Wynonie Harris began his entertainment career playing drums, dancing, telling jokes and singing, in hometown Omaha, Nebraska. Highly intelligent as well as smart, he attended Creighton University as a pre-medical student in the mid-30's, during which time he discovered the blues, and by 1938 he was the local favorite blues singer in Omaha nightclubs. During those days, he often took the 200 mile trip to Kansas City to watch his idol, Big Joe Turner. He soon left Omaha for the west coast, where he replaced Sister Rosetta Tharpe as lead singer in the Lucky Millinder Orchestra, and scored a hit or two with them. He left them and went solo in 1945. That year, backed by the Johnny Otis Orchestra, he cut his first solo record, "Around the Clock Blues," which he also wrote. That song was patterned after an earlier blues by Turner with the same name, which Turner finally recorded in 1947. (This song would serve as the template for Chuck Berry's "Reeling and Rocking.") During this period Harris also sang with Lionel Hampton.
Harris' first solo hit was the 1947 "Playful Baby." That tune, like most of his early work, was very risqué, and the words "rocking" and "rolling" in his early songs rarely referred to music or dance. Many found him to be brash and cocky, but the truth is, he was good and he knew it. In the mid-40's, a teenage Roy Brown, then a crooner in the Bing Crosby mold, watched Harris perform once and said to himself, as quoted later, "If I ever start singing the blues, that's exactly how I want to do it." Harris' overtly erotic stance was something he carefully cultivated to draw the distaff crowd. He shed this image, however, in the mid-50's, after rock and roll became popular among the bobby soxers, for fear that people would confuse his music with the stuff of Dick Clark.
He lived the rest of his life staying true to the blues. Because of the changes in musical tastes in the period, he rarely recorded after the late-50's. During the period 1958 to the mid-60's, he ran an after-hours club out of a lavish apartment in St. Albans, Queens, NYC, and then a night club in Los Angeles. He recorded some gorgeous blues for Chess in 1964, and left this world at the end of that decade.
GOOD ROCKING TONIGHT -Harris idolized Big Joe Turner. When Harris decided to cover Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight," which itself had been a mild and non-rocking record, Harris used the gospel element of hand-clapping on the back-beat (something Turner was famous for) to give it the "rocking" rhythm which had been heard in gospel music for many years. The song is basically a parody of gospel music, with mention of a deacon and an elder doing a distinctly different type of "rocking" than gospel preachers would have approved of, and not the kind of rocking you would have done in the bosom of Abraham. This record is what started the whole "rocking" craze in blues in the late 1940's, which would eventually lead to the greatest musical revolution of all time. This is probably the most important recording in the history of rock and roll. Without this record, rock and roll probably never would have happened.
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