Harris' unique style comes from a choice "to place his voice between the head and chest so he could call on the power of his lower voice, (as well as) the falsetto, in which he could essay his high range but without the opera singer sound."
Harris claimed to have no musical influences besides those he found in the trees and fields of his family's farm outside Trinity. "The falsetto sound that traveled from gospel to soul to the Beatles began as a Texas birdsong mimicked by a latter-day Mozart," wrote Heilbut, who also produced a Harris album in the 1970s titled The Father of Them All.
Musical history is often made, not in the major cities and garden spots, but in the beat-down burgs of Tupelo, Mississippi; Gary, Indiana; Aberdeen, Washington; Hibbing, Minnesota; Liverpool, England; and Trinity, Texas. In such places, the yearning for escape sweetens big dreams. On the surface, there's nothing special about those towns. But if you believe in spirits, a visit to a place haunted by genius is good for the soul. I had to "Walk Around," as the title of the Stirrers' first major hit suggests, where Rebert Harris, S.R. Crain, J.J. Farley, Walter LeBeau, and Edward R. Rundless first stirred the soul.
"I was 7 years old, and the closest boy in age was six years older," he said in that 1987 interview. "I heard the sound of each part in my head and I'd tell each person how to sing it."
The group was called the Friendly Four and then the Friendly Gospel Singers when Harris moved to town to start seventh grade at the Trinity Colored High School. After 10th grade, which is as far as the school went, 15-year-old Harris attended Mary Allen College in nearby Crockett and weighed a tempting offer to join Crain's group the Soul Stirrers, who had moved to Houston. At the time the Stirrers were a jubilee group, singing poppy, up-tempo numbers such as "Down By the Riverside." But as soon as Harris finally committed (Rebert says the year was 1931; gospel historians usually put the year at '35 or '36), he helped change the group's sound to a slower, deeper, more passionate hard gospel style.