Ray Harris, Raw and Rockin'
Ray Harris

Homer Ray Harris was born on September 7, 1927 in Mantchie, Mississippi. His parents were sharecroppers during the Depression. Mantchie is farming country near Tupelo, birthplace of you-know-who. It was also a prime area for Harris to soak up the concentrated weirdness of the Deep South and the music. "I came from the rural areas," recalled Harris. "Listened to the Grand 0l' Opry all the time. We never listened to Rhythm & Blues. Just kept the radio tuned to Nashville. We was country folks and we listened to country music." By 1953 Harris was married and had moved to Memphis. He had got a job on the graveyard shift at Firestone, working next to Bill Black. "One day we was taking a break and I asked Bill, What're you doing in music? He said that on Saturday nights he was playing at the State Line, some lil old club down on the Mississippi-Tennessee state line. He also said he was trying to cut a record up at Sun Records with some boy named Presley. He asked me to come by during the next session."

"A couple of weeks went past and I came up to Sun one afternoon. I parked and waited for Bill then we went inside and Bill introduced me to Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley and Scotty Moore. They was cutting Good Rockin' Tonight. I sat up in the control room and Sam had both hands up in the air saying 'This is it! This is it!' Sam would play back the tape and Elvis would say 'What do you think, Mr. Phillips?' Sam would say It sounds good. You just got to work on this and that..' Now you've gotta remember that I was hooked on Hank Williams. I didn't like it at the beginning but even before the end of the session it was starting to hit me. I'd played a little around Tupelo. We'd go down by a creek or river and have a weiner roast We'd sing and play, all acoustic, of course. I listened to Presley and I thought, 'Hell! He ain't doing anything I can't do' so I put a band together".

Harris put the word around town that he was looking for a guitar player and he was soon introduced to Wayne Cogswell who had emigrated from Connecticut to Memphis in search of rockabilly music. Along the way he had adopted the stage name of Wayne Powers and he paid the rent for himself, his wife and five kids by selling Kirby vacuum cleaners. "Me and Wayne Powers disturbed the neighbourhood every night. We were hunting something different, like everyone else. We decided to go as wild as we could. We didn't disturb the folks too much until we brought the whole band in. I told the neighbours that they would get a copy of the record. We worked on that song, Come On Little Mama every night".

Harris and Cogswell took their baby to the new Fernwood label and to Sun's competitor, Meteor Records, before Sam Phillips agreed to record the song. On June 20, 1956 Ray Harris, Wayne Cogswell/Powers and Joey Reisenberg recorded Come On Little Mama and Where'd You Stay Last Night? They would later be regarded as two of the seminal examples of Memphis rockabilly and virtually defined the genre. Billboard called the record "dangerous". The rawness and intensity were almost palpable. It was Southern music that stood not a prayer of crossing over into the national marketplace. Nevertheless, Harris received $300 in royalties and Phillips was anxious to record a follow-up. By this point, Harris had taken on a second guitarist, Red Hensley, and it was Hensley who came up with the idea for the second record. "He remembered this song, Greenback Dollar, which was an old folk tune in the public domain. We decided to see if we could do anything with it. We all got to liking it and we started working on it real hard. Then we took it into the studio."

The party atmosphere on Greenback Dollar suggested that it had been cut at one of Sun's studio parties with such luminaries as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis contributing the background vocals. However, from 30 years' distance Harris recalls that the background vocalists were Red Hensley and Roy Orbison. "A lot of people thought I was gonna have a big one," recalled Harris, "So I got carried away and bought a car, a new Mercury. I ended up digging ditches for six months to pay for it". Harris's second record had the profound misfortune to appear af the same moment as Whole Lot Of Shaking Gain' On and every fibre of Sun's tiny operation was geared to Jerry Lee Lewis. Greenback Dollar sank without a trace. Ray Harris's epitaph on his brief affiliation with Sun Records is without rancour. "I never had a hit record, but I tried. There's a lot of people just wanting the chance I had. To make a record in those days and be on Sun Records was an honour. I guess the main reason we never did have a hit was that I had too much country in my style. Sure had a good time tryin', though."

That assessment is probably not too far from the truth. Country boys such as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Sonny James and Marty Robbins were scoring successfully in the pop charts but many of the hillbilly edges were sanded down. Ray Harris left all of the rough edges intact with Sam Phillips' blessing. Before Greenback Dollar hit the streets Harris had already decided that his future lay on the other side of the studio glass. "I knew Carl McVoy. He was Jerry Lee Lewis's cousin and he was working construction with me. He played some dances with my group and he'd worked up a rock & roll arrangement of the old Jimmie Davis song You Are My Sunshine. So, I took McVoy to this old lady's house down on Poplar Avenue. She had an upright piano and a tape recorder. I gave her $3.50 and we cut You Are My Sunshine and Tootsie. I had two partners, Bill Cantrell and Quinton Claunch. We said, 'Well, we got the know how but who's got the money?' We went down to Poplar Tunes which was owned by Joe Cuoghi and he remembered me on account of Greenback Dollar. The four of us came to art agreement and formed a little company, went to Nashville with the money we'd raised and re-cut those two tunes by McVoy with Chet Atkins and all the Nashville studio men'.

With their first release on the horizon Harris and his partners needed a name for their new record labeL It was Joe Cuoghi who hit upon the name 'Hi Records.' He thought it would conjure up images of a record high on the charts. McVoy's debut hit the streets to a good response but Hi did not have a distribution system in place, so the partners sold the masters to Sam Philips for $2600 and used the influx of capital to rent the old Royal Theater on S. Lauderdale St and buy an Ampex single track recorder, six microphones and two Altec boards. Bill Cantrell strung the primitive equipment together The Hi Records studio was born. And so began the second phase of Ray Harris's career in the music business. It would be infinitely more successful than his brief foray into singing. After a shaky start, Hi hit their stride with the Bill Black Combo and never looked back. Harris remained with the label until 1970 when he sold his share to Willie Mitchell and returned to Tupelo, Mississippi. He was sick of music and sick of the record business. He had spent no more than four or five hours at home a day for years. In addition to cutting most of the sessions at Hi, he was also cutting sessions on a custom basis for Mercury (Chuck Berry, Junior Parker etc.), Backbeat and United Artists.

Harris bought a lake house on the Tennessee River and kicked back for three years wondering if he could get it back together in the record business. He finally decided that he could not and he started a construction business. After a short hiatus he started a studio in Tupelo as a joint venture with Sam Phillips. Trace Studio had a contract with Playboy Records to supply product but the deal ended in a flurry of lawsuits after less than a year and Harris lost the studio. Harris has the canny self-knowledge of one who has worked his way up from grinding rural poverty and a sharp sense of humour that must have sustained him through the best and worst of times. Homer Ray Harris is an original.

Colin Escott, 1986