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.