[27 November 2007]
In 1955, at the tender age of 14, a budding R&B singer named Sterling Harrison left his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, and headed for New York to record his debut single “The Devil’s Got a Spell on Me” for Vim Records. The single sank without a trace, but kicked off a career that would span over four decades and see Harrison share the stage with such soul luminaries as Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and Carla Thomas, while steadily cutting discs throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s for a bunch of labels, including Motown and Atlantic, as well as scoring a record deal with Smash Records, initiated by “Mr Dynamite” himself, James Brown.
But the respect of his peers and all that hard work never translated into the success he dreamed of, and the journeyman soul performer—alternately known as the “King of Wobble” (after a single he released, “The Wobble”, capitalizing on the singular ‘60s dance craze) in the ghetto clubs of New York, and “Mr.Entertainment” on the Los Angeles chitlin’ circuit—stayed forever just across the tracks.
And that’s where the co-producers of this exhilirating, classic-sounding soul-blues album—Los Lobos saxman Steve Berlin, and television comedy writer and soul aficionado Eddie Gorodetsky—found Harrison: just South of the Snooty Fox Motor Inn, playing small clubs like M&M Soul Food in the heart of the South Central LA “hood”. But instead of becoming the gateway to wider recognition, which it surely would have been, South of the Snooty Fox was released as the posthumous album of an obscure singer who, diagnosed with cancer shortly after these sessions were finished in 2001, remained out of the spotlight right up to his demise in 2005.
Fortunately, this record captures the raw essence of a consummate performer who nightly took to the stage and made material popularized by others his own. The choice of tunes here forgoes the usual suspects in lieu of ten interpretations (plus a hidden track of Harrison’s rockin’ 1965 single for Smash, “Funny Life”, replete with crackle and hiss) that borrow from the very back of the back catalogues of stellar R&B artists like Bobby Womack (“Surprise, Surprise”), B.B. King (“Ain’t Nobody Home”), and O.V. Wright (“A Nickle and a Nail”).
The lesser-known deep-down soul of Jesse Gee provides a definite highlight with “Don’t Mess With My Money”, as Harrison’s cool-baritone testifyin’, propelled along by a tight, funky-groove supplied by his gigging quartet, the New Breed Band, gets as real as a heart-attack, especially on those occasions when he suddenly slips into a keening falsetto. But the one track that surprises nearly as much as it stands out is a vivid reading of Tom Waits’s country ballad “House Where Nobody Lives”, taken from 1999’s Mule Variations. Listening to the way Harrison’s silk-smooth baritone inhabits these tender lyrics, working them into an emotional gospel-soul classic, you would never guess that the singer had to be cajoled into recording them—live and in one take.
Whether getting down and dirty, belting out chitlin’ joint standards like Little Jr. Parker’s “Seven Days” and the bawdy crowd pleaser “There’s a Rat Loose in My House”, or finding a smooth-groove swagger with his excellent seven-minute spoken-word rendition of Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care of You”, Harrison delivers the goods, proving here, once and for all, that he may very well be one of the few performers worthy of the epitaph—one of the greatest soul singers you never heard of. Respect.