“No Shoes Boogie”, the underrated CHARLIE HARRIS (1951-1964)

Not to be confused with Nat King Cole’s bass player in the ’50s, this Charlie Harris is a Texas music legend who has been active in genres such as Western swing and country & western for at least half a century. One of Harris’ biggest fans is country icon Willie Nelson. The red-headed stranger took time in a 1974 written tribute to Bob Wills to also lavish praise on a group known as the Texas Top Hands. This is one of at least two legendary Texas music outfits that this guitarist has played with; another is Ray Price & the Cherokee Cowboys Band. This Charlie Harris has nothing to do with the one on King (early ’60s) or Golden Eagle label, neither more with Bob Tucker, who cut for State # 4002 the great bopper « Quit Draggin’ Your Feet ».

With Ray Price, Harris took on the important responsibility as frontman, stepping forward at the start of the show to warm up the audience and set the stage for the arrival of the headliner. He also took on this role with country star Stonewall Jackson. Fiddlers Johnny Bush and Buck Buchanan were also members of the Texas Top Hands who continued to be Harris’ associates in the Price outfit. The magnificent Johnny Bush — one of the only people with this surname that Texans are really enthusiastic about — actually played drums in the Texas Top Hands before he switched to fiddle. (Bush and Jimmy Day played together in 1997 in the Offenders, a Texas superband project that also involved Nelson and many others.) In the much dimmer past, Harris also worked in Western swing combos led by Adolph Hofner.

No biographical statistics on Harris are available, except he was a Texas native, and must have been in his early ’20s at the beginning of the 1950’s.

First record which Charlie Harris appears on is a R. D. Hendon’s Western Jamboree Cowboys disc in 1950, on the Freedom label. The origins of the Western Jamboree Cowboys, one of Houston’s most popular and prolific post-war country groups, can be traced to 1947, when some young musicians formed a group to appear at a small downtown nitery called the Sphinx Club, which was run by R.D. Hendon, an ex-oilfield roughneck and Navy veteran from Marquez, Texas. By 1949, the band who called themselves the South Texas Cowboys, were proving so popular that Hendon realized he needed a much bigger club to accommodate the crowds. So he purchased the Old main Street dance Hall – better known by his street address, 105 ½ Main – gave it a ‘western’ theme and rechristened it the Western Jamboree Night Club. The band’s name change followed suit and, by 1950, the club was drawing huge crowds six nights a week. In addition, the band broadcast live over KLEE, where Hendon also worked as a disc jockey. Hendon insisted on putting his name up front as the band’s leader, although his complete lack of musical talent prevented him, for the most part, from being much more than an announcer.

« No shoes boogie » (Freedom 5033), probably the Cowboys’ earliest recording, was virtually an advertisement for the Western Jamboree Club and is unquestionably one of the best Freedom records, an excellent example of the hard-rocking, shuffle-beat swing that was common in Texas before rock and roll. Recorded at Gold Star and released in March 1951, « No shoes boogie » features one of the best of Hendon’s ever-changing lineups. In addition to the excellent vocal and hot electric guitar work of Charlie Harris, the group included Theron Poteet (piano), Johnny Cooper (rhythm guitar), Tiny Smith(bass) and Don Brewer (drums). As often was the case on Freedom sessions, the band’s regular steel man (Joe Brewer) was replaced on this date by former Texas Playboy Herb Remington. Remington’s fills behind Harris’ vocal and his dazzinly fast single-string solo rate among his finest, most exciting performances. Flipside by comparison is a tame weepy ballad, « Those Tears In Your Eyes »

After the Freedom session, the Western Jamboree Cowboys recorded numerous sides for Four Star (Charlie Harris vocal), Gilt Edge, Blue Ribbon, Shamrock and Starday and featured such musicians as singer-guitarist Eddie Noack, the underrated Harold Sharp and trumpeteer-vocalist Bill Taylor.

The Four Star recordings were inaugurated by another coupling, yet under the name « R. D. Henden »[sic] that featured Charlie Harris on vocal, who was soon to leave the group. « Oh ! Mr. President » (4* X-20) was a rush-job in the spring of 1951, a rare, overtly political song dealing with the firing of General MacArthur by President Truman. «The flipside « Don’t Say No » was a real weeper, again sung by Harris, and musically forgettable.

After leaving the Cowboys, Charlie Harris went on to work with Gabe Tucker in Houston, Walt Kleypas and Adolph Hofner in San Antonio, and later played and recorded with Ray Price, among others. The almost ten-years tenure of the Western Jamboree Cowboys came to an abrupt end when R. D. Hendon, who’d always suffered from bouts of depression, committed suicide on September 8, 1956. The Western Jamboree Club remained vacant for several years after his death and was eventually demolished around 1960, symbolizing the end of an era.

While largely a sideman, Harris also stepped forward to host his own television show out of Corpus Christi, an endeavor that managed a secure broadcast spot for a surprisingly long time.

Bass player Gabe Tucker was a familiar band leader and promoter frequently seen in the Nashville area: indeed he had been a part of the original Nashville edition of Eddy Arnold’s Tennessee Plowboys. He recorded at least one Texas session himself which he sent in to Dot (located in Gallatin, Tennessee). Randy Wood (Dot’s owner) created a short-lived 200 serie for bought material and released Gabe’s (& His Musical Ramblers) fine bluesy « It’d surprise you » (Dot 201), which became a popular song for others : Red Sovine had his own version on M-G-M (# 11214) ; the Tucker labelmate Margie Day, fronting the Griffin Brothers, cut her own, R&B style (Dot 1094). It was actually covered by female singers like Rosalie Allen (on RCA-Victor), who found it an ideal song to air the woman’s point of view. The Gabe Tucker sides represent the only truly authentic (Texas) Western swing on Dot Records. The trumpet had been popular for a good amount of years but was going out of style by the time this record appeared. Charlie Harris takes all the vocals but is not credited on the labels, including the interesting novelty « Cracker barrel farmer » (# 201), with the unusually clever lyrics and the songs clicked despite their old-fashioned sound.

Red Sovine

From a different session and better recorded, « You better do better baby » (# 204) is another classy performance by Harris which could just possibly originate fom a Nashville session. It’s backed by the fine uptempo ballad « Rainyday Sweetheart ».
From various Dot sessions came also the fast « Jive Around Old Joe Clark » and the excellent shuffler « Streamline Country Girl » (# 1097).

Harris was apparently Tucker’s front man, this time credited, for another performance on the Gaylord [real forname to Tucker] Music label (# 4926), two nice ballads and again classy performances : « I’m Reaping Heartaches Over You » and « You’re The Only Love ».

We only find Harris again on vocal for « Sing A Sad Song », cut during a Ray Price session in December 1964 for Columbia, again a ballad, a genre in which he’d excel.

One can come across two more 45s by Harris on the Mega label in the early ’70s (untraced).

Sources : From Andrew Brown & Kevin Coffey notes to « Heading back to Houston » Krazy Kat 12 ; YouTube’s « Hillbilly Boogie1 » chain ; my own archives ; 78-worlds (Gaylord and Dot label scans) ; Ronald Keppner for Gaylord sound and Freedom B-side ; Steve Hathaway for 4* X-20 soundfiles ; Eugene Chadbourne, All Music Guide.