It’s 1954, and an ambitious white boy has just released his second single for Sun Records. It’s called “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” a song Elvis learned from a man he watched carefully—a man whose onstage persona taught Elvis everything about beguiling and outraging the American public.
Wynonie Harris. The original lip-curler, the number one hip-thruster. Professional dancer and a consummate shouter. In the words of his longtime producer “When you saw Elvis, you were seeing a mild version of Wynonie.” People who knew him say Wynonie was more than a man. He was a concept. A loud, vulgar, talented, rock n’ roll ideal. He respected nobody, even challenged prizefighters to fisticuffs. In his own words, he “shook down the devil for every dime.” And his particular brand of “rockin’ blues” signaled a dramatic shift in American music. Bye bye big bands—hello Rock n’ Roll.
Now—all of y’all know what Rock n’ Roll really means right? Yes? No? Let’s see if you can figure it out with a little help from Wynonie Harris. ”All She Wants to Do is Rock.”
(August 24, 1915 – June 14, 1969)
Singer, dancer and shouter Wynonie Harris was born August 24, 1915 in Omaha, Nebraska.
He dropped out of high-school in the early thirties in order to form a dance team. In 1935, while making something of a living as a dancer and regular entertainer at North Omaha’s Ritz Theater, he began to sing the blues. He quickly became a local celebrity—known as Mr. Blues.
It wasn’t until 1944, though, that he had his big break. Band leader Lucky Millinder saw Wynonie perform and asked him to join his band. May 26, 1944, Harris made his recording debut with Lucky Millinder. He sang on a number of tracks that day, including a cut called “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well.” It was wartime though, and things were complicated. The shellac embargo hadn’t yet been lifted, and the record release was delayed.
It wasn’t until a year later that Decca Records release “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well,” which became Lucky Millinder’s Orchestra’s biggest hit—and launched Wynonie Harris to stardom. He found work in film, on record, and on the stage, landing a number of hits on the R&B charts throughout the late forties and fifties—and wowing audiences with his hip thrusting, loud mouthed antics on stage. It’s Harris who’s often credited with signaling a major change in American music—the era of the rockin’ blues tunes—and thus, the birth of Rock and Roll.
And he was the real deal. As one of his producers told music journalist Nick Tosches “When you saw Elvis, you were seeing a mild version of Wynonie.” Harris himself, he didn’t think much of Elvis. As he told magazine Rock n’ Roll RoundUp in 1956: “The criticism has made Elvis Presley. I think that he’s okay. Elvis has made one song that I like ‘Don’t be cruel.’ Many people have been giving him a lot of trouble about swinging his hips. I swing mine and have no trouble. He’s got publicity he could not buy.”
Wynonie Harris died of cancer in 1969, at age 53. Seems young, but as friend and producer Ralph Bass once said “Whatever age he was when he died, just double it. That’s the way that motherf***er lived. Every minute, every blessed minute.”