Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Naughty Bits: Keep on Churnin'

Wynonie Harris: Keep on Churnin' ('Til the Butter Comes)


Wynonie Harris recorded what many consider to be the first rock and roll record, “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” His true calling card was a string of raunchy, but highly successful post-World War II "race records." Accusing Harris of engaging in double entendre may be generous -- often, that second entendre was barely there. The lyrics from “Keep on Churning (‘Til the Butter Comes),” a hit from 1952, are typical Harris fare: "Take the sheep, leave them be, bring the finest brown cow straight to me...Keep on pumping, make the butter flow, wipe off the batter and churn some more."

Born in 1915 to an African American mother and native American Indian father in Omaha, Nebraska, Harris was both intelligent and flamboyant. He already had established a reputation as a singer and dancer when he enrolled as a pre-med student at Omaha's prestigious Creighton University. He soon abandoned his studies to pursue a career as a singer. Working his way up from Omaha to Kansas City and eventually Los Angeles, by 1944, Harris had replaced Sister Rosetta Tharpe as lead singer in Lucky Millinder’s orchestra. The group scored a hit with “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well?” Soon after that, Harris struck out on his own. He signed with King Records and built a huge following based on his wild records -- including “Sitting on It All the Time,” “I Like My Baby’s Pudding” and “Loving Machine” -- and even wilder stage shows. Legend has it that Elvis Presley saw Harris on stage, and soon Harris's gyrations and gestures were part of the Pelvis's act.

Ironically, rock and roll's mainstream acceptance spelled the end for the kind of raw music Harris specialized in. As Elvis struck it big with his own version "Good Rockin' Tonight," Harris's career faded. A 1960s comeback attempt failed, and Harris -- who had a reputation for spending money even more quickly than he earned it -- died broke in 1969, at the age of 53.

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