Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris

When you’re a music fanatic, it’s difficult to broach the “favorites” issue. There are some areas, however, where I have the question nailed pretty much down.

Favorite Led Zeppelin song: It’s taken me decades, since I first heard Led Zeppelin in junior high school, to figure this one out. But when I get a Zeppelin sample going in my auditory cortex, 9 times out of ten, it’s “The Ocean.” This song in my book is Zeppelin perfection.

Favorite Zeppelin album: Presence. Yes, Presence. I’m serious.

But I haven’t ever had any problem nailing down my favorite performance(s) on a Frank Zappa album(s). It is (pair of) performance(s) that I make sure to highlight every Zappadan. It is, in my opinion, the most brilliant musicianship ever to be exhibited on a Frank Zappa project, or, perhaps, anywhere. And we know that’s a statement that stretches from here to the moon Europa.

It is actually a set of two performances: The performance of Don “Sugarcane” Harris on “Directly From My Heart” on Weasels Ripped My Flesh and of Don “Sugarcane” Harris in “Little House I Used to Live In” on Lumpy Gravy. Number one in my book. Always and forever.

I always write about “Directly From My Heart” on December 5, the second day of Zappadan. Because December 5 is the birthday of Little Richard, the man who penned this amazing song. His performance of this song invents the visceral soul that this song invokes. Listen for the most brilliantly performed syncopation you have ever heard.

This song drags its hideous left foot. But it does it gracefully somehow, making it beautiful. And Mr. Penniman’s lilting voice shoots out over it and drags you in like an undertoad. Undertow. Whatever.

So. The source material is sublime. I love this song.

Then, I always haul out the Fenton Robinson version.

How could one not? Fenton, I think, lends the song considerable gravitas.

Then, there’s Sugarcane.

Don “Sugarcane” Harris, the “Don” of Don and Dewey of the mid-1950s, signed to the Specialty label, but the band did not score a hit. He was named “Sugarcane” by none other than Johnny Otis, the man who inspired Frank Zappa’s killer mustache. Funny how the dots connect in the Zappa cosmos.

Harris’ better known Zappa contribution was likely his part on driving “Willie the Pimp” on Hot Rats. Most people really like this song. I find it to be an annoying interruption on an otherwise brilliant album.

Regardless: Both the other contributions the one from Weasels Ripped my Flesh and Burnt Weenie Sandwich came out of those recording sessions. These are inspired, driving, passionate performances: The sound Charlie Daniels actually needed but sorely lacked on “Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

The Sugarcane bit on Burnt Weeny Sandwich starts right here. Gail Zappa apparently does not like there being any copies of Weasels Ripped My Flesh on the YouTube. So go put in yer own copy and listen!

Here’s an early example of Mr. Harris’ soulful fiddle:

Go ahead; have a listen. Then a few examples of Mr. Harris’ solo work follow.

“Song For My Father” is one of those that you probably know but don’t know you know.

If I could someday shake this gentleman’s hand I would probably become a puddle on the floor. I would be more cool meeting Frank himself. But Don Harris. He is to the Zappa cosmos what Billy Preston* was to the Beatles.

I’ll never get the opportunity, sadly. Harris died in November 1999. But what amazing recordings for him to have left behind.

*Another one of my very very favorites. Billy was the shiznit. I am astounded that Mr. Zappa never snapped him up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.