Ten years before Little Richard sang, "Wop bop a loo-wop, a wop bam boom,"
Harry "The Hipster" Gibson was singing, "Wop, boodlee webop, a wop, mop."
Fifteen years before Buddy Holly was hiccupping in falsetto, Harry had perfected
the technique. Twenty years before Pete Townsend smashed his first guitar, The
Hipster was smashing pianos (it was a gimmick, the club had a piano that broke
apart and could be patched up between shows).
Harry Gibson was the wildest of the mid-1940’s boogie woogie piano players.
There were a lot of boogie pianists in those days, but Harry had the whole rock
and roll thing down, to a tee, before anybody knew it existed. He was playing
boogie so ferociously and with such a heavy backbeat that, in retrospect, it
gives an amazing resemblance to the 1950’s. But was it? If you define rock and
roll as boogie woogie with a backbeat, frantic vocalizations in overdrive, wild
unpredictable stage antics, crazy lyrics sung with a rebellious attitude, by an
egomaniac with a desire to demolish the audience with rhythm rather than soothe
it with a nice melody, then yes, it was, with an asterisk (*it was 1944).
When boogie woogie hit New York City officially in 1938 with the "From
Spirituals To Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall, it was nothing new to the top
Harlem piano players, many of whom were from the south. When Albert Ammons, Pete
Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis moved to town after the concert, they had to peck
their way up the order of the established greats of Harlem by engaging in
cutting contests at a private after-hours club called Grant’s. The boogie woogie
trio found themselves competing against people like Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson,
Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Marlowe Morris, Count Basie, Harry "The Hipster" Gibson,
Claude Hopkins, and Clarence Prophet, among others, playing stride piano and
boogie. According to Harry, the winner of these battles was usually Art Tatum.
Harry was probably one of the low men on the totem pole, as he was the only
white guy at the contests. Yes, Harry Gibson was white, the only white man
there, and probably the only one in Harlem. The fact that he was invited at all,
in those racially charged times, speaks volumes, but the fact that Fats Waller
usually introduced him to the contestants as being his star protégé, gives
testimony to his immense talent. Harry said in his autobiography many years
later, "It sure was scary playing with those cats, but somehow I got away with
Harry The Hipster was born Harry Raab in 1915 in the Bronx, near Harlem. His
family operated a player piano repair shop, and his father was a violinist. His
grandfather was a piano teacher who taught Harry the basics of traditional
music, but he learned jazz songs by carefully watching the keys on player
pianos, and copying them. He had no way of knowing the piano rolls had been
overdubbed with extra notes, so when he copied the keys, he didn’t know he
wasn’t supposed to be able to play all of them, but he did anyway. Later in life
he claimed this to be the reason he played so many notes. "I’ve only got 10
fingers, but I play as many notes as I can with the ten I’ve got," he would say.
By the time he was thirteen, he was playing jazz piano in an all-black band
called The Chocolate Bars, in Harlem, and by 1930 he was making friends with
pianists there and being tutored, notably by Marlowe Morris, who was Harry’s
age, and filling in as a solo artist in the clubs that lined 7th Ave (now
Lennox). He started getting jobs, and for the rest of the decade made a splash
there, a large part of his repertoire coming from Fats Waller records. His
reputation as a walking Fats Waller jukebox got back to the man himself, who
walked into a club where Harry was playing one night in 1939, pretending to be a
regular customer. One after another, he requested his own songs, which Harry
played so well that Waller introduced himself to the surprised youngster, and
hired him on the spot to play with him downtown in the bustling new jazz
district known as "The Street," also called "Swing Street," "The Apple," "Swing
Alley," or, for those who still need Mapquest, 52nd St. between 5th and 7th
Avenues in midtown Manhattan. For the next year, Harry was Fats Waller’s
Tempting as it may be to think Harry was a white copyist of Waller, by the
early 40’s he had developed his own unique style quite different from Fat’s.
Like the young Bobby Zimmerman mentoring himself on Woodie Guthrie records until
he started writing his own songs, developed his own style, and changed his name
to Bob Dylan, the young Harry Raab grew away from the whole Fats Waller thing
when Fats left town in 1940, and Harry suddenly morphed into Harry "the Hipster"
Gibson. There was a brief transition period where Harry was singing Don Raye
boogies, such as Pig Foot Pete, Down The Road A Piece, and Boogie Woogie Bugle
Boy, but by 1943 and 1944, Harry was primarily singing his own songs and making
a name for himself along The Street. The name Gibson came from a gin bottle, a
popular brand at the time, and the nickname Hipster was a word he either coined
or adopted as soon as it had been, because his usage of the term is the earliest
on record. Before hipsters, there were hepcats. Before hip, there was hep, and
Harry informs us of the difference between the two in his song, "It Ain’t Hep,"
where he tells us, "The jive is hip, don’t say hep, that’s a slip of the lip,
let me give you a tip, don’t you ever say hep, it ain’t hip."
For the next five years Harry played almost every night on The Street, in
almost every club. He played with Billie Holliday, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker,
Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Pearl Bailey, Coleman Hawkins, Tiny Grimes, Stuff
Smith, Thelonious Monk, the list is endless as this was the center of jazz at
the time. His placards outside the front door at these clubs usually billed him
as being a musical genius. He played in clubs around town as a regular with
Eddie Condon. He also continued to play in Harlem, jamming at the Cotton Club
with Cab Calloway, Erskine Hawkins, Chick Webb, Count Basie, Duke Ellington,
Fletcher Henderson, and Earl Hines, to name a few. At the same time, he was
attending Juilliard, the most prestigious classical music school in America, on
a scholarship, and was teaching there briefly.
His singing was a combination of vocalese and scat, with just enough actual
lyrics to separate him from Slim Gaillard’s style. In fact, Harry and Slim are
often mentioned together in the literature as being the two main proponents and
inventors of the vocalese singing style. Harry said they played together so
often they could do each others acts, and they even recorded together in 1946.
Vocalese is defined as a form of scat singing where instead of using non-verbal
utterances, the singers would use actual syllables that sounded like words, but
had no meaning. "Flat foot floogie with a floy floy, floydoy, floydoy" was
Gaillard’s vocalese tip-of-the-hat to the WWII army designation of 4F. Nonsense
words all starting with the letter F. Harry used something closer to English
when he sang "4F Ferdinand, The Frantic Freak," although the lyrics are more
comical than meaningful. Another thing unusual about Harry’s singing is that he
usually ignored the melody and sang as if he were talking, letting the piano
carry the melody. This is jive singing. Harry’s own songs have minimal melody,
if any, as Harry talks and jives his way through the lyrics. Songs which have
distinct melody lines when others sing them, such as "Pig Foot Pete," as sung by
Don Raye or Ella Mae Morse, become speaking parts in the hands of the Hipster,
loaded with extra verses of ad lib jive and funny commentary. Harry could take a
worn out chestnut that you never want to hear again, like Boogie Woogie Bugle
Boy, and make it as entertaining as can be with these verses of funny jive.
Harry’s first release was a four-record album on the Musicraft label in 1944.
In those days, an album was a book of 78’s, usually 3 or 4 records in the album.
Harry’s was called "Boogie Woogie In Blue," and sold briskly. Overnight, Harry
was a star, and he became a popular guest on radio shows. He rode the boogie
woogie train through the war, releasing V-Disc boogies for the soldiers
overseas, and pre-recorded radio shows for the networks. Although not notable at
the time, but of extreme importance to us now, he recorded some Soundies for a
video jukebox company by that name, all in 1944. In the 1940’s, you could insert
a nickel into a Soundies machine and watch a 3-minute film of a popular
musician, and Harry made three of these that year. Luckily, in this modern age,
we can watch two of them by simply logging onto youtube.com and searching for
Harry Gibson on the engine. If you do, you will see the perfect embodiment of a
1950’s rock and roll star. The only clue that it wasn’t the 1950’s, is that he’s
wearing a zoot suit instead of blue jeans and white tee shirt.
In 1945, a big Hollywood nightclub called Billy Berg’s Rendezvous imported
Harry to the left coast, where he played on Vine Street, the jazz Mecca of LA at
the time, and paid Harry $1000 a week, a huge sum in those days. Many of these
shows are preserved, at least in the audio portion, as this had been recorded by
RCA and distributed on 16-inch records for radio replay on their network.
Harry’s records and radio shows were usually marketed to the black audience, and
most people who heard him on the radio thought he was black, because of the
music he played, and the jive accent he spoke with that he’d picked up during
his many years of working in Harlem. While in LA, when he wasn’t playing at
Berg’s, Harry gravitated to clubs on Central Avenue, the only black section of
LA at the time, when Los Angeles few black residents. That neighborhood later
increased in size and became known as South Central. Harry frequented these
clubs and jammed there in after-hours joints whenever he could.
Also while in LA, he played at some vaudeville houses, one of them called Cab
Calloway’s. He played many times with Calloway, the noted jive lexicographer and
author of 1944’s "Cab Calloway’s Unabridged Hepster’s Dictionary." Calloway
later was quoted as saying that Harry spoke with jive that even he had never
heard before. Harry even wrote a short glossary of jive terms that was included
in the 1944 album, which included the term "hipster," a word that Cab had
overlooked in his "Hepster’s."
Another thing Harry is notable for at Billy Berg’s is the importation to the
west coast of a new form of music called bebop. When Harry arrived in LA, Billy
Berg asked him about the whole New York scene, inquiring about this new bebop
thing he’d been hearing about, and asked him for advice on who the greatest acts
were in New York. Harry recommended a still-unknown friend of his, Dizzy
Gillespie, as having the best band in New York, with his sax player Charlie
Parker. They were immediately booked at Billy Bergs, the first time bebop was
ever played on the coast.
The crowds that Harry drew to Billy Bergs were huge, and it was apparent that
he was bound to become a superstar. However, things were suddenly to turn sour
for Harry. In 1946, he released a few more records on Musicraft, this time
recorded in LA. One song, "I Stay Brown All Year ‘Round" is especially
brilliant, as it gives us insight into his relationship with the black musicians
who surrounded him. His downfall, however, was the flip side, "Who Put The
Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine." Whether it was Harry’s reputation as a
drug addict, the Hays Code, fears of a lawsuit from the makers of Ovaltine, or
the hammer of the federal drug enforcement agencies coming down on radio
stations, Harry was suddenly blacklisted from the record business at the end of
1947, as well as the radio industry. In spite of his sudden popularity, no
record company would touch him.
This did not stop Harry from working in clubs that would have him, or working
for the bawdy Mae West, who took Harry with her on a stage tour starting in
1947, traveling around the country in a play she had created called, "Come On
Up, Ring Twice." Harry toured with her for a year playing a sailor, and
naturally sang and played piano. He also had a brief affair with West. At the
end of the 40’s, he was resident in a club in Philadelphia and actually shared
top billing with Louis Armstrong.
In the early 50’s, Harry operated a nightclub in Miami with another noted
hipster, Lord Buckley. They even owned a record label together, Hip Records.
After that fizzled out, he moved to San Francisco where he worked with Big Jay
McNeely in a club called "Say When." McNeely was still doing the act of walking
out of the club and down the street while playing sax, and Harry’s part in the
act was to grab another sax and honk with him out the door, into a taxi, back on
a bus, and back into the club with the band still keeping a beat for them.
Harry worked with Sammy Davis Junior at one point, and the two noticed that
they were exactly the same size, and could borrow each others suits for gigs.
After Sammy became rich and famous, every time he had a suit made up, he would
have the tailor make two, and send one to Harry. After a while, Harry’s closet
was full of brand new expensive suits with the name Sammy Davis Jr. on the
inside pockets. Harry said, in the 1970’s, "As long as I stay the same size as
Sammy, I’ll keep getting new suits."
By 1960, Harry was still doing his old songs to a diminishing audience,
driving a taxi for pocket money, and surviving only on the returns of a few wise
investments he had made. He knew he had to come up with a new act, but was
floundering, and according to some who saw him, he was burned out. His many
years of drug abuse had taken their toll. With the British Invasion of 1964, it
became clear that rock and roll was not about to go away, and for Harry it must
have been a no-brainer--he had to start playing rock and roll, even though he
basically had been playing something very akin to it all his life. This turned
out to be a sticky wicket, as for every other 1940’s musician who tried to enter
the rock and roll market, and Harry was met with sound rejection by the younger
crowd. He recorded nothing in the 1960’s.
By the 1970’s, however, hippies were everywhere, and Harry, the original
hippie, together with his comical new songs about hippie culture that he’d been
writing, were met with enthusiasm by the stoners. Harry decided to change his
entire act and tap into this audience, which meant playing in modern rock bands.
He wrote songs about nude beaches, male chauvinistic pigs, homegrown pot, hippie
communes, and how to solve the air pollution problem by holding the smoke in
your lungs longer. He wrote a song about living in a "grass" shack in Hawaii,
which could be smoked if needed, and rebuilt from the stems and leaves. He
recorded some of these amusing songs for the Mile label in 1974, which released
them as singles. They were re-released in 1986 as an album and CD called
"Everybody’s Crazy But Me," along with Harry’s autobiography, which was printed
in the liner notes. Baritone sax player Vinny Golia remembers these sessions as
having been extremely enjoyable. He says Harry was a lot of fun to play with,
and that when Harry walked into a room, he charged it up with his vitality. The
songs were recorded in a studio in Venice Beach, hippie central of southern
California at the time. Also in the 70’s was an LP, Harry The Hipster Digs
Christmas, a home recording which is not recommended.
In 1975 Harry met rock guitarist Mike Cochrane during a chance encounter in a
music shop, and they began jamming. Right away Harry named him Mike the Spike,
and asked him to put together a rock band to play these songs in clubs. Mike put
together the Rock Boogie Blues Jammers, which was to be Harry’s regular backing
band for the next year or two. Mike says Harry was playing chords that weren’t
found in chord books, and making chord changes that are simply never found in
rock music. Harry was combining rock with ragtime, classical, Dixieland, bebop,
and anything else he wanted to, when his fingers got carried away from him.
Harry was living up to his much earlier reputation as being a musical genius,
and none of the other musicians had ever heard or seen anything like him before.
He had all his songs written out in complex charts, having been a classical
music scholar at Juilliard years before, even though most of the members of the
band could not read music. Mike remembers Harry as being a completely unique
individual, who did not talk like anybody else, always sticking to 1930’s black
jive, even in the 1970’s, whenever he was around other musicians. He was also
capable of course, as all speakers of the black dialect are, of speaking white
at other times. When Harry spoke white, he spoke with a 1920’s New York Jewish
Mike tells of the wild antics that Harry, then in his 60’s, would do to
entertain the crowd. For example, before each show the band was expected to buy
rolling papers and a case of Marlboro cigarettes, and spend an hour or two
unrolling the cigarettes and rolling up hundreds of what appeared to be joints.
During the show, Harry would get up and throw them out to the audience like BB
King tossing out guitar picks. Harry wanted to use real joints, but the band
insisted he didn’t. Harry drank so much during his shows that the band often
told the bartenders to water down his drinks for his own sake, as much as for
the sake of the third set. Harry was no longer using heroin, which explains how
he’d lasted as long as he did, considering his past, and the fact that most of
his contemporaries had died of substance abuse in the 40’s or 50’s. Harry was
using only the softer stuff now, always with a drink in his hand, or a bottle of
Harry never liked the typical electronic keyboards of the 70’s, and refused
to play them, being a great believer in real pianos, and a greater believer in
having all 88 keys, but he was quite happy with his cumbersome Helpinstill
semi-portable electric piano that he always used for live gigs in those days. It
was a small, upright acoustic piano with all 88 keys and normal mechanical
hammers and regular strings, but it had electronic pickups so it didn’t have to
be miked. The first Helpinstill ever made was sold in 1972 to Elton John...Harry
was one of the next in line to get one.
In the 1980’s Harry continued playing rocking jazz with young musicians,
sometimes including his son Jeff from his first marriage on sax, or his son
Jimmy from a second marriage on bass. This is another side of Harry--apart from
the wild, crazy hipster act he did on stage, he also was a family man, and he
has many children and grandchildren, most of whom adore him. Harry continued to
play in clubs in the LA area throughout the 80’s, and in 1989 he recorded an
album equal to anything he had ever done before. "Who Put The Benzedrine in Mrs.
Murphy’s Ovaltine," is full of top-notch jazz, bebop, blues, rock, and boogie,
simply brilliant songs, which is saying something, as Harry was 74 years old at
the time. It also included six songs that had been recorded in 1976 with the
Rock Boogie Blues Jammers. These last-mentioned tracks contain some excellent
ragtime piano played in a rock and roll fashion. Harry’s version of "Maple Leaf
Rag" is one of the smoothest ever, and halfway into it you realize...these great
lyrics...did Scott Joplin write these? No other version of this song has lyrics.
Must be Harry jiving again. Fantastic. His "Ragtime Raggedy Ann" also contains
some top-flight piano solos, showing that he’d lost nothing with age.
In 1989, Harry’s oldest daughter Lena, and Lena’s daughter Flavyn, who was a
student in film school at the time, did a video biography of Harry. The video is
40 minutes long, and includes interviews with Harry and his friends, home
movies, and all three of his Soundies. This video was published in small numbers
and has become a collector’s item, so it may be expensive if you find a copy,
but it is worth seeking out for the Hipster fan, as it is very well done. The
title of the film is Boogie In Blue.
In 1991, at the age of 76, Harry had been suffering from congestive heart
failure for a long time. He’d earlier decided that if he were ever to develop
failing health as he aged, he would end his life his own way. Rather than
sitting in wheelchairs, lying in hospital beds, and withering away, Harry took a
handgun and put it to his head. Among his effects were found his computer, which
had a long but uncompleted autobiography on file, much longer than the one
published in 1986. So far, nobody has published this version, although small
bits of it have appeared in odd magazines over the years. How interesting it
would be, for us to be able to read Harry’s eyewitness account, and his own hip
interpretation, of the talented and amazing people at the leading edge of
popular American music for most of the Twentieth Century.