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 résumés 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 clichés, 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.”
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 célèbre. 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.”