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NELSON, HARRISON D., JR. [PEPPERMINT HARRIS]

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NELSON, HARRISON D., JR. [PEPPERMINT HARRIS] (1925–1999). Harrison D. Nelson, Jr., songwriter and blues performer, known as "Peppermint Harris," was born on July 17, 1925, in Texarkana, Texas. Nelson was primarily associated with Houston during the defining years of his musical career. After first moving to the city in 1943 and starting to play blues professionally in 1947, at such venues as the Eldorado Ballroom, he invented the stage name "Peppermint" in response to the success of other local performers with catchy nicknames—friends such as Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown or Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkinsqv, the latter of whom also helped him get his first chance to record (for the Gold Star label) in 1947 or 1948.

A subsequent session in 1949 or 1950 for the label known as Sittin' In With produced Nelson's (and the label's) first hit record, the song "Rainin' in My Heart," performed with a band led by noted Houston musician Henry Hayes. It also triggered confusion over Nelson's identity. Because the recording was produced as an afterthought following a day full of auditions by various musicians, the studio personnel had not been properly informed of Nelson's surname. They had overheard others calling him "Peppermint," and apparently later misunderstood someone's clipped pronunciation of his given first name, Harrison, to be a last name, Harris. Thus, they issued the record as a performance by Peppermint Harris, and its success led Nelson to keep the accidentally-crafted pseudonym.

That combination of self-motivated creativity and susceptibility to forces beyond his control in some ways characterized Nelson's career as a bluesman, which involved recordings on over a dozen labels (including Aladdin, Money, Dart, Duke, and Jewel) and authorship of countless songs. Many of these compositions were reportedly sold outright for instant cash and therefore never properly credited to him. However, among titles for which Nelson did retain his rights as original songwriter is his greatest commercial success, "I Got Loaded." This 1951 Aladdin release occupied a spot on the Billboard Top 10 for six months and decades later was re-recorded by British rock star Elvis Costello. Among the many other songs to which Nelson retained his rights were "Think It Over One More Time," "As the Years Go Passin' By," "Whole Lot of Loving," and "Stranded in St. Louis."

In 1997 Nelson released a Peppermint Harris CD called Penthouse in the Ghetto, comprising various vintage tracks recorded in Houston in 1958, 1960, 1974, and 1975, with noted local musicians such as Clarence Green, Clarence Hollimon, Teddy Reynolds,qqv and others. Nelson reportedly had earned a B.A. in English from the institution now known as Texas Southern University. His verbal adroitness was suggested by the album title and by the fact that, though he was a capable guitarist and musician, he is best-remembered by his fellow musicians as a gifted lyricist. He lived in Sacramento, California, for the last decade of his life, before moving to New Jersey to be close to family members. He died there on March 19, 1999.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Alan Govenar, Meeting the Blues: The Rise of the Texas Sound (Dallas: Taylor, 1988). Sheldon Harris, Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1979). Mike Leadbitter, Nothing but the Blues (London: Hanover Books, 1971). Roger Wood, "Peppermint Harris," Living Blues 146 (July–August 1999).

Roger Wood

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Roger Wood, "NELSON, HARRISON D., JR. [PEPPERMINT HARRIS]," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fne45), accessed December 18, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on October 3, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.