Versatile bluesman Shad Harris talks about the legacy and magic of Blues, Etta James and Amiri Baraka

"The writers, poets, dancers, and painters, all contribute to the overall development and continuity of the cultural artistic community by way of media that are all mutually complementary."

Shad Harris: Keep it Simple and Groove!

Shad Harris has toured nationally and internationally since 1966 and played drums, keyboards, guitar and bass with various award winning bands and Hall of Fame artists including Etta James, Charlie Musselwhite, Eddie Harris, The Motown Review Big Band, Roger Daltry, Johnny Heartsman, Ron Thompson, Ron Hacker, Johnny Nitro, and Shad was the original drummer for The Tommy Castro Band for over five years. He was the band leader for the Jazz-Fusion ensemble Wave, and the award winning R&B band, The East Side Loop.

Shad studied music with Professor Robert Harris in St. Petersburg, Florida; William Bell at College of Alameda in Alameda, California; Ed Kelly at Laney College in Oakland, California; Chuck Brown in San Rafael, California and Jerry Jackson Sr. in Oakland, California. Shad has also acted and composed musical scores for Scorpio Rising Theatre, a Hollywood theatre company, and written, arranged, produced and published songs for The Tommy Castro Band, Mel Brown, and Little Sister & The Band Intentions. Shad has also played with Norman Lankford and his popular jazz quartet, Group Therapy, Hank Mobley, Mel Williams and Horace Silver.

Shad Harris and her music partners, The Groovenators, is a band based in California's Big Central Valley. Shad Harris & The Groovenators play a blend of West Coast Blues with a funky twist. They play originals and blues covers, and have their own unique signature sound.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the music?

I started playing professionally when I was 16, but music was a part of my upbringing.  I cannot remember a time when music was not a part of my life.

What does the BLUES mean to you?

The Blues is a perspective. My point of view from or reference to the Blues can and does shape my perception of everything. Playing Blues Music and living a Blues Life, has taught me that everything has a “groove”. I look for and try to recognize the “groove”.

How do you describe Shad Harris sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

My music philosophy is pretty much the same as any of my philosophical creeds… Keep it Simple and Groove! I don’t know if I have a “sound” but I certainly try to emphasize the Groove and simplicity whenever I play.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

The most interesting period in my life so far has been between the years 1970 – 2000. That’s when the most important events occurred; my first child in 1970, my conscious decision to be a full-time musician in ’71, my divorce in ’73 and my 2nd marriage in ’76 and from then until now, the roller-coaster ride that’s the life of most any “working musician”. 

As for best and worst moments, there have been some really good moments and certainly some really bad ones. The details of most of those moments are fuzzy at best. The first time I made a really big paycheck stands out; I played in a band that backed Etta James in 1971. I made more money in two weeks (5 nights total) than I had ever made. I remember thinking, “So this is what it feels like to be a success!” Interestingly, that same year a disaster stands out also, in fact it was that “low-point” that eventually led to my being in the band that backed Ms. James. I had left home ostensibly to tour with a band and things went from bad to worst almost immediately. The worst came one night when I did the math and came up with the result that I wasn’t getting my fair and honest cut of the proceeds. Threats were made, the cops were called, things got squirrely, and in the end I got most of the money that I was due, but I quit the band, which meant I was stranded. I could have used the money I had just nearly gone to jail for but a local bandleader offered me a 3 night a week gig and that led to me staying in the area and meeting other musicians and eventually landing the gig with Delmas Larkin. We backed Etta James at two venues in Riverside and Palm Springs, and that’s when I made the decision to be a full time musician.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

My view of “jamming” is really “Old School”. I always think of a jam session as an invitational event where a bunch of like minded cats get together and “woodshed”. It’s like a gathering for the purpose of exchanging ideas. An audience is not required because it’s a “jam session”. Nowadays, the impromptu performances at these so-called “jams” are all about playing to the audience. I don’t have a problem with that and in fact, that can be a whole lot of fun, but it’s not my idea of a real Jam Session. Many of these events are chaotic and unorganized or rigid and too organized.

Do you remember anything funny from the recording and show time with Tommy Castro?

I’m sure there are… But the memory is fuzzy… I do remember us being more happy than not. It was a Great Band.

Are there any memories from Etta James and Johnny Nitro, which you’d like to share with us?

I have so many good memories of Nitro that it would be impossible to pull one out of the blue, I can say with pride that he was my Friend.

Once while I was in Tommy’s Band we did a show in Oakland and Etta was the headliner; see, what you have to understand is, I played a total of three gigs, 6 sets with Ms. James. For me it was an accomplishment just to get through all the sets successfully. She was the first big name artist I had ever played with. After the last show everyone was happy, I got paid real well, and doing the gigs was beneficial overall because I got more gigs, etc. Ms. James was the consummate professional and treated all of us with respect and all but, we were just professional musicians on a 3 gig contract and not her band, with whom she has a personal relationship. So, her realistically remembering me from what was by then 20 years ago was a long shot at best. But I thought what the heck and I screwed up my nerve and knocked on her trailer door… This big man answered and I told him who I was and he relayed the info to Ms. James.

Bottom line is I’m sure she didn’t really remember me, but she did remember the time and she treated me like a long lost friend. I told her that I just wanted to say thanks for giving me that shot so long ago, she smiled and laughed and we talked for a few minutes and then we both had to get ready for the upcoming show. I went back to our trailer and marveled at how much class Etta James had just shown to a nobody like me. I was Elated!

Which memory from Johnny Heartsman, Ron Hacker and Charlie Musselwhite makes you smile?

Playing with Johnny Heartsman was like going to school. He was the Big Brother I never had. He was the continuation of my musical education that started in elementary school. Just thinking about him period makes me smile.

Charlie Musselwhite was, is a most gracious Gentleman. Playing with him was also a learning experience. He is All about the Groove.

Ron Hacker was my favorite! Still is! When we played together it was a Perfect Fit! I totally understand where he’s coming from and he totally understood where I was coming from. I’m just glad we got to record before my stroke.

From the musical point of view what are the differences between a drummer, keys, guitar and bass player?

Well, that’s pretty obvious… I have played all of them in bands at one time or another, and each instrument has it’s difficulties and simplicities. Bass and drums are solid axes and guitar and keys have some headroom, in the scheme of things.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

The future of music? It’ll change but that’s not a bad thing. We’ll never lose anything. Some music will come into vogue others will go into hiding only to be rediscovered. Music is the strongest form of Magic. It will never die.

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to new generation?

Pay Attention! My Dad… Honestly, the same thing my Dad told me. It’s what I teach All of my students young and old, Pay Attention!

When we talk about Blues usually refer moments of the past. Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

The term "blues" as it applies to a musical genre, relatively speaking is not that old. When one compares the histories of other cultures, America proves dynamically impressive and that dynamism in large part is what led to the development of what became the music we call the Blues.
There are several very good books available that give specific dates and relate specific events and incidents that chronicle the relationship of the Blues to all other music including Jazz. I like Julio Finn's "The Bluesman" and "Blues People" by Amiri Baraka a.k.a. (LeRoi Jones).
As to the specific relationship of Blues and Jazz, I can give you some generalizations that may be interesting.
Our country got its official start in 1776. The culture at that time was a wide-opened mix of older traditional cultures that until the advent of the "New World", [which actually occurred in 1492, (arguable but irrelevant)] only had limited contact. So from 1500 to almost 1800 is a 300 year period where people from ALL points east converged to the accessible points of entry to this "New World" and brought with them all of their traditions, histories, and cultures, including their music. Remember this was a "wide-opened" societal format. Ostensibly the British Empire was "in-charge" but the French, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portuguese, and anyone else who could afford to put a ship in the water and defend it, were pretty much free to capitalize on whatever opportunities that were presented.
So after 300 years of "societal to and fro" the hierarchy becomes apparent. Everyone knows the "rules" and the "roles". It just so happened that the pickings were ripe for a rebellion and that's what occurred, but that's a whole different subject.
The music that was being "popularized" by the mid-1700's was the music of the dominant societal class. (By the way, that's always been the case.) The "folk music" was and still is pretty much regional. Where the "high society" had orchestras with violins and horn sections, and percussion sections including the newly invented piano, "folk music" was created with limited instrumental accompaniment. That's why the drum, and guitar are so prevalent in the Blues.
Anyway, from 1800 to 1900 America went through its "birthing pains". Once the fact was established that the country was official, the "societal to and fro" had to occur to determine the hierarchy. What makes this country unique is that to and fro occurred during a time when industry was changing dramatically. Electricity, the bio-sciences, psychology/religion, global commerce, all of these and more were undergoing dynamic and drastic changes, a renaissance as it were. And so was the music.
Many historians point to the song "St. Louis Blues" by William Handy as the advent of what is played today and called Jazz. If you study the structure of the song you will find several characteristics that are common to today's jazz or Blues compositions, but at the time he wrote the song, 1914, it was considered by various segments of the newly forming American society as "provocative".
Nevertheless, it is a good point of reference for the student of the Blues because its a watershed event that delineates a point in time when Jazz originates.
The Blues is the source of its parts. Jazz, Rock and Roll, and the ambiguous American Pop, genres can look to the Blues and find the source of their "DNA". The Blues is the umbrella under which all of the cultures come that made up and continue to make up, America.
It's not our only contribution to world culture but it is definitely our most significant to the world's music.

How important was the role of Beats (Amiri Baraka, Bob Kaufman etc) in the case of Blues, Jazz and Afro American culture?

They were the chroniclers and historians. They were the ones who explained to the public in general what it is we (the musicians and other artists) did and do. Often artists are so focused on just doing whatever it is they do that they don't develop skillful ways to explain by way of spoken or written word just what it is we are doing. The writers, poets, dancers, and painters, all contribute to the overall development and continuity of the cultural artistic community by way of media that are all mutually complementary. I often relate to music in terms of color or texture. My favorite writer's all have rhythm. I don't think I've read any of Bob Kaufman's stuff, but what I have read, which includes works by Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Julio Finn and others, has been directly responsible for helping me develop a style of verbal and written communication which of course is completely related to all of my musical expression.

Without the authors the ways and means of communicating would be critically impaired. Maybe there are musicians who don't care if their musical expressions aren't experienced by others (I don't know any) but a big part of the reason I do what I do is so people can experience what I produce for themselves. It all comes down to the Groove. No matter which medium you employ the point is to express yourself successfully. In order to do that you must begin by establishing a beginning... the Groove... That's a concept that I gleaned from authors.

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

It’s because Blues Music crosses All the musical legacies.

What do you miss most nowadays from the 70s?

I miss playing the drums. My favorite axe has always been the drumset.

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

I can’t think of One incident… I have seven kids, an ex-wife, a wife of over 35 years, 45 plus years in the business, there are just too many moments from which to choose.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

That’s easy… The beginning!

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