On his 90th birthday, bluesman James Samuel Harris, Sr. -- “Cornbread” Harris, as you probably know him -- is releasing a live CD, Cornbread: Live at the Hook, recorded over two nights at the Hook and Ladder.
Born in Chicago in 1927, Harris moved to St. Paul just before entering his teens to live with his grandparents. He played piano on Augie Garcia's 1955 hit “Hi Yo Silver,” Minnesota's first rock 'n' roll record, and he hasn't stopped performing since. His family's musical legacy is continued on by his son, James Harris III, better known as R&B superproducer Jimmy Jam.
City Pages caught up with Cornbread in his home, where he played piano and told us stories. Here are a few of the most memorable.
Learning piano from some ruler-happy nuns
My grandparents sent me to the Catholic nuns and they had this habit -- it must be a worldwide habit because I’ve talked to many people who went through the same experience. You’re playing [he plays piano] and then . . . “BAM!” “Oh, oh, oh.” If you hit the wrong note they’d hit you with a ruler.
I said, “Oh no. I don’t need that.” So I started skipping lessons, but I left home with the money. I started getting ice cream and peanuts for my friends. That worked out … I’d say three or four weeks.
“Where’s Jimmy?” “He’s at music.” “No, he isn’t. I’m the teacher and he’s not here.” I got home. “How’d the lesson go?” I said, “It went a little better. Next week I’ll probably get a different song.” She didn’t let on. “Good.”
So she sent me off next week with the money for the lesson… and said, “You think you’re pulling the wool over my eyes. The teacher told me what you’re doing, and you’re lying to me.”
In those days, you could whip the kids.
How doctors kept breaking his legs and his grandfather passed as white
[My grandfather] was mulatto, so you couldn’t tell he was Negro. He bought a house, 1144 Hand Avenue. Everything was going cool until his wife came. She was dark. [Laughs] Man oh man! The neighbors got kind of upset! He was a railroad conductor. Negroes couldn’t have that kind of job … but he was passing for white.
I wanted to do sports. Well my sports thing was hampered because I was bow-legged and pigeon-toed. I was in Gillette Hospital in St. Paul, and they broke my legs and put them in casts and let me heal, then they take pictures. “No that ain’t straight yet.” And they’d break it again and put it in a cast. I don’t know how long that went on -- 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 years old I was in this mess.
They therapy-ed me until I could walk and run a little bit. I joined the track team, and I got on the bench. Got on the basketball team. Bench. Baseball team. Bench. Football team. Bench. So I never made an A squad. I went into the service, I went into boxing. The fourth fight they beat me up terrible. I won the fight, and I’m beat up like this? I said, “No, that’s it for that.”
On accidentally becoming a musician in the army
I’d go to the day room in the service and play the piano to entertain myself. Soldiers would ask, “Oh my. Can you play so and so? I said “No, I can just play these three or four songs.” “Oh, well play them again!” I said, “Oh… people like music.”
So I get out of the service and go to Schmitt Music Company and I buy a chord book with guitar chords. It has what they call a chord speller. I can play this chord in my song…. [He plays a chord.] Oh, man … I’m a piano player, now.
It began to be the place where I could play my chord thing in any song. So I got to be pretty popular with the musician people and I joined a musicians’ union. I’m a life member now. I learned how to play pretty near any song. I ended up playing the blues -- it’s pretty near the same song, all 400 of ‘em. They’re so close to each other, the only thing that seems to make a difference is what the words are.
What he and Jimmy Jam have in common
Terry Lewis got together with him, and they became blood brothers almost. They started Flyte Time in South Minneapolis. 42nd or so and Nicollet. He was a disc jockey and that’s where Prince discovered him. Prince said, “Oh you’re a disc jockey. Who are you?” “I’m Jimmy Jam and I have Flyte Time.” “Would you like to meet my band? We’re going to go on a United States tour.” So they went around the U.S. two times. The second time, Prince fired Jimmy -- because he was getting too much attention, and it got to be where Jimmy’s band was outplaying Prince’s band.
The same thing happened to me with Augie. We were opening for Elvis Presley in the Minneapolis Convention Center. We were run off the stage by Presley’s manager because he wasn’t that good at the time, and we were better than him.
How his song “Cornbread” got him his nickname
I wrote the song and people dug it. So they started calling me Cornbread. I knew if I played, anywhere anytime, I would have to play this song. It’s my signature tune.
So I’ve got it on record now. And I hit a note I don’t think I’ll be able to again in my life but it’s on the recording. I hit this note and hold it and hold it and I hit a high note...
Usually I hit an octave below that and hit it longer. The thing was swinging and we were cooking and that burst of energy -- how you feel when you’re exuding… I had to calm down after that note.
Cornbread Harris CD Release Show
Where: The Hook and Ladder
When: 7:30 Sat. April 22
Tickets: $12/$15; more info here