By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by Debra DiPaolo
Rhythm & blues is always alive and well in Los Angeles, if you know where to look. While the glory days of the “chitlin circuit” — the Southern and East Coast cities where R&B artists toured ceaselessly — are over, L.A. still has its own micro-version of that scene. Big Jay McNeely can be heard in a Fountain Valley barbecue joint. The great Jennell Hawkins (“Moments To Remember”) plays regularly in bars throughout Inglewood and the Crenshaw district. Classic rhythm & blues thrives in L.A., where it grew up.
Head south on Western, keep going, and eventually you’ll find the M&M Restaurant, which, unlikely though it seems, has lately become the L.A. hipster set’s Cafe Society. The usual Saturday-night crowd — mostly African-American women in their 30s and 40s, and a few neighborhood couples — is being joined by a newer, younger set whose most far-reaching contact with rhythm & blues up to now has been Dusty in Memphis.
Sterling Harrison is the M&M’s live entertainment. He is The Best Soul Singer You Never Heard Of, and any snippy comments about his red sequined blazer and Jheri curls snap off dead when Harrison opens his mouth to deliver a tune. He’s got a falsetto that Prince would kill for, a low tenor that could melt Arthur Prysock and a growl that would strike terror in Bobby “Blue” Bland. His delivery is masterful, at turns as tender as a lover, rafter-shaking as a Sunday night at the Apollo or malicious as Richard Pryor’s impression of a drunken ex-mother-in-law. In addition, his band — whose individual rÃ©sumÃ©s boast work with Marvin Gaye and Barry White, among others — is one of L.A.’s best. It’s a real, true R&B show, rendered with cold-sweat energy and cool streamline professionalism.
In a musical age of detachment and self-congratulatory irony, Sterling Harrison is a godsend — a man who obviously finds joy in music and takes great pride in delivering the goods.
“I’m an entertainer,” stresses Harrison, who refuses to give his age, “so I entertain — sing, dance, impressions, comedy. Whatever it takes to entertain these people, I’m gonna do.” He milks the room for tips, and his live sets include unprintable jokes, dead-on impressions of celebs from Whitney Houston to Paul Lynde, and the best rhythm & blues singing heard in many, many a moon. Harrison works hard, packed house or not.
“I always do a complete show,” he says, “whether it’s 2,000 people or two. You never get a second chance to make that first impression, and you never know who those two people might be, what they can do for you.”
Such pearls are ancient show-biz clichÃ©s, but they’ve recently worked to Harrison’s advantage. Big Sandy’s manager, Allen Larman, a rhythm & blues aficionado of the first water, caught Harrison and immediately started championing him. Among the people he brought to hear Harrison was Eddie Gorodetsky, a writer for the Dharma & Greg show and known in music circles for his deep historical knowledge (his privately pressed Christmas CDs are legendary). Gorodetsky flipped, and booked Harrison to play the Dharma & Greg wrap party. Larman also dragged his pals from Rhino Records to the M&M. They, too, left converted, and hired Harrison to star in their infomercial.
Harrison greets it with enthusiasm, though not innocence. While his gratitude to Larman and Gorodetsky is unconditional, his optimism is tempered with caution. It’s not Harrison’s first big-league at-bat.
“I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia,” Harrison recalls with a slight regional drawl, “and all I wanted to do from age 8 was be a singer.” The Richmond of the ’50s and ’60s was a key chitlin-circuit stop, and Harrison was “blessed to see everybody that was hot. Everybody came through Richmond — Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett. I saw ’em all, I performed with ’em all.”
Early on, Harrison entered talent contests, becoming a local Richmond fixture by the mid-’50s. “Two promoters, Allen Knight and Tom Mitchell, took me under their wing, and put me on all the big shows. Then a bandleader who worked out of Connecticut, Buddy Lucas — he worked on ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’ by the Flamingos — saw me, and he asked if I’d like to come up to New York. I got permission from my mother, and I went up there and cut my first record, ‘The Devil’s Got a Spell on Me,’ on Vim Records, in ’55 or ’56. I came back to Richmond, then finally I went back to New York City and got with a booking agent, Jimmy Evans.
“Jimmy handled all the big people of the time — Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke — and he heard me one night at a place in Freeport [Long Island] called the Celebrity Club, and I knocked him out! I was with Jimmy from 1960 to 1972 — that’s how I got to be popular in Nashville. The club owner wanted Wilson Pickett, but Wilson was booked, and Jimmy told him, ‘I’m gonna send you the best thing I got in my office.’ So every year I’d do that club, the New Era. The first time, he kept me there 16 weeks.”