Blues singer Wynonie Harris was a leading figure in black music during the 1940s and early 1950s. He formed a style that had a considerable influence on early rock and roll, as he was noted for his voice that powerfully projected over driving, horn-led bands. A distinguished-looking man with striking blue-gray eyes and a flashing smile, Harris was renowned as a charismatic performer on stage and as a hell-raiser and ladies’ man off stage.
Harris was born in Omaha, Nebraska, to Mallie Hood Anderson. He never knew his father. In 1931, at age 16, Harris dropped out of high school in North Omaha. The following year his first child, a daughter named Micky, was born. Ten months later, his son Wesley was born. Both children were raised by their mothers.
Wesley became a singer in the Five Echoes and in the Sultans. Later, he became a singer and guitarist in Preston Love’s band.
During the 1930s, Harris teamed up with Velda Shannon and formed a dance team. They performed in North Omaha’s flourishing entertainment community. By 1934, they were a regular attraction at the Ritz Theatre. In 1935, having become a celebrity in Omaha, Harris was able to earn a living as an entertainer in the depths of the Great Depression.
In the mid-1940s, during the musicians’ strike, Harris was unable to pursue a recording career. Instead, he relied on personal appearances. Performing almost continuously, he appeared at the Rhumboogie Club in Chicago in late 1943. It was there that Harris was spotted by Lucky Millinder, who asked him to join his band on tour. Harris joined on March 24, 1944, while the band was in the middle of a week-long residency at the Regal in Chicago. They moved on to New York City, where on April 7, Harris took the stage with Millinder’s band for his debut at the Apollo Theatre, in Harlem. It was during this performance that Harris first publicly performed “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well.” In July 1945, Harris signed with Philo, a label owned by the brothers Leo and Edward Messner.
Harris went on to record sessions for other labels, including Apollo, Bullet, and Aladdin. His greatest success came when he signed for Syd Nathan’s King label, at which he enjoyed a series of hits on the U.S. R&B chart in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Such hites included a 1948 cover of Roy Brown’s “Good Rocking Tonight,” “Good Morning Judge,” and “All She Wants to Do Is Rock.” His final large-scale performance was at the Apollo, New York, in November 1967, where he performed with Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton, Jimmy Witherspoon. Harris died in 1969 at the age of 53.