Jan 202009

Today’s JAMuary entry comes courtesy of Townsman “Boom Boom” dbuskirk. I’ll let him tell you about it. As a special treat, he’s spread jam on both sides of the toast: JAMuary’s second double shot in as many days! (Don’t get spoiled!)

Don “Sugarcane” Harris, “Where’s My Sunshine”

Don “Sugarcane” Harris has been on my front burner in recent years, particularly the eight records he recorded for the MPS label back in the 1970s. Sugarcane Harris, who died in 1999 at the age of 61, had an odd career trajectory. He started in the 1950s as half of the duo Don & Dewey, who recorded gritty doo-wop styled tunes for the Specialty label. Together they wrote and recorded the garage rock classic “Farmer John” and “Leaving It All Up To You,” which I first knew as the 1974 Donnie & Marie remake. During the ’60s, L.A.- based Don was in bandleader Johnny Otis‘ stable, singing and playing in Otis’ Revue on what became his trademark axe, the electric violin. However Sugarcane is probably best remembered by rock fans when he guested on some of the Zappa‘s post-Mothers records, 1969’s Hots Rats and 1970’s Chunga’s Revenge (that’s his violin solo on “Willie The Pimp”).

Anyway, without the Zappa connection I doubt Sugarcane would have ended up in the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1971, playing a set featuring European prog and jazz musicians, including Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt on drums, Volker Kriegel on guitar (from vibist Dave Pike’s group), experimentalist Wolfgang Dauner on keyboards, and bassist Neville Whitehead, like Wyatt also out of the Canterbury prog scene.

“Every word of it is true” Sugarcane swears in the introduction of the 12-minute “Where’s My Sunshine,” from Sugarcane’s Got The Blues. Actually there are only seven words in the song (maybe nine if you count “Oh yeah”), but there’s a conviction in everything Sugarcane sings and plays in the song that makes it all seem kinda profound. By dragging this progressive crew back into the blues (and a pretty unusual one too, I’ll leave the more schooled folks here to figure out exactly what time the song is in) Sugarcane stirs this mixture of rock, jazz, soul, and blues into one of those cross-cultural exchanges that gave rock and roll its initial kick.

Then again, for a sizable percentage of rock fans the sound of the electric violin is akin to listening to a cat being skinned, bringing up bad flashbacks of Kansas and Jean Luc Ponty. But for me there is something captivating about this recording, perhaps Sugarcane’s most cohesive, that has made this propulsive track a go-to record when I’m driving by myself. If only Phish sounded more like this.

BONUS JAM! Don & Dewey, “Farmer John”


  8 Responses to “JAMuary, Day 11: Sugarcane Jam”

  1. Then again, for a sizable percentage of rock fans the sound of the electric violin is akin to listening to a cat being skinned, bringing up bad flashbacks of Kansas and Jean Luc Ponty.

    Yes, but for me — and others, I’ll bet — Eddie Jobson’s electric violin plonking for Roxy Music represented the instrument in a favorable, rockin’ light.

  2. Don and Dewey also did the original ass kicking version of Justine later covered by the Blasters and John Doe.

  3. dbuskirk

    One of my favorite live shows was seeing Don and Dewey open for Swamp Dog at Slim’s in San Francisco (the bar Boz Scaggs owns). It was a completely non-corny set, them dressed in casual black and playing with Swamp Dog’s crack band. I’ve seen a lot of older acts who are still in good vocal shape, ones that you’d be tempted to say sound as good as ever. These two were the only act I would actually swear to sounding that good. They sang their asses off and Don took these beautiful electric violin solos on nearly tune. Thirty minutes of heaven then it was over.

    I hung out at there side of the bar for a while afterward and heard Don tell a fan that his friend Charles Watts was finally able to get his roof fixed after Burger King used “Express Yourself” in an ad campaign.

  4. Mr. Moderator

    Charles Burnham, who used to play with James Blood Ulmer, is my favorite rock violinist!

  5. Don’t be totally dissin’ Ponty, dude. I saw the both Zappa and Mahavishnu when he was playing with them and he was a smokin’ soloist.

  6. dbuskirk

    I once did a radio spotlight on Jean-Luc Ponty 1969; the year he came to the U.S. to record with Zappa he recorded about four other LPs as well. I love that stuff, it’s the later fusion-y stuff that I first heard that turned me off.

  7. BigSteve

    Harris’ violin always sounds just like himself no matter what setting he’s playing in. I had to wait till I got home to check, but I have 18 Don & Dewey tracks rescued from a friend’s vinyl. One of the songs, Pink Champagne, has some of that trademark violin. I wouldn’t call Don & Dewey’s music “doo-wop styled.” It’s more typically wildman R&B along the lines of Larry Williams, of Slow Down and Bad Boy fame, but far be it from me to quibble with someone who actually saw Swamp Dogg play live. (That’s double-g Dogg, to pull out the pince nez.)

    Do you really believe the story about Sunshine is true?

  8. dbuskirk

    Big Steve intones:
    “I wouldn’t call Don & Dewey’s music
    ‘doo-wop styled’ “

    Funny, that you quickly isolated the phrase I had second thoughts about. Ther music might not be as sweet-sounding as music that gets labeled “doo-wop” but I thought its resemblance to something like The Cadillac’s “Speedo” made it in the ballpark enough to use the phrase. I hoped the adjective “gritty” might nudge it closer.

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