Rhythm and Blues

The gospel according to Cornbread Harris

James Samuel “Cornbread” Harris Sr. playing the piano.

James Samuel “Cornbread” Harris Sr.

photo by kelly loverud

James Samuel “Cornbread” Harris Sr. played piano on Minnesota’s first rock ’n’ roll hit,“Hi Yo Silver,” and has been a fixture on the local music scene and beyond since the 1940s. When “Cornbread”— he got the nickname from one of his song titles—turned 90 this year, he celebrated by live-recording a CD. He still plays every Friday at the Loring Pasta Bar in Dinkytown, mixing in blues and jazz standards with his own original tunes, and travels with a briefcase full of sheet music. He figures he has 20 more years of music in him, at least, and has already passed along some of his musical legacy to his estranged son, James, better known as the famous R&B producer Jimmy Jam.

“I was born bow-legged and pigeon-toed. Chicago, Illinois. Cook County Hospital. They kept me in the hospital for two or three years. Then they brought me to Gillette Hospital in St. Paul. They started breaking my legs and putting them in a cast and breaking my legs and putting them in a cast, you know. Broke my legs and put ’em in a cast. People take it for granted that they can walk. It’s not a natural-born thing for everyone in the whole world.”

“I went into the service, and could play piano a little bit, from the nuns that taught me at the hospital. I’m terrible with years, so how old was I? Younger than I am now. So, about 18 or when you could go into the service. In the service, I could go into the day room, and I could play [hums music] I could play ‘Long, Long Ago,’ I could play ‘In the Mood,’ ‘Tiddlywinks,’ and ‘Chopsticks,’ and these servicemen would say, ‘Oh man, you are such a good piano player,’ and I’d say, ‘I only know three songs,’ and they would ask me to play them over again.”

“There were all kinds of pianos around then, on front porches and stuff, so I’d just walk around and find a piano on a front porch, and just start playing. When I would go to the front porches and just start playing piano, I’d run into trumpet players and stuff. So we would go together and start a band and just keep practicing—front room, dining room, garage.”

“Luckily my name never came up for me to go overseas. Guys weren’t coming back. So did that drive me to play music? Uh-huh! I went to Schmitt Music in downtown Minneapolis, on 10th and Marquette—with the big mural of music notes. That’s where I bought my first chord book.”

“Sheet music was very expensive then. Oh, yeah. A dollar and a half, two-fifty. Just for one song. That’s a lot of money, sure, but I was in my learning stage and enjoying it.”

“What appeals to me is to ad-lib on any song that happens to be on the page. Opera doesn’t appeal to me because it’s too scripted and too strict. What makes a good singer, to me, is someone who maybe can sing heavy opera, but also can sing boogie-woogie.”

“Now, Frank Sinatra was a wonderful singer because he never sang the same way twice. I’m the same way. He wasn’t singing ‘In the Mood,’ he was in the mood, you know? Sam Cooke could go secular and church, but he wasn’t multi-dimensional. Prince? You mean Nelson Jr.? Two lawyers who made a bet to see which one could make him famous first. That’s the story.”

“I have a very famous son. My son don’t talk to me no more. He is a junior, I’m a senior. He got fat in the head and decided I wasn’t good enough for him. We lived together when he was about 17, 18, 19. I liked him. But he wanted to get away from me, you know.”

“No, I don’t call him son. It doesn’t fall on my lips very well. But I know Prince wanted to be a movie star, and he fired my son. His band was showing Prince up. Besides, they were helping other bands at this time. They helped Janet Jackson at all that. But we didn’t talk. He was into his whole stardom thing and all that.”

“I don’t know much about the other side of the grave. I do believe that the other side is eternal. This is just temporal, what we’re here for now. I feel what I would say blessed, to experience chairs, or tile on the floor, or rock, or wood. I mean, all of this comes from dirt. Even piano keys.” 

Digital Extra: Hear blues legend “Cornbread” Harris play