"THIS TOWN needs a blue room," says Bill Harris, and that's exactly what it's getting on Saturday nights for at least the rest of the summer.
With the inauguration several weekends ago of Bill Harris' Back Room Blues in the back room of Charlie's, D.C. now has a showcase for local blues talent one night a week with guitarist-vocalist Harris as anchorman.
Harris names Mary Jefferson, Nap Turner and Victor Glaude among the blues people he will bring in as featured guests with his own trio, and he plans to include in the proceedings the occasional horn player. The back room assumes a different personality on Friday evenings when the swing-oriented Eddie Phyfe III is in residence.
One of owner Bob Martin's motivations for putting live sounds in the room is to provide the "chance to dance and at the same time have very good music." He admits as well to being "pushed by the recognition of how many damn good musicians there are in Washington."
"The blues was always around me," says Harris of his Nashville, N.C., upbringing, "but I wasn't supposed to play them. In my family's case it was for religious reasons. But the uppity people, they looked down upon it because it was plain lowdown dirty blues."
At an early age, Harris listened to his parents' recordings of Bessie Smith, Lonnie Johnson and other blues pioneers, and at 6 or 7 he was sent on errands to the stores in town, where he heard itinerant blues players with names like Billeye and Laughing Lanky. "They were guys like Blind Boy Fuller but they weren't big names and they never recorded," Harris recounts. "But they could real-l-l-y play the blues. They would come there to make money, especially around the time when they auctioned off the tobacco."
Harris had for several years been picking out tunes on the organ at the church his family attended, but soon he wanted a guitar. His first crude instrument "took me a whole day to make. I took a cigar box and a stick and pulled some wires off our back screen door and that's what I knocked around with." A little later his uncle sent him a guitar from Washington, D.C. ("a place that always fascinated me"). The neck of the instrument was so warped that Harris' uncle taught him to fret with a knife blade. "So I learned bottleneck technique without even knowing what it was," Harris observes with a laugh.
A small repertoire of spirituals and blues tunes made the teen-aged Harris a regular performer at church and parties. He also played a homemade set of drums in the high school band, sang and did a little acting. It never occurred to him that he "could wind up being a professional--I was just doing all the things musical that came to be natural." World War II Army duty had him singing in a vocal quartet and made a bugler of him. "I guess I was the 'boogie-woogie bugle boy' 'cause I played everything in the world on the darned bugle," he recalls with a chuckle. After discharge Harris came to D.C. and enrolled in the old Washington Junior College of Music on the G.I. bill as a voice and piano student, studied the classical guitar under Sophocles Papas and played the blues on the side. "I'm classically trained but blues bred," he says.
The R&B vocal quartet invited him to become its accompanist in 1950 and he remained with the group for seven years, in the process composing nearly a dozen of its hits, including "Don't You Know I Love You." Touring around the country he met and became close friends with Kansas City blues shouter Joe Turner, B.B. King and other blues and jazz greats.
"I was hanging around with these guys and got to see how they lived and how they sounded," he reminisces. "Lowell Fulson used to pay me $5 a night to tune his guitar--he was always breaking strings--and I had to learn how to bend that string and make it sing and get that blues feel in it. Ray Charles was the piano player in Fulson's band and here we are, buddy-buddy, going around from place to place after the gig jamming." During the 1970s when Harris ran his own D.C. club, Pigfoot, musicians the likes of pianist Horace Silver, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and vocalist Joe Williams used to drop by to sit in with him. Look out, Harris' back room Saturday night at Charlie's may well become an institution.