Jesus' Favorite Singer

Fifty years after leaving the Soul Stirrers, Rebert Harris has been called home

Harris' parents were devout churchgoers and choir singers who, in 1911, helped build a church that bears their name (Harris Chapel C.M.E.) on the main road leading into town. It's one of 23 places of worship in Trinity, which is one of those seemingly joyless hamlets where porches are piled like thrift stores and folks sell barbecue and trinkets out of their homes. But on Sunday, the burdens dissipate in feverish church singing.

I hit town without much of a clue on where to begin my soul search, but I was pretty sure my immediate future held conversations with various elderly African-Americans. Possible sources presented themselves at the Texaco station, but the two old men in bibbed overalls said they didn't know much about the Soul Stirrers. They suggested that I visit Rev. Douglas DeBose--"He's some kinda kin to one a dem"--and gave directions that included a brown station wagon with a flat tire as a landmark.

From the driveway, it sounded like a revival was occurring inside the DeBose house, but it was a couple of the 12 DeBose children banging away on a pair of pianos, one electric and the other one an upright of faded turquoise.

Rebert Harris, Soul Stirrer, in his Chicago home days before his death on September 3
Rebert Harris, Soul Stirrer, in his Chicago home days before his death on September 3
Harris, at top right, claimed toward the end of his life that he did not influence Sam Cooke, but history teaches us better.
Harris, at top right, claimed toward the end of his life that he did not influence Sam Cooke, but history teaches us better.

"I taught 'em how to play, but they passed me a long time ago," says their mother, Susan DeBose, one of the few white people in the neighborhood just north of downtown. In another room, a teenaged girl sat on a bed and watched Simon & Simon with the volume on full-blast while a boy about the same age napped faced down across the bed. Their mother, seemingly oblivious to the racket, told me how to get to the tabernacle group meeting. In an annex to the aluminum temp building, I found DeBose, current pastor of the Lone Star Baptist Church, where R.H. Harris and the Soul Stirrers sang in the early days. There was business to be done at the gathering of area preachers, so I made plans to meet with DeBose the next day.

The next morning we sat with 72-year-old Lois Saldana, who talked about the car that pulled into her driveway a few years back and the tall, thin man who emerged. "Rebert Harris! Look at you!" she exclaimed at that rare sight. Harris told Saldana that he didn't think she'd recognize him, "but you could always tell Rebert by the way he walked, kinda slow and smooth," she recalled. Saldana says Harris used to come home once a year, but the last time she saw him was in 1996, when he came for the funeral of original Soul Stirrer Silas Roy Crain, who everyone in Trinity calls "Simp" for a reason no one can recall. The man who named the Soul Stirrers when a parishioner said the group had stirred her soul is buried in the Trinity Black Cemetery, but he doesn't even have a headstone on his grave. His body's location is marked with an aluminum card that looks like it's identifying azaleas.

DeBose had a plumbing job to get to, so he steered me in the direction of 79-year-old Tom Rogers, whose mother was Rebert's first cousin. Rogers didn't know that Harris had passed away 10 days earlier, but the news didn't have much effect on him. "Say a prayer I make 80," said the man who had just been chopping wood.

"You gotta meet Hill Perkins," Rogers said, and I perked right up. Besides lining up next to guard Rebert Harris on the Trinity Thoroughbreds football team, Hill Perkins was a member of the Friendly Gospel Singers, the group Harris formed when he was 11.

"Rebert had a kid with his girlfriend Lucille Norman in high school," Perkins said, when we met him on his porch.

"Nah, it wadn't Lucille--it was that other gal," Rogers countered.

"But he never got in any real trouble," Perkins said. "He was a good kid."

"His daddy woulda to' him up, boy," Rogers adds, with a laugh. "You didn't mess with Unca Jimmy."

At age 84, Perkins struggled to remember his old friend. He recalled that Harris was always singing, even on the football field, but he was confused about which of his brothers was also in the Friendly Gospel Singers (it was Fred). He doesn't remember much about the group's early performances at Harris Chapel, but a mention of "I Want Jesus to Walk Around My Bedside," which Harris claimed to have written as a 7-year-old in 1923 (nearly two decades before it was recorded by New York City's Selia Singers), brings a sparkle of recognition.

"Walk around, walk around, walk around," Perkins hummed, reciting his old part, eyes dancing to the nostalgic beat. "Walk around, walk around, walk around." For a brief moment, he was there again.

On the five-hour drive from Austin to Trinity, I had started to question my obsession with Harris. Was my appreciation spiked by the sense of discovery? Did my mission to tell as many people as possible about this great singer make his notes all the sweeter in my mind? Was he merely a secret I was bursting to tell? Or was Rebert Harris really that good?
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