“Perseverance” fits well into Gerard Harris’ vocabulary. The U of M alumnus withstood a stint of homelessness in Los Angeles to perform with a Grammy-winning R&B group and later make an impact on the Memphis music scene.
Gerard Harris sat at his keyboard, playing integral chord parts. The sold-out crowd in front of the stage cheered and danced to the music, but they couldn’t see Harris. He was off-stage, hidden away from the rest of the group, Kool & the Gang. For the first year and a half Harris played with the chart-topping R&B group, they would not let him play on stage.
|Gerard Harris before a recent performance on Beale Street.
It was better than his days spent homeless in Los Angeles, though. Luckily for Harris, a native Memphian, the University of Memphis provided a turning point in his life. The school provided a springboard for him to travel the world as a successful jazz guitarist and keyboardist.
Out of luck in L.A.
Harris’ musical career began like most other’s — seeing for the first time someone play an instrument in person. As a youngster, he watched the piano player at Mount Moriah East Baptist Church. He convinced his mother to buy a piano and took lessons, but his piano teacher “used to go to sleep during my lessons and I kind of got disinterested.”
He found a new love in the guitar. “I was satisfied with staying home picking on the guitar after school along with the radio,” he says. Harris taught himself the guitar by listening to Grand Funk, War and the Isley Brothers.
Harris decided to pursue a musical career at Clark Atlanta University, something that didn’t exactly thrill his parents.
“They sat me down and said, ‘It’s one thing to be an idealist and another to be a realist,’” he recalls.
Harris proceeded with his career, in part due to the Vietnam War. “Nixon was about to get impeached,” he says. “The outlook was bleak. I thought, ‘Why don’t I go ahead and do what I want to do and play music.’”
Harris, though, dropped out of Clark and after his parents kicked him out of home, he moved to Los Angeles to work in his uncle’s store. The job didn’t last long and he soon found himself bouncing from one place to another, virtually homeless. He held on to his life’s passion, music, by playing guitar in a local band.
But the ride only got bumpier.
Before a band rehearsal, Harris left his Les Paul guitar unattended for a brief moment in the hallway of a friend’s apartment. When he returned, it was gone. Unable to imagine his world without a guitar, Harris sold his beige Volkswagen Beetle for a Gibson guitar.
“That was a bad decision, because L.A. is not a town where you can live without a car, but I couldn’t imagine going home without a guitar,” says Harris.
He quickly began to run out of money. His last two days in Los Angeles were the turning point. He woke up on a Friday morning and got out his box of baking soda. He brushed his teeth and washed with it. He used it for deodorant and sprinkled it in his shoes. He then counted out the change in his pocket, which came to $1.75. He used it to catch the bus to the food stamp office, but was told to come back the following Monday.
“I don’t have any food. I don’t even have bus fare to get back,” Harris told the employee at the office.
He knew it was time to leave L.A. so he called his cousin and said, “You gotta help me get a plane ticket back to Memphis. I don’t think I can survive.”
Walking in Memphis
Once back home, Harris turned to the University of Memphis and this time he found school to his liking. He enrolled as a music education and classical guitar major in the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music. Harris paid his way through college by playing locally.
His college experience was vastly different because he found jazz, mentors and an active music community at the University. He studied with Gene Rush, now a U of M professor emeritus of jazz and studio music.
“Gene gave everything he had,” says Harris. “That’s where I learned to play jazz. Gene always brought people in for Jazz Week.”
Jazz Week consists of artists from out of town and a competition for high school and college jazz bands. It is still held each February on campus.
“A lot of us look at Gene Rush as our surrogate musical father,” Harris says.
After graduating in 1981, Harris became the first jazz guitar teacher at the University. For the next six years, he taught at the University and played in various bands, including the Midtown Jazz Mobile. When the group decided to record at Cotton Row Studios, “I convinced them to let me be the sound engineer and the studio kept me on after that.” Harris had an outlet to apply what he learned in school by working as an engineer and writer. He recorded his own and others’ music.
|Gerard Harris graduating from the University.
In 1987 Harris moved to New York. After a year of temporary work and occasional gigs, he got a call from a friend — Kool & the Gang was doing a recording session and he should stop by. He soon got a job with the group — not as a musician, but as a technician. The first three months, Harris traveled all over the country with Kool & the Gang setting up, testing and tuning the guitars and pianos before each performance.
“After six months, they had hired some new musicians including a keyboard player,” says Harris. “I used to actually teach the keyboard player. I knew more about what he was playing than he did.” The keyboard player paid Harris back by making sure the band hired him when a position came open.
Harris played keyboard off-stage because the group didn’t want to acknowledge he was no longer a technician and actually a band member. Supply and demand won out, though, when the regular guitar player stopped going to all of the shows. “A lot of times the guitar player wouldn’t go, so I would play,” Harris says. “He would conveniently miss the plane.” After awhile, the band grew to welcome Harris on the stage.
|Gerard Harris as a member of the Grammy award-winning group Kool & the Gang.
For eight years, Harris recorded and traveled with the group to Europe, Africa, Japan and Australia. He appears on two of Kool & the Gangs’ albums and did the string arrangements for the orchestra on one record.
Harris again returned to Memphis to teach at the University and got back to his own writing. The 53-year-old now teaches general music, piano and choir at Middle College High School.
“Teaching takes every creative bone you’ve got,” he says. “You do it because you feel like you’re making a difference.” He continues to play and record his own music, most recently World Soul Project. Every few years he creates a Duo Series CD, where each song is played by Harris and one other musician. He also produces records.
On the weekends, Harris plays with the Memphis Groovetet at King’s Palace Café on Beale Street. Former students stop by occasionally.
“One of the gifts of music is that former students become close friends,” he notes.
Harris is also focusing on utilizing his years of learning to create “his life’s work,” a canon that will be lasting and representative of all those who’ve influenced him.
“I was hell bent on learning and trying to use it,” Harris says. “Those days that I was in L.A. had a serious effect on me. Somewhere in my psyche, I’ve told myself I’ll do whatever I have to not to end up like that again.”