Jesus' Favorite Singer
"Is this the home of Rebert Harris?" I asked anxiously. The woman who had answered the phone said yes. "Rebert Harris of the Soul Stirrers?" Yes, she said again. I told her I was writing a story on the legendary gospel quartet from Trinity, Texas, and I wondered if I could speak to Mr. Harris. "Re-bert!" she yelled as my temples pulsed. "You can only talk to him for a minute," she told me. "He's been sick."
I couldn't believe it. I had tracked down the first smooth stylist in the history of gospel quartets, the architect of what would later--much later--be called soul music. Before Harris joined the Soul Stirrers in 1935, the emotional intensity currently identified with gospel singing was considered almost sinful. Quartet singers stood in a row and concentrated on barbershop-like harmonies. But R.H., as he was billed, stepped up front and led his group with a pristine tenor that shimmied and slurred all over the beat, often flipping into falsetto and embarking on wailing flights of improvisation.
There are certain voices you can't forget hearing for the first time: Aretha Franklin, George Jones, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Ira Louvin, James Brown. In my case add Rebert H. Harris, who I had heard for the first time only eight years ago on Rhino's Jubilation! compilation. Even in the midst of so many great gospel singers, Harris stood out on a 1950 version of "By and By, Pts. 1 & 2," switching leads with Paul Foster, who sounds like a young Rebert.
"My God moves in mysterious ways," Harris sings, with a forceful flutter. "It's hard to understand no matter how hard we try/But we'll understand it better by and by," he continues, setting up Foster's impassioned screeching, then it's back to Harris, also overcome with emotion. That example of faith set to music made a believer out of me, if only for five minutes. Before that first listen, I was aware only of the Soul Stirrers' status as a farm team for the pop charts. They were the group in which Sam Cooke sang before he went on to sell millions by wedding Saturday night and Sunday morning on such emotive pop songs as "You Send Me," "Chain Gang," and "Wonderful World." And they were the group in which the late Johnnie Taylor got his start before asking, "Who's makin' love to your old lady while you're out makin' love?"
When I discovered, a couple years later, that the Stirrers were from Texas before their move to the gospel Mecca of Chicago in 1937, I had to know everything I could about them.
A recent collection on the Shanachie label, Kings of the Gospel Highway, which opens with six vintage Stirrers tracks, had not only rekindled my affinity for the music, but provided an unexpected bit of news. The liner notes said Harris was the only surviving member of the original Soul Stirrers. I had been almost certain he was dead.
After two hours of phone calls failed to unearth any information, except that Harris was living in Chicago, I took a stab at directory assistance. When the operator told me to please hold for the number, I wrote it down and looked at it for a long time before dialing.
"Re-bert, come talk to the reporter," said Mary Harris, his wife of 21 years. And then a tired, scratchy voice said, "Hello." Although his pipes had been ravaged by throat cancer and his distinctive cadence had been thrown off by a stroke, I couldn't help but think that the breathless rasp on the phone came from the same place as that elastic falsetto that revolutionized gospel music. It sounded painful for him to speak, so I did most of the talking, taking the chance to tell Rebert Harris just how much those old Soul Stirrers records amaze me. When I told him I was calling from Austin, Texas, he lit up.
"I'm from Texas!" he said. "Ever hear of Trinity?" I told him I was going to visit that town, 135 miles south of Dallas, to see where soul music really began. I said I also wanted to fly there to interview him if it was all right. Something told me that I had to get to Chicago to meet the singer who has stirred my soul like none other. I went ahead and booked my flight, even before getting approval from my employer, the Austin American Statesman.
"Rebert Harris! I'm going to meet Rebert Harris!" I told my friends.
They all asked the same thing: "Who?"
That Rebert H. Harris' New York Times obituary ran on September 9, six days after he passed away at age 84, attests to the obscurity that shaded his existence after he bestowed the reins of the Stirrers to Sam Cooke in 1950. That two of the Stirrers names were misspelled and Harris was described as a "soul singer" in the headline (a designation that would have killed the gospel purist if his heart hadn't already given out) proves that this musical pioneer has never received the glory he deserved.
When you consider that his pupil is universally regarded as "the father of soul," R.H. Harris could be considered the most influential Texas musician of all time. Who has inspired more great music? Buddy Holly, the hero of the Beatles? T-Bone Walker, who gave the world electric blues? Western swing king Bob Wills? But think of all that spawned from Rebert H. Harris, who stepped out front, while four (and later five) guys in matching suits stood behind him accenting certain words and repeating phrases. In the 1930s, the Soul Stirrers provided the blueprint for doo-wop, as well as such Motown groups as the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and the Four Tops. Sam Cooke, who put good bone structure and hair on R.H. Harris' sound, inspired just about everyone who has ever sung a soul ballad, especially sexually charged healers such as Marvin Gaye and Al Green.
"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.
A sign proclaiming Trinity, population 2,997, as "a city of prayer" welcomes visitors to this spot a few miles from where the Trinity River feeds into Lake Livingston. But it's also a prison town, located just 15 miles from the Huntsville correctional facilities, the area's biggest employer. Harris grew up on a farm 13 miles outside Trinity in the former "Blackland" settlement (named after the darkness of its soil, not the racial constitution of its residents). James and Katie Harris and their nine children (Rebert was their sixth) lived about 300 yards from the barbed wire fence of the Eastham Prison Camp, where convicts would toil in the fields and sing themselves back home with a mixture of spirituals and blues. Rebert says he started arranging his first gospel quartet, with his brother Almo and two cousins, before he even knew what the quartet style was.
"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.
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.
"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?
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.
"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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