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KING 4217; APRIL, 1948



After questioning the wisdom of King Records’ decision to put out a substandard, out-of-date song by Wynonie Harris just about a month after his crowning achievement, Good Rockin’ Tonight, thereby potentially cutting into the better disc’s sales, or at least raising doubts that his breakthrough was a legitimate career turnaround, you’d think the point would’ve been made sufficiently in yesterday’s review and we could therefore leave Wynonie Harris’s missteps behind us and move on to the next record by the next artist.

Normally you’d be right.

In fact, that was the plan here all along, but the first appearance of The Four Blues on Spontaneous Lunacy will have to wait a day because otherwise we wouldn’t get a chance to deal with THIS hot mess.

Make Life Worthwhile
The stories surrounding the hell-raising life over-the-edge of Wynonie Harris are legendary. In a profession full of larger than life characters and countless tales of debauchery that fill the rock ‘n’ roll files over seven decades of its existence, few figures have quite the reputation as rock’s first true hellion.

As with so many of them over the years a propensity for alcohol was the fuel for many of the wilder antics, but more than most Harris seemed to feel it necessary to embody the image his songs had created for him which made him always just one drink away from committing some unpardonable sin.

The results of these events were always going to be memorable to those in his general vicinity, but usually any hard evidence of what went down was done away with by morning, either buried, washed away or with witnesses paid off and so no matter what happened in the days before phone cameras, videos and social media to spread it like wildfire there’d be only a few half-whispered rumors that would remain as a testament to Harris’s abhorrent behavior.

Not so here, where the tapes were rolling and the ensuing wreckage was recorded for posterity… and for potential commercial gain!??!?

We’re talking about a record entitled Your Money Don’t Mean A Thing, which had absolutely no value as a musical touchstone to a long and ultimately successful career, but had plenty of value as blackmail material or for use in destroying the credibility of any character witness that may stand up for him in whatever court cases he might soon be facing for crimes against humanity.

It isn’t the worst conceived record Harris ever cut, those would be a few of his ill-fated stabs at pop sensibilities he was coaxed into from time to time, but this IS the one he should be most embarrassed about for reasons that are all too evident upon first listen.

You see, the reason for this train wreck of a record wasn’t the usual suspects – a poorly constructed song, ill-suited musical accompaniment, misguided or conflicting commercial aims… here the problem was Wynonie Harris himself and the fact that he was clearly blind drunk when he recorded it.

But as always with Harris, in a life where truth was always much stranger, and far more interesting, than fiction, that’s barely half the story.

Don’t Know How To Make Love
The song itself was hardly anything with much promise to begin with in the quickly evolving landscape of rock ‘n’ roll even were Harris not stewed to the gills here. As was befitting of his off-the-cuff lifestyle Harris was notorious for working out material quickly in the studio, telling the band to fashion a suitable rhythm and he’d make up words as they went along, indicating to them when to take their solos before he’d wrap it up with a final stanza. Sober that might’ve worked out okay from time to time, drunk he hadn’t a chance.

Though this was just his second session for King it wasn’t even his first offense in that regard either. On Friday December, 12th 1947 Harris, fresh off signing with the company, entered a New York studio to cut his first sides for the label which included the focus of yesterday’s review, Love Is Like Rain. Backing him was a well-respected outfit led by trombonist Clyde Bernhardt, but because Bernhardt had to play his normal club gig until late at night Harris had time to kill, which is always a recipe for disaster, and not surprisingly he wound up hitting the bottle.

By the time they got down to recording Harris was drunk, arguing with King owner Syd Nathan (no shrinking violet himself when it came to confrontation), and loudly berating the band. Bernhardt called the session “hellish”.

So much for making a good first impression on your new employer!

Yet when Harris sobered up in the morning he apparently thought it had all gone perfectly well and even asked Bernhardt and company to back him on his next scheduled session to take place that Monday.

They flat out refused.

So now here he was on Monday being joined by trumpeter Bob Merrill’s group, a last minute replacement for the thankless job of supporting such an ill-tempered singer. You’d think that the reaction of the previous musicians to the thought of working with Harris again might’ve sunk in and gotten him to be on his best behavior.

Think again.

Instead at THIS session Harris again drank like a fish and then started a violent argument on the studio floor which only ended when Merrill pulled a knife on Harris (obviously he’d heard of Wynonie’s reputation and came well-armed). That apparently subdued Harris or else they’d have all ended up in jail or the morgue.

Somehow in between the boozing and the violent mayhem they managed to cut four songs. Of them only the final cut of the night, Your Money Don’t Mean A Thing, saw release, which when listening to it only tells you how awful the REST of the output must’ve been!


If I Told Her How I Like It
I suppose we’ll start with the music, just because this IS technically a review of the record, not an inquest into the confrontation that occurred during its creation.

The inquest however would undoubtedly be more fun… AND more musically enjoyable to boot!

I can’t imagine the mindset of Merrill’s crew by the time they got around to recording this and what their frazzled nerves must’ve been like at that point so I won’t pass judgment on the accompaniment other than to say it’s ill-suited for Harris’s style, drunk or sober. If it was deliberate sabotage to highlight his deficiencies as an artist they’d surely be let off by any reasonable jury in the land, but since we’re forced to analyze it let’s just say their construct as a band is wrong for what they were being called on to do even under the best of circumstances.

Their emphasis is on stately horns – trumpet, trombone and alto sax, plus a little used tenor played by the great bop legend Dexter Gordon (assuming by this point he hadn’t slipped out an open window and started running for his life). The rhythm section is either half asleep or more likely scared stiff at the sight of Harris rampaging around the studio. Only pianist William Parker seems to be actually expending any effort to support Harris’s wayward singing here, though then again maybe he stole a few nips from Wynonie’s bottle during a break while hiding under the piano bench to avoid any wild swings between combatants.

As a result the music just sorts of wanders along after an opening that sounds a little like a funeral procession (perhaps they were hopeful the power of suggestion alone might do Harris in). Clearly nobody playing behind him is enthused about this song or this artist and you can hardly blame them, but for a potential record buyer who knew nothing of the events that surrounded its recording and were being asked to buy the dreadful results and listen to it without demanding their money back, it’s frankly too tall an order for garbage such as this.

Don’t Love Me And Leave Me
Harris himself is an embarrassment. It’s one thing to be toasted amongst others who are equally inebriated. Then your stupidity and stumbling around doesn’t seem out of place and may actually be enjoyable to those in the same boat. But when everyone else is stone cold sober you just look like an ass.

As for singing? Well, I GUESS you could call it that if you want to be particularly generous, but it doesn’t resemble anything that remotely could be referred to carrying a tune. Harris starts off sounding sluggish and unfocused, but at least reasonably on point. The first stanza is a little subdued actually and I’m betting everyone involved was hoping he’d simply pass out by the first chorus. Instead Harris perks up after fumbling his first lyric of the night (“bees will quit a tree”?) and starts… umm, bellowing off-key. He then switches between a stereotypically bad Indian chant-type refrain and the “E-I-E-I-OHH” from children’s nursery rhymes. He’s having a ball in his own mind I’m sure, while the rest are plotting ways to poison his drink when he’s rolling around on the floor in these vocal spasms that he’s substituting for actual singing.

By now you can smell the booze on his breath coming out of the speakers, even sixty nine years later as I write this, and it just gets worse from here. Lyrics are seemingly cut up and dropped into a hat, then pulled out and sung in whatever order they appear (“when you make me good feel baby”) or (“Live with me and make my worth world while”). It’s a farce.

He’s slurring his words badly by now while his eyeballs peaking out from under their half-closed lids are bloodshot and distant looking, his energy is lagging, his pulse rate is rapidly dropping all while his career is swirling down the toilet bowl.


An Angel On The Wing
As of December 15th, 1947 when he was cutting this Harris was coming off a three year odyssey of virtually every independent record company in America, none of whom wanted to keep him, and which had resulted in no hits, no overlooked gems… no reasonable hope even that he might still possess the ability to connect with an audience outside of a bordello or cell block number six at your local penitentiary.

Wynonie Harris was a thirty-four year old washed up singer with just three hits to his name, all of them well in the rearview mirror. He was also a foul-mouthed, egotistical, argumentative, irascible degenerate and an incorrigible troublemaker.

And now, for the second time in two recording dates for King who somehow had high hopes for him going into this, he was drunk as a skunk and stinking up the studio… his one remaining place of refuge where his talent had always been enough to overcome whatever reservations those in the industry had about doing business with him.

To top it all off he had no worthwhile songs with which to pull himself out of the commercial mire he’d found himself in. He had no reliable band to support him in his live gigs to keep that aspect of his career thriving. He had no creative vision to be able to survey the musical landscape and attempt to get himself on track by either attaching himself to a growing movement or setting out on a new path in hopes that it might pay off.

All he had was a reputation as a scoundrel, a menace and a reprobate. Someone whom few in the industry would want to associate with on a professional basis if this type of behavior would keep up.

He was finished. Order the flowers, dig the grave, throw him in a box and drop him in the ground, Wynonie Harris’s career was dead.

Except it wasn’t.

Two weeks later he returned to the studio, tail NOT between his legs by all accounts, but at least focused on the task at hand and presumably sober. Paired this time with a studio band of tough horn players and a sheaf of good material the producers had come up with to sink his teeth into Harris rose from the ashes like Lazarus and got his career back on track, sparing himself the ignominy of being jettisoned from yet another label and the possibility of having his throat slashed from behind by whatever tougher than he appeared bassist or cornet player he pushed too far at another session.

My Other Woman Loves Me
I don’t want to make it out as if Wynonie Harris was universally despised. Though a lot of respected musicians DID detest him for his behavior, there were plenty of others who found his bawdy charm entertaining and knew that under all of the bravado and off-color antics he was a guy with a big heart and an open wallet who insisted that everyone around him join in the fun at his expense.

But it was one thing to hang out with Harris in your off-hours when you’d already taken care of business on the bandstand and now wanted to unwind and have a few laughs, and quite another thing altogether when thinking about possibly tying your OWN commercial fates to such an irresponsible character who might wind up dragging you down with him.

Music was an artist’s JOB, their livelihood, the one route they had towards some level of financial security and public respect in a world that often didn’t treat black men with any esteem otherwise. For those men, the session musicians in Clyde Bernhardt’s and Bob Merrill’s bands, the producers in the studio, the promoters and club owners putting on live shows to make their own living with… how much of Harris’s wayward behavior would they put up with?

Your Money Don’t Mean A Thing was an apt title for such a desultory song because in real life when Harris was on top the money he was bringing in was sometimes all that stood between him and a punch in the nose or a knife in the ribs. But without that ability to draw interest in his records and his appearances that’s when HIS money wouldn’t mean a thing any longer and everybody would be happy to be done with his kind once and for all.

It didn’t happen that way of course and now, just four months later with his career taking off again and his commercial prospects thoroughly revived thanks to Good Rockin’ Tonight, everybody was stuck with the sunuvabitch for the foreseeable future. King Records certainly were happy about that turn of events but now that they’d gotten some breathing room maybe it was time for them to throw a jab to deflate his ego just a bit while they still could.

Whether Syd Nathan released this piece of utter crap as a way to shame Harris for acting so bad (and wasting Nathan’s time and money on the session), or whether he just wanted to get it out of his warehouse before it soiled the carpeting, we’ll never know for sure. What YOU should know however is that it’s only because I don’t hand out 0’s that this pile of festering sewage is getting the following score…


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