Obituary: Don Harris

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The Independent Culture
DON HARRIS was part of the influential rock'n'roll duo Don and Dewey, wrote several key songs and played guitar and violin on several highly acclaimed records. However, most of his associates regarded him as having wasted his talents through drug addiction and unreliability.

Harris, like his schoolboy friend and recording partner, Dewey Terry, was born in Pasadena, California in 1938. He studied the classical violin, but the advent of rock'n'roll and doo-wop harmony singing intrigued him in the mid-1950s. He and Dewey formed the six-man group the Squires and cut the singles "Lucy Lou" and "Sindy" for local labels. They backed the singer Effie Smith, whose husband, John Criner, signed them as a duo to his Spot label. He, in turn, leased their work to Specialty in Hollywood and soon they were recording frenzied rock'n'roll for this popular label, like the label's main artist, Little Richard.

Although Don and Dewey had limited chart success themselves, their songs have been covered by several artists. They recorded "I'm Leaving It Up To You" in 1957 but when it was revived by the Louisiana duo Dale and Grace, in 1964, it topped the US charts. In 1974 the song was a transatlantic Top Ten hit for Donny and Marie Osmond and then, in 1978, it made the US country charts for Freddy Fender. It has also been recorded by Linda Ronstadt.

Don and Dewey may not have had their own hits, but Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, who became the Righteous Brothers, copied their comic stage routines and recorded two of their songs, the screaming "Justine", which was written by the duo, and the novelty "Koko Joe", written by Sonny Bono. "We styled ourselves after all the black singers, people like Don and Dewey," Medley admitted recently, "The people at the black radio stations were amazed that we were white."

Another song, "Big Boy Pete", was recorded by the Olympics and Paul Revere and the Raiders, while "The Letter" was successful for Sonny and Cher. "Farmer John" was a US hit for the garage band the Premiers in 1964. "We heard it by Carl and the Commanders and we liked it very much," recalls Chris Curtis of the Searchers, "It had a great rhythm and I love the way John McNally goes `Now look-a here' on our version."

In 1964, Harris joined Little Richard's band and played guitar on his hit single, "Bama Lama Bama Loo". He toured with the Johnny Otis Show and can be heard on Otis's albums Cold Shot (1968) and Cuttin' Up (1971). Otis nicknamed him "Sugarcane" because of his ability to sweet-talk female admirers. Harris remarked, "If you go in a closet, close the door and turn the light on, that little 25 watt bulb is mutha. But if you open the door and go out into the sunlight, that little light in the closet ain't worth shit."

Harris played violin on John Lee Hooker's album Folk Blues (1959), but he then began to experiment, fusing classical music, rock and jazz. Frank Zappa was intrigued and Harris played on several Zappa albums from the 1960s and 1970s, notably Hot Rats, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Chunga's Revenge.

Harris played with the British blues musician John Mayall on his album USA Union (1970), as well as some later ones. Mayall commented that "he played violin with an aggresive, electronic style and it had the same vitality as an electric guitar." Harris was among the first to make the violin a feature of progressive rock.

Harris made several solo albums during the early 1970s: Keep On Driving (1970), Fiddler On The Rock (1971), New Violin Summit, with Jean-Luc Ponty (1971), Key Stop (1973), Sugarcane's Got The Blues (1973), I'm On Your Case (1974) and Cupful Of Dreams (1974). His 1970 album Sugarcane includes his classical pastiche "Funk and Wagner".

He also joined the Pure Food And Drugs Act, a jazz-rock group formed by the drummer, Paul Lagos. They released Choice Cuts in 1972 but the band had problems with Harris's tardiness and determination to avoid his creditors. He pawned his violin before a performance more than once, he never had a phone number, and the band sometimes "kidnapped" him to ensure his presence. Eventually, he was replaced by Coleman Head.

Meanwhile, Dewey Terry had teamed with Ronald Ellington for appearances as Don and Dewey. In recent years, Harris had been working with Terry again and they had recorded some tracks, yet to be released, at Terry's home studio. Terry also appeared on Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys' homage to rhythm and blues groups like Don and Dewey, Dedicated To You.

A 25-track CD compilation of Don and Dewey's Specialty recordings has been issued in the UK by Ace Records, while a two-CD anthology from his solo albums was released by Past And Present last month. In one song, "Haunted By A Dream", he sings, "When every life ends, another begins, Guess I'm starting over again."

Don Harris, guitarist, violinist and songwriter: born Pasadena, California 8 June 1938; married (two sons, one daughter); died Los Angeles 1 December 1999.