Claude Jeter, Inez Andrews, Archie Brownlee, Dorothy Love Coates, this guy: where else can you find so many unforgettable voices?
Soul Stirrers (featuring R. H. Harris), “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” (1946)
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When R. H. Harris, the renowned gospel tenor, died last month, I went back to the records he had made in the 1950’s with his quartet, the Soul Stirrers. Harris was the — founder is not too strong a word — of a soul singing that concentrated on supple phrasing and tonal sweetness. He could, as Tina Turner used to say, ”do it rough,” but there was a core of reticence, even melancholy in him. His roughness was strategic.
The Soul Stirrers set the mold for other outstanding quartets like the Swan Silvertones and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and for younger soul singers, from Sam Cooke (trained by Harris) to David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations (Harris had mastered husky rhythm singing and falsetto), and Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye.
The discipline required of a first-rate ensemble, vocal or instrumental, translates into the kind of musical discretion that comes only from intense on-the-spot listening. Not biding time or doing cute things onstage until your solo comes, but listening. Take melisma (one syllable stretched over many notes), the vocal weapon so battered and abused by pop singers today. Harris was a master of it. For him it was a musical resource, like dynamics or timbre, not a way of muscling listeners to the ground till they screamed and clapped, maybe because they were overpowered, maybe just to stop the madness.
The Soul Stirrers’ a cappella harmonies are deeply satisfying. And when Harris rises above them with his pure, true pitch (pitch is usually the missing element in today’s melisma mania), you will experience true bliss.
—Margo Jefferson, New York Times, 10/2/00
The self never ages.
—Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary (trans. Richard Howard, 2010)