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Sat, 04.23.1927

Cornbread Harris, Musician born

Cornbread Harris

*Cornbread Harris was born on this date in 1927.  He is a Black musician and composer. 

Born James Samuel Harris in Chicago, he was one of two children of James and Claudine Harris.  The death of both his parents at the age of 3 left him and his younger sister orphans. Intensifying his anguish, Harris’s legs were deformed.  He was sent to Gillette Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, for treatment.  The doctors broke his legs and put them in casts to correct them; total rehabilitation took over a year.  Because of this, he had a late start in school, where he did very well academically.  

He and his younger sister were moved from one foster home to another until, at the age of 11 or 12, when his grandparents took them.  With his grandparents, life became more stable, and Harris got his first chance at playing the piano.  His grandmother paid for his early lessons. Cornbread attended two or three lessons before he started spending the money on candy and handing the candy out to his buddies. He only got away with it for a couple of months before his grandparents caught him.  Though he was more interested in playing sports after school, he learned enough to play in front of his family. 

Harris returned to playing the piano in his late teens. A friend of his had a poorly tuned piano on the front porch.  He listened to Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Minnie Perle, Roy Rogers, Tom Mix, and music from the Grand Ole Opry. At the end of high school, Cornbread started listening to rhythm and blues music.   He started a band with friends called the Swingmasters. They could play only a few songs and broke up when Harris joined the Army during World War II.  He played for his fellow soldiers during breaks from duty in the service. After the military, he went to Schmitt Music in downtown Minneapolis to improve his skills and purchased a chord book. The diversity of style and songs he was able to play enhanced tremendously. Cornbread then started a new Swingmasters and played in several other bands. 

Also in the 1940s, Harris started his band and was known as Huckleberry, a nickname he had picked up at the age of ten when he went camping wearing a straw hat and carrying his belongings in a shirt on a stick. This nickname stuck until he wrote the song “Cornbread,” which became a crowd favorite.  Harris collaborated with Augie Garcia in 1955 to record “Hi Ho Silver.”  During that time, he fronted many bands and held the stage with Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others. He has played venues in the Twin Cities, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nevada.  Harris has won various awards, including the Minnesota Black Music Award and many community service awards for playing at benefits and retirement homes.

Harris has written over 50 songs.  With Cornbread’s affluent musical background, one may ask what music has influenced him, and he will reply with country music. Country music was played in the neighborhoods where he lived when he was young. He is the father of music producer Jimmy ‘Jam’ Harris and has always said that the only real difference in the types of music is “flavoring.” “All musicians play the same chords, but they have a way of playing them that makes it sound different."

In time, Cornbread started to recognize blues incorporated in the elements of jazz, which launched his love for jazz. He cites Louis Jordan, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie as his favorite jazz figures. While playing became richer, he also started paying attention to vocalists like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, and Nat King Cole. Cornbread’s favorite pianist is Oscar Peterson.  Age of 93 in 2020, don’t let the age fool you. Cornbread is young at heart which comes through not only in his ideals, but also in his music. 

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