Jesus' Favorite Singer

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

The answer to all those questions is, simply, yes. This moment of clarity came just before I left Trinity. I decided to visit the Harris Chapel one more time. I sat in my car outside that simple, white, box-like church and listened to Rebert Harris sing on my CD player. God, what a marvelous voice, so pure and clean and filled with passion. In my mind, the chapel doors outside my window opened to reveal a little boy standing on a chair so he could be as tall as his fellow singers. His voice, like those of the mockingbirds, was effortless in its leap from the soul.

"We'll understand it better by and by."

Two months earlier, I sat in another car, listening to a different version of Rebert Harris' voice on my cell phone. I was a block away from Harris' home on the West Side of Chicago, just calling to let him know I'd be at his front door within minutes. But Rebert said on the advice of his lawyer he changed his mind about doing the interview.

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.

"People are making all this money offa me, and I don't see a cent," he said. "You could turn around and write a book, and I wouldn't get nothin'." He tried to shake me down for money, saying the Chicago Tribune paid him a little something for an interview (untrue). When it became apparent that he wouldn't budge, I told him that since I was in the neighborhood, I just wanted to shake his hand and thank him in person for all the great music, then I'd be on my way.

"Well, all right then, I'll see ya for a minute," he said.

His wife met me at the door and led me inside a dark, ornately decorated house. A plastic trail on the carpet led us to a back room, where Harris rose from a chair with much effort and the aid of a walker to shake my hand. I gushed for a few moments, then he sat down and gestured for me to sit. A little shell-shocked from his initial refusal to talk during our earlier phone conversation, I left my tape recorder in the car, but it didn't matter. The information was invalidated by several contradictions, which may have been intentional, to throw off the nosy stranger. When I asked him how much he taught Cooke, he refuted decades of liner notes and gospel anthologies by saying Cooke already had his own style before joining the Soul Stirrers. I got the feeling that Harris had decided to not give me any useful quotes and instead showed me fan mail from as far away as Japan and described pictures on his wall. Or maybe he had finally made peace with his past.

"Who's that?" I said, pointing to a velvet painting of a bald man with thick-rimmed glasses.

"That's Rebert," Mary said. "It doesn't look like him, but one of our dear friends from our church [New Faith Baptist] made it for us, so it's special that way."

Family photos dominate one wall. Facing it is a wall containing Soul Stirrers memorabilia, including a newspaper article announcing the group's 1989 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When I asked him with whom I should speak in Trinity about the Soul Stirrers, he said, "I'm the only one who knows the real story."

Maybe all the loose ends of life come together in the sweet by and by, as said by that song that moved me toward fanaticism eight years ago. The truth, whatever it is in this tale of fuzzy memories and furry pride, was buried with Rebert H. Harris. What's left is his music--sweet, powerful music that transcends the mortal soul and connects in a deeper way than stories to be told.

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