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SITTIN’ IN WITH 543; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 
 

 

Usually the appearance of an artist’s breakthrough hit would be cause for some celebration around here, for not only does it help website numbers to have a more familiar song to examine but it also invariably means the artist’s own story is about to become much clearer and more interesting.

With Peppermint Nelson… now dubbed Peppermint Harris due to his record label’s owner literally forgetting his name… this review qualifies in the “interesting” category, but it fails miserably in making his ensuing story much clearer, for you see, it’s not the hit side we’re discussing at all, but rather the far more obscure flip-side.
 

 

Stop The Clock
It’s been two full years since we met Harrison Nelson, which was his real name, and that first record Peppermint Boogie, a blues-rock hybrid sort of song, had sold virtually nothing on Gold Star in the winter of 1948 and so his career may just as well have ended as soon as it was beginning.

It might not have mattered much to him truth be told as he was a college grad and hadn’t planned on pursuing a musical career in the first place but was still playing locally for fun in early 1950 when Sittin’ In With Records owner Bobby Shad came through Houston on a scouting trip. While there he recorded some local talent and then brought the masters back to New York to sift through them and see what was worth releasing.

He liked these sides enough to issue them but Shad couldn’t quite remember this kid’s name, remembering the nickname brought upon by his debut release but confusing the first and last names and so he put this out as by Peppermint Harris, the moniker he’d keep the rest of his career in which he divided his output pretty evenly between rock and blues… as he does on this very first release for his new home.

But it was the blues side that was the hit, Raining In My Heart, which landed at an impressive #4 nationally in Billboard, its success and the subsequent touring opportunities it gave him convincing Harris to treat music as a career rather than merely a casual sideline.

Since that song is blues through and through we’re obviously not going to review it on a rock history blog, but it’s definitely worth hearing if only to better understand some of the differences in the two styles as played by the same artist… the harsher guitar licks that kick it off, the ponderous pacing it employs as it goes along, Harris’s vocal shadings and the distinctive cadences he uses to deliver the song all fall squarely in line with dominant blues traits. Most crucial in establishing its musical DNA is its despondent outlook, something which basically defines blues music for eternity.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a great blues record though even if it is a fairly typical one. The piano is adding clunky transitions, his vocals are somewhat crude and even his guitar solo has moments where it momentarily loses its way. Yet when it scored across the country it would seem to make Harris’s future stylistic direction all but assured… both because record companies would insist upon more blues tracks and Harris himself would presumably want to give the audience who gave him that hit more of the same.

If you followed that line of thinking that might mean that the more aggressive side of this single would be the last rock-leaning song you’d hear out of Harris but that wouldn’t be the case. Instead My Blues Have Rolled Away turned out to be something of a prescient title, for while he never completely abandoned the blues he also never fully embraced it to the exclusion of everything else and would continue to alternate the two styles for the rest of his career.
 


 
 

Feel So Good
The guitar introduction – brief though it is – leaves no doubts as to where this needs to be situated, a hyper sounding riff that would be more or less recycled by everyone fellow Houstonite Goree Carter to Chuck Berry, Keith Richards and Carl Wilson over the next two decades, easily adaptable for whatever illicit musical activities you have in mind.

In fact there’s some evidence that this actually WAS Goree Carter sitting in, which makes sense when you consider the circumstances of where, when and how it was recorded, but whether it’s Carter or Harris himself who’s handling the job we might call into question the guitar’s tone, which isn’t quite as meaty as would be advisable, but nobody can fault the attitude it’s played with, something which is picked up on by the piano that buttresses it before Harris himself comes storming in with the first vocal lines.

Now it has to be said that Harris doesn’t have the best voice in the world, he continues to be a little unsure of himself which causes him to vary his tone which is rather nasal to begin with and he’s prone to ramping up his enthusiasm at random points that don’t necessarily coincide with what he’s singing, but technical deficiencies aside his vocal exuberance and the upbeat optimism of every word he delivers is a clear break from what he showed on the other side.

As such My Blues Have Rolled Away is the perfect sentiment for him to be expressing allowing the two sides of this single to showcase the different mentality behind the blues and rock.

This is an ode to his girlfriend and while the details are generic as can be, reeling off her attributes like a scouting report, you don’t for a second doubt his feelings for her are genuine if for no other reason that he’s too eager for them not to be authentic.

That’s the mood the song relies on capturing for its appeal, not necessarily in making you want to see his girl, who may not be anything special to the rest of us, but rather he’s simply trying to convey the excitement all guys feel when they have someone to call their own. Unless you’re a bitter cynic or were recently spurned by someone you had your eye on yourself, it’s hard not to at least appreciate the all consuming joy he’s expressing here.
 


 

I’m Gonna Jump Tonight
Having just unflinchingly critiqued both Harris’s voice and the standard issue lyrics he’s saddled with I’m sure it’s not hard to see that in spite of his own best efforts this isn’t a record that has a lot going for it besides his overall enthusiasm.

Luckily My Blues Have Rolled Away does feature the type of sonic attack that bodes well for his efforts in this genre as the music track barrels along with confidence and leaves plenty of room for showcasing the guitar. Again we can’t definitively say who it is but at this juncture I might lean towards Harris if only because – like the rest of his attributes – it relies on his exuberance more than technical proficiency.

The solo features some very definite hallmarks of rock’s future sounds, the reliance on pentatonic scale, the switching up of the the pace, the pattern and to a lesser degree the tone. Again, there’s a crudity to it but it still retains a flashy look-at-me mindset which imbues it with a certain egotistical charm.

As he’s slashing away the rhythm is being capably handled by piano and drums, kept well in the background but providing the song with a steady pulse to let you know it’s not in any danger of expiring.

Harris’s songwriting – if you believe this was actually committed to paper rather than loosely thrown together with a good deal of on the floor improvising, which might be the smarter bet – is not very advanced. The basic structure is fine, the accepted signposts for a rock song all spring up at predictable intervals, but he’s still got a ways to go when it comes to pulling it all together… witness the way in which he lets the story AND the music grind to a halt which undercuts the energy which is the song’s best aspect.

Still, though undeniably limited in its appeal, it shows a fair amount of raw talent and gives him plenty of options going forward.
 

Let’s Ride Awhile Tonight
At this point there are still a lot of questions left to be answered.

Will his rock instincts be deemed a commercial dead end that he won’t be encouraged to pursue now that he scored with a blues song? Or will he himself think this was a creative non-starter that he’s just not capable of pulling off with the type of flair to compete with the pure rock acts on the scene?

Or is My Blues Have Rolled Away an honest effort from someone who was basically a novice – this being just his second ever recording session – who was still trying to figure out what it was he was capable of as an artist at the same time he was attempting to navigate the marketplace which was notoriously unpredictable even in the best of circumstances?

I’ll go with the latter explanation, not because I’m an easy mark or a naïve optimist when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, but rather because his own musical inclinations continue to point to someone who in spite of the blues-centric region and his apprenticeship to a committed bluesman in Lightnin’ Hopkins flatly stated he didn’t want to follow in his footsteps and play that way himself.

The success of the blues side of this single inevitably will complicate matters for him going forward, especially with the conservative mindset of the recording industry, but as long as he continues to insist on at least exploring the rock avenues stretched out before him then there’s always the chance he’ll tighten up his ideas and score a hit that will establish him in this field as well.

Then again, maybe he’s destined to sit uneasily between the two divergent styles forever, becoming a nonentity in both of them as each genre speeds past him, unwilling to wait for him to get his act together and fully make up his mind.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Peppermint Harris for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)