Saturday, August 22, 2015
Thurston Harris - Same
Thurston Harris began singing in church as a six-year old member of the Canaan Crusaders. Years later, Thurston and his brother William sang in the Indiana Wonders. It wasn't until he spent some time in the army that Thurston picked up on rhythm 'n' blues, his favourite groups being the Dominoes (then with Clyde McPhatter on lead) and the Five Royales. After moving to Los Angeles, Harris allegedly went around there passing himself off as the lead vocalist on the Five Royales' "Help Me Somebody" (a # 1 R&B hit in 1953), bluffing his way onto Hunter Hancock's popular R&B radio show and into talent shows. In 1953 he joined an as-yet-unnamed group, which began recording for Federal in that same year. When their first record, "Part Of Me", came out, it was credited to the Lamplighters. Over the next three years, this group had a dozen singles released on Federal, featuring Thurston Harris as lead vocalist. Nothing charted, but there was nothing wrong with the quality of these recordings. But the Lamplighters fought among themselves almost from the start. They drank too much, smoked too much dope and had too many run-ins with the law. The worst of the lot was Thurston himself. "I was a hot-head ; I wouldn't let anybody tell me what to do", he told Jim Dawson. By 1956, Harris had become too difficult to work with, but the Lamplighters would reunite with him on a few occasions. One such event took place in August 1957, after Harris had been signed to Eddie Mesner's Aladdin label. Mesner gave Harris a song that had been released by Bobby Day only a few days earlier, "Little Bitty Pretty One". The song was simple, on paper it consists only of two choruses. In the studio this paucity of material required a lot of humming as filler. The background vocals were provided by the former Lamplighters, who now called themselves the Sharps. As Earl Palmer laid down a steady beat, Plas Johnson riffed on tenor sax and Pete Lewis chorded on electric guitar, the group built the nonsense choruses into something dynamic and exciting. "Little Bitty Pretty One" rocketed into the pop Top 10, peaking at # 6 (# 2 R&B), while Bobby Day's original stalled at # 57. The record made Harris a star overnight, with stops on American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show, and tours with Fats Domino, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. "Little Bitty Pretty One" was also a hit in later versions by Frankie Lymon (# 58, 1960), Clyde McPhatter (# 25, 1962) and The Jackson Five (# 13, 1972).
Thurston's follow-ups to his hit were as good, if not still better, but sales were relatively insignificant. "Do What You Did", recorded at the same session as "Little Bitty Pretty One", is undoubtedly his best rocker. It went to # 57 on Billboard's pop charts in early 1958 (# 14 R&B). Another Bobby Day cover, "Over And Over", gave Harris his final chart entry (# 96), later in 1958 ; this time Day outsold him. Fine singles like "Be-Baba-Leba", "(I Got Loaded At) Smokey Joe's" and "Runk Bunk" (covered in the UK by Adam Faith) slipped into obscurity. Thurston had his final Aladdin session on January 13, 1961. It was also the very last session in the history of the Aladdin label, as Imperial Records took over the catalog without picking up Harris's contract. Thurston went on to record sides for Cub (1962), Dot (1963), Imperial (1963) and Reprise (1964), after which he wouldn't record for 20 years. Harris was homeless, moving between friends and relatives for years. Along the way there were a few hospitals and jails. He got rid of his drug habit, but was still struggling with alcoholism. Around 1983, some musical friends managed to get him on a bill with Big Jay McNeely at the famous Palomino Club - his first major appearance in many years. He developed into a good blues singer and got a chance to record again, but before his new career could take off, he died of acute alcoholism and heart failure at his sister's home in Pomona, California, on April 14, 1990. He deserves to be remembered as much more than just a one-hit wonder.