Rebert H. “R. H.” Harris, gospel singer, was born on March 23, 1916, in Trinity, Texas, to James and Katie Harris. He was the sixth of nine children. He grew up on a farm thirteen miles outside of Trinity in Trinity County northeast of Huntsville. The Harris family lived about 300 yards from the Eastham Prison Camp. Harris grew up listening to the mixture of spirituals and blues sung by the prisoners, and at the age of seven, he started arranging his first gospel quartet called the Friendly Four. While still a young child, Harris wrote the song “I Want Jesus to Walk Around My Bedside.” When Harris moved to Trinity to start seventh grade at Trinity Colored High School the group became known as the Friendly Gospel Singers.
After tenth grade, fifteen-year-old Harris was attending seminary at Mary Allen College in Crockett, Texas, when he met Silas Roy Crain and was asked to join Crain’s Houston-based group, the Soul Stirrers, a jubilee group that sang up-tempo poppy songs such as “Down by the Riverside.” Harris agreed and joined the group in the mid-1930s as tenor and innovatively changed their sound by directing the group away from the old jubilee style to a slower, deeper, and more passionate and modern gospel style. In addition to Harris’s first tenor vocals, Crain brought in another tenor, James Medlock, who served as a second lead vocalist. Harris and Medlock traded lead vocals, using what Harris deemed “delayed time,” with one singer crooning high and sweet and the other shouting hoarse and low, creating irresistible syncopations.
In the late 1930s the group moved to Chicago but spent much of their time touring the country and performing on the gospel circuit. The group was nationally known by the early 1940s. In 1947 Harris with other quartet lead singers organized the National Singing Quartets Union of America to promote their music. Harris was later named president. The Soul Stirrers recorded for Aladdin in 1948.
Eventually, the extensive touring began to take its toll on Harris and in 1950, despite the Soul Stirrers being signed to the Specialty label earlier that year, he announced that he was leaving the group. Before his exit, the group recorded more than twenty songs for Specialty that appeared on their highly-rated album Shine On Me. After Harris’s departure, the group replaced him with Sam Cooke, a young singer who idolized and modeled his singing style after Harris.
After leaving the Soul Stirrers, Harris formed the group the Christland Singers with ex-Soul Stirrers James Medlock and Leroy Taylor. The group recorded for the Peacock and Nashboro labels. He later sang for the Gospel Paraders, which recorded on Sam Cooke’s label, SAR Records, about 1960. He was also a member of the Masonic Quintet. However none of these groups experienced the success Harris had with the Soul Stirrers. Harris moved on to work as a florist to support his ex-wife Jeannette Harris (ex-Golden Harps singer) and their four children, but he always remained close to gospel music.
In 1972 his career experienced somewhat of a revival after his performance at Radio City Music Hall, and in 1973 he sang three songs on Precious Lord: The Songs of Thomas A. Dorsey, an anthology for Columbia.
In 1975 Harris recorded the album The Father of Them All with his Masonic Quintet for Nashboro Records, and in 1978 he recorded another album, Because He Lives, for his own RHJC label. This was his last recording. Due to a throat ailment, Harris was unable to sing the last several years of his life, but he remained active in the National Gospel Quartets Union. Despite his many musical projects after the Soul Stirrers, Harris will always be remembered as one of the original Soul Stirrers. In 1989 he was inducted as an early influence into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Soul Stirrers. He was also inducted as a member of the group in the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000.
Harris was married twice: first to Jeannette Harris, with whom he had four children; and later to Mary Harris. He died in Chicago at the age of eighty-four on September 3, 2000. He was the last surviving member of the original Soul Stirrers.
Rick Koster, Texas Music (New York: St. Martin’s Press 1998). Michael Corcoran, “Jesus’ Favorite Singer,” Dallas Observer, September 28, 2000 (http://www.dallasobserver.com/2000-09-28/music/jesus-favorite-singer), accessed January 14, 2009. Jay Warner, American Singing Groups: A History 1940 to Today (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2006). The New York Times, September 9, 2000. Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2000.
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Shelia G. Kidd,
“Harris, Rebert H.,”
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