Obituary: Peppermint Harris

PEPPERMINT HARRIS was best-known for his 1951 No 1 rhythm and blues hit "I Got Loaded" (covered by everyone from Elvis Costello to Los Lobos and Terry Evans, on whose 1996 recording of the tune Ry Cooder played some excellent guitar). However, Harris was not a major player.

Indeed, his very name indicates that. His first recording had been a 78 for the Houston Gold Star label under the name of Peppermint Nelson in 1948 - his real name was Harrison D. Nelson Jnr, and he had acquired the Peppermint sobriquet from a local dance-hall owner. But when he went into the studio for Bob Shad's company Sittin' In With Records a year later, Shad forgot to write Nelson's name on the tape box, and misremembered it as Harris when he came to print up the record labels.

But the release, "Raining in My Heart", became something of a local success for him in Houston, Texas, so from then on the wrong name stuck, and Harris he was. Besides, he came from a religious family, and they had already expressed unhappiness at his flirting with the "Devil's music", as the blues was still known in those days. So Harris decided to keep the new name, and keep peace with his people.

Born in Texarkana, Texas in 1925, he moved to Houston in 1947 after naval service in the Second World War, and was taken under the wing of Houston's greatest bluesman, Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins, who gave him an introduction to Gold Star records and, ultimately, the title of his 1991 retrospective of sides recorded for Jewel in the 1960s and 1970s, reissued by the Collectables label, Being Black Twice. Lightnin' said to him that "Playing the blues in the old days was like being black twice."

However, Harris's music was far from socially conscious, as titles like "I'll Wipe Away Your Tears", "Is There Someone Else", and of course his lament about the perils of the bottle, "I Got Loaded", indicated. He tried to follow up the latter title with other booze-based anthems with titles like "Have Another Drink and Talk to Me", "Right Back On It", and "Three Sheets in the Wind", but none of them repeated the success of "Loaded".

"Pep" (as his fans called him) was no instrumentalist - though he does play guitar on some tracks - and he picked a young guitarist called Albert Collins to play with him on one of the albums he cut for Aladdin in 1956 after he moved to Los Angeles, Houston Can't Be Heaven, which was released in the UK on the Ace label in 1989.

The songs Peppermint Harris cut at that time are regarded by many as his best work. He also wrote lyrics for B.B. King and Etta James. His last album was Texas On My Mind (1995), which lacked much of the fire of his earlier work.

Harrison D. Nelson (Peppermint Harris), singer, guitarist: born Texarkana, Texas 17 July 1925; married (one daughter); died 19 March 1999.

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