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
Harrison unfolds a giant old showbill for a benefit to be held at the New Era. Toward the top are large photos of the entertainers, including Harrison. In the middle, smaller pictures the MCs. The second MC from the left is a thin, young, striking Oprah Winfrey.
During this time, Harrison cut two singles for Smash, then the tiny 4V label. The idea was to come up with a new dance craze. “I did a song called ‘The Wobble,’ and they billed me in New York City as the ‘King of the Wobble.’ From there, I went to All-Platinum. That was 1972. Sylvia [Robinson] ran the label — I remember she was in Memphis trying to get Al Green to record this song she had, ‘Pillow Talk,’ and obviously Al didn’t like the song very much, so Sylvia recorded it and it became a humongous hit.”
Harrison was thriving in the clubs, but languishing on record. Says Allen Larman, “Sterling is such a great singer that you can just give him anything and it will sound good. And that’s the problem with his records. None of his producers helped him forge a signature sound that even guys who didn’t have big hits — like Howard Tate or James Carr — had. I think that’s why even collectors don’t know Sterling.”
Kool & the Gang producer/arranger Gene Redd enticed Harrison to the West Coast in 1977. When he got here, he made another valuable friend in Cordella De Milo, a singer (who recorded with Johnny “Guitar” Watson in ’55) and actress (Redd Foxx’s girlfriend on Sanford and Son). De Milo, although still singing, was by now a local soul impresario.
“She got me jobs around town at places like the Parisian Room, the Name of the Game, all those places, and from that I met Holland-Dozier-Holland [the songwriting/production team behind the Four Tops’ and the Supremes’ ’60s hits]. They saw me at a place at First and Western, and signed me. I did a 12-inch for Motown called ‘Roll Her, Skate Her.’”
“Roll Her” was a very good record, yet it still failed to sell. An early-’80s album for Atlantic/Real World met with a similarly swift demise.
So, for the last 20 years, the M&M has been Harrison’s home base. There’s been the occasional record here and there, a few out-of-town gigs, but nothing that has delivered his name to stardom. But, ironically, his sets in this little room are making him a local cause cĂ©lĂ¨bre. Gorodetsky has taken up Harrison’s case and is planning to record him with a sympathetic producer, Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin. And Larman has gotten Harrison booked into House of Blues as an opening act.
Harrison’s story isn’t unique. What is different is that this particular veteran R&B artist now finally seems to be in the right place at the right time, and is in fit-enough form to deliver.
“I never smoked a cigarette, never got high, don’t drink nothin’ stronger than cranberry juice. Like I said, you don’t get a second chance to make that first impression. I mean to be ready. I know you gotta be patient in this business, but it’s just as important to be ready.”