Ray Harris

Rockabilly musician and record producer

Homer Ray Harris, singer, guitarist and record producer: born Tupelo, Mississippi 7 September 1927; married (two daughters); died Tupelo 13 November 2003.

Ray Harris was one of the pioneers of rockabilly music, recording for the famed Sun label in the 1950s until Harris decided that he was "on the wrong side of the mike" and became a record producer, starting Hi Records and making several hit records.

Homer Ray Harris was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1927 and he was raised in poverty during the Depression. He suffered from asthma as a child but he was still expected to pick crops. His family lived off the land but every Saturday the neighbours would congregate and make music. He joined the US air force when he was 17 and became a drill sergeant.

By the early Fifties, Harris was married with two daughters and he realised that there would be better prospects for him in Memphis. He got a job at the Firestone tyre plant and often performed country music on radio.

The bass player Bill Black was working at the plant and, in 1954, he told Harris that he was working with a young musician who was also born in Tupelo, Elvis Presley. Harris was invited to Sun Records and he watched Presley, Black and Scotty Moore record "Good Rockin' Tonight". Another onlooker was Wayne Cogswell from Connecticut, who was selling vacuum cleaners in Memphis and was a talented guitarist.

Once Presley started having hit records, Harris and Cogswell thought they would develop along similar lines. They wrote and rehearsed "Come On Little Mama" and recorded it for Sun. It was a frantic rock'n'roll song with an intense, almost nonsensical lead vocal from Harris. The record made Harris $300 and Sun's owner, Sam Phillips, requested a follow-up.

One drunken night, Harris recorded "Greenback Dollar, Watch and Chain" with Roy Orbison singing back-up and Jerry Lee Lewis playing piano. It is, effectively, a true party record. Only two singles were issued during Harris's tenure at Sun, but some demos such as "Love Dumb Baby" and "Lonely Wolf" have appeared since. His guitarist, Cogswell, recorded "My Love Song" as Wayne Powers.

In 1958 Harris formed Hi Records, with Quinton Claunch, Bill Cantrell and the record shop owner Joe Coughi. Harris contributed $3, but his main contribution would be in finding and recording talent. His friend Bill Black was at a loose end now that Elvis Presley was in the US army and so they created the Bill Black Combo. With top session musicians, they developed an instrumental groove that owed something to both country music and rhythm and blues and was perfect for jukeboxes in noisy honky tonks.

Starting in 1959 the Bill Black Combo had a succession of records in the US Top Twenty including "Smokie - Part 2", "White Silver Sounds" and "Josephine", and their albums sold well, despite being issued in the plainest of covers. The Combo also backed other Hi artists, notably Gene Simmons on his 1964 novelty hit, "Haunted House". The Combo's tenor saxophonist, Ace Cannon, had his own US hit with "Tuff".

Harris also worked with Charlie Rich and Willie Mitchell on Hi and did freelance sessions working as a recording engineer for Ike and Tina Turner and Chuck Berry when they came to Memphis. He produced "Dirty Water" for the Standells, a US hit in 1966, and he wrote "86 Miles" for Narvel Felts and "Cracked Up Over You" for Junior Parker.

In 1971 Harris bought a farm in Tupelo and he opened Trace Studios, recording Doc Kirby and Vincent Smith but with no commercial success. He made his first album, I'm Gonna Rock Some More, in 1979 and in recent years, he had made another, Raw-n-Rockin, for internet sales. At the time of his death, he was assembling a package of Sun and Hi artists for tour dates in the UK.

Spencer Leigh

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