BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

A successful hybrid artist of the early 1950’s who was frequently promoted as a blues artist though more of his output fell more on the rock side of the ledger including his only #1 hit. Had he come along a decade later he’d have rightly been called simply a blues-rock artist as the ever-growing rock genre began to take on countless subgenre terms to differentiate styles, but in his day those largely didn’t exist which has ultimately hurt his legacy.

Born Harrison Nelson in Texas in 1925 he was yet another who came onto the music scene in the late 1940’s who’d gone to college, getting a bachelor’s degree in English from Texas Southern University. While still in school he befriended bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins who gave him guitar lessons but like most kids that age he had his own thoughts as to how he wanted to sound and that meant largely eschewing the country blues styles of Hopkins.

But it was Hopkins who got him his first recording contract with local label Gold Star in 1948 where he split his output between blues and nascent rock even though he had no real interest in becoming a professional musician. The label re-named him “Peppermint”, liking the sound of it, and so on his initial releases he became Peppermint Nelson, but they sold little outside the region.

Two years went by before Nelson recorded again on Sittin’ In With, a New York label whose owner Bobby Shad frequently crisscrossed the country recording unsigned talent in local studios or radio stations, then bringing the tapes back to the Big Apple he’d sort through what he’d gathered and choose what to release. When it came to Nelson’s output he was enthusiastic but couldn’t remember the kid’s full name. Peppermint was easy to recall but the rest remained elusive. Harris came from the other part he could remember – Harrison – while his surname, Nelson, was forgotten entirely. So Peppermint Harris he became and was stuck with for the rest of his life when his first release on the label, a blues offering “Raining In My Heart”, hit Top Five in early 1950.

The rest of his output on the label which alternated between blues and rock fairly evenly at first before the rock sides began to become more frequent, failed to match his debut for them and when the company went under in mid-1951 Harris signed with Aladdin.

Once again Harris struck gold right away, this time with a record that topped the national charts in September of that year, the drinking classic “I Got Loaded”, helped enormously by producer Maxwell Davis’s extensive re-arranging of it in the studio, but its success ultimately proved to be a hindrance for Harris’s continued artistic advancement as Aladdin kept requesting additional drinking themed songs in a foolhardy attempt to give listeners more of the same.

Harris meanwhile was writing songs for others and touring constantly throughout the 1950’s, but like many artists whose success came early in the decade his image had become seen as decidedly old fashioned during rock’s mainstream ascent and so he once again began to be promoted more as a blues artist. He managed to remain active on the recording scene for years with a succession of smaller labels drawing only minor regional interest throughout the South, making his final appearance on record in 1995.

Four years later in 1999 Harris passed away at the age of 73 shortly after moving to New Jersey. Never fully embraced by either the blues community or by rock historians, despite quality recordings in both fields, Harris – who hadn’t sought to become a professional artist when starting out – nevertheless managed to carve out a career that lasted a half century.
 
 
PEPPERMINT HARRIS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date on Spontaneous Lunacy):

PEPPERMINT BOOGIE
(Gold Star 626; February, 1949)
Somewhat crude but energetic debut which features a practically distorted guitar but minimal accompaniment beyond that, while the vocal delivery has more attitude than clarity and not enough of either to fully work. (3)