Sitting at a piano bar listening to a great talent has always been one of my favorite ways to savor music. Unfortunately, it is a vanishing art form. I cannot believe any town has ever had a piano bar talent better than our own Jimmy Harris.
He reminds me of Charlie Rich and I drove all the way to Memphis to hear Charlie before he became a star. When I worked in Charleston, West Virginia I saw a homemade sign alongside the road in Knoxville when I was coming home one weekend: “Charlie Rich tonight, two big shows.” I stopped and bought tickets to both shows. I would have done the same thing if the sign had read, “Jimmy Harris tonight.”
I previously wrote about two other local piano bar greats. Most recently it was Jerry Lee Gothard who played at the Patten Hotel lounge and Buck Fell (TFP 1-31-03 “Boogie Buck Fell’s Last Days”). Last Friday when I went to hear Jimmy at Rick’s On The Boulevard, I reminded myself to tell you that Jimmy is still smoking like Jerry Lee Lewis.
Not that he is a Jerry Lee imitator. He is not. He can do “Great Balls of Fire” as well as any man on the planet but he is much too versatile to be crammed into any mold. In fact, last Friday he opened his performance with a Lou Rawls tune. He definitely has the most diverse repertoire of any musician I have ever heard.
Maybe that diverse repertoire has kept him from becoming rich and famous. Most of us don’t love music. We love a certain kind of music. Jimmy has forever been obsessed by music, period.
I’ve gone to hear him in country venues and heard blues all night. When he puts that harmonica rack around his neck, you are going to be picked up and transported to some Mississippi blues joint with a dirt floor. I’ve heard him in rock joints sit and play Willie Nelson all night. In other places I have heard him devote a night to pop and jazz. The amazing thing is he does all of them equally well.
He has written some great songs, too. Local sax great, Ed Leamon, loved his “The Old Man’s Mellow.” One of his last requests was that Jimmy sing it at his funeral and he did. It is a masterpiece.
One of my best compliments happened this way: I told him I was singing his “Goodtime Hustling Harvey” in fingerstyle and he said, “You can’t sing that song in fingerstyle.” Later he came to hear me at the Tiftonia Holiday Inn and when I took a break he said, “You can sing Goodtime Hustling Harvey in fingerstyle.”
Jimmy has come close several times to becoming a star. Kelso Herston was head man at United Artists in Nashville back before I really knew Jimmy. One day when I was pitching songs to him and told him I lived in Chattanooga, he said, “I am going to sign a boy named Jimmy Harris from Chattanooga.” He played me a couple of Jimmy’s songs. The bad news is that UA replaced Kelso just days later.
He once recorded in Los Angeles with a full orchestra and he auditioned for the Glenn Miller Orchestra. They were impressed by his voice but said he “sounds too southern.”
It’s our good fortune that he sounded too southern because he is still here in Chattanooga for us to enjoy. It might surprise you that such a magnificent talent is playing on the boulevard but Rick’s Restaurant and Lounge (3029 Rossville Boulevard) is a good place to dine and listen to good music. The clientele and the atmosphere impressed me.
I do know one thing: I hate to think I could have lived my life without hearing Jimmy Harris do his thing. I hope that won’t happen to you. He plays at 8:00 o’clock every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
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