Sunday, April 10, 2016

Don 'Sugar Cane' Harris - 1970 - Sugarcane

Don 'Sugar Cane' Harris 

01. I'm Unconscious 2:58
02. You're Making Me Cry 2:57
03. Take It All Off 5:17
04. A Little Soul Food 2:59
05. Don't You Think I've Paid Enough 4:55
06. Do It Yourself 2:25
07. Tears Are Made Of Dreams 4:53
08. Funk And Wagner 5:11
09. You Could've Had Me Baby 3:41
10. Yours Eternally 2:38

Don "Sugarcane" Harris: Violin and vocals.
Other personnel uncredited.
Produced by Johnny Otis. Arranged by Johnny Otis, Roger Spotts and Shuggie Otis.
Engineered by Bob "Groovus I" Breault.

For some reason, his albums on the German MPS label seem to be more readily available than this one. This one was produced by the (now recently departed) Johnny Otis, with songwriting contributions from Johnny, his son Shuggie and Harris himself. Some may be familiar with Harris's bluesy electric violin on Frank Zappa's albums from around this time, notably Hot Rats (also featuring Shuggie Otis, although not on the same tracks as Sugarcane), Weasels Ripped My Flesh (with Harris's violin and lead vocal on the Little Richard song, 'Directly From my Heart to You') and his jawdropping violin solo on side two of Burnt Weeny Sandwich. He was earlier half of the R&B duo, Don and Dewey, which no doubt was responsible for Zappa's interest in him. Neil Young has covered one of Don and Dewey's songs, 'Farmer John.'

Harris was quite prolific in the early-mid 70s, playing with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and recording several albums as leader for MPS, featuring such notable players as Harvey Mandel and Robert Wyatt. He seems to have just kinda faded away after that, although Wiki tells me that he was in a group called Tupelo Chain Sex in the 1980s. He died in 1999, hopefully somewhat enriched by the royalties from Neil Young.

All his MPS records are worth checking out, and they seem to get reissued sporadically. This one was issued on CD about a decade ago (with artwork based on the trippy Rick Griffin cartoon on the rear cover, reproduced below [click to enlarge]) but has since fallen out of print again. My copy is on a mid-70s orange Epic label, but the stampers are 1D/1D, so I assume this is pressed from the original lacquer.

The best thing about this album is the front cover, which is about as out-and-out bizarre as the opening sequence of cult director Sam Fuller's classic film The Naked Kiss. The association with Frank Zappa made audiences expect something bizarre and shocking from electric violinist Don "Sugarcane" Harris; this cover photograph and the underground comics by Rick Griffin on the back cover created a tie-in with the psychedelic culture and again promoted a sense of weirdness that is basically just not there in this collection of fairly standard rhythm & blues tracks produced and arranged by Los Angeles soul scene ubermensch Johnny Otis. He had a long connection with Harris, and they were sympathetic partners, so it is not like this is some sort of production mismatch. What it is really is material that was cooked up prior to or with no connection to the newly developing stage personality of Harris, meaning the electric violin is not emphasized all that much and musically the connection with Zappa is nothing more than the vital lifeline to the California roots blues scene. While this demands a great deal of respect, these tracks are the sort of performances Otis and his henchmen could whip up without breaking a sweat while someone else prepares their dinner. While any of the tracks would work fine on a jukebox in some dive, only a few, such as the marvelously greasy "Funk and Wagner," rise to the level demanded by the serious album listener. The material is all written by either Harris or Otis in various songwriting collaborations and combinations.

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