Past is present for Cornbread Harris

The elder James Harris looks back on 60 years in Minnesota music.

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Cornbread Harris, one of the "hidden treasures in this music scene," sings the blues but doesn't dwell on them in real life.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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There was a great look of relief on Cornbread Harris' face as he showed up for his suppertime gig Monday at Thistles Restaurant in Robbinsdale.

"I just sent off my taxes," the 78-year-old piano man said, walking behind the bar of the tony eatery to pour himself a Mello Yello. "I had to borrow money from TCF to get 'em paid, but better I owe TCF than the government."

As if tax day wasn't enough to get the veteran bluesman down, Harris then launched into the story of his life. He plans to mark his 79th birthday with a premature 80th birthday party Sunday at Shaws Bar and Grill in northeast Minneapolis. Harris, best known to some as the dad of producer Jimmy Jam (James Harris III), wasn't ashamed to admit to some memory gaps.

"Put a blank spot in your notepad, I'll remember it later," he'd say about a name or place. Usually he did remember, too.

Orphaned at age 3 -- his dad was shot while gambling, his mom died of grieving, he said -- Harris bounced around foster homes with his late sister until they wound up with his grandparents in St. Paul when he was 11 or 12.

Family is a sore subject for Harris. One daughter died, and another, he said, "is all over the streets." And then there's Jimmy, who hasn't talked to his dad much in the two decades since he and partner Terry Lewis left the Time and started producing hits for the likes of Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey and Usher.

"I'm proud of him, but he ain't proud of me," Cornbread said matter-of-factly. "The only way I keep in touch with him is by what you guys write about him."

The elder Harris didn't sugarcoat his part in the fallout.

"His mother has her reasons. I've been married four times, and I ain't even doing too well with the one I'm married to now."

This is the point at which a music critic would typically launch into a clichéd riff on how this man knows the blues, and all his pains and troubles come out in his music. There actually is some truth in that, but for the most part, when Cornbread Harris is sitting at the piano in front of people -- as he does every Friday night at Loring Pasta Bar with a four-piece band, and every Monday through Wednesday solo at Thistles -- he seems to be happy as a clam.

His sets often involve such swinging and rollicking standards as "Route 66,"Rockin' Robin" and some Ray Charles classics. When he does delve deep into the blues, it's usually to play such grittier, boogie-woogie tunes as "Dealing With the Devil" or "Going to Chicago."

"He's one of the most unbelievably dependable musicians I know," said saxophonist John Devine, who books music at the Loring Pasta Bar and can't remember Harris missing a gig in 10 years. "He's one of those hidden treasures in this music scene."

Harris has been playing around the Twin Cities long enough to remember when clubs were quietly but undeniably segregated. He remembered almost getting pummeled by racists at a gig in the early 1950s playing with white musicians at Arthur's Four Seasons Bar in northeast Minneapolis.

"I helped pave the way for the Negro musicians in this town," he said proudly.

It was a Mexican-American musician, Augie Garcia, who gave Harris his biggest claim to fame as a musician. The pianist performed on and helped invent Garcia's "Hi Yo Silver," a 1955 hit on the North Star label that is widely heralded as Minnesota's first rock 'n' roll recording.

"It was a one-hit wonder, but we were able to make it last a few years around here," Harris said, fondly recalling regular gigs at the River Road Club in Mendota with Garcia, who died in 1999.

Harris has played with countless other acts and versions of his own bands, including a '60s lineup hilariously called Huckleberry Finn, Cornbread & Friends.

Harris spent time in the military and worked for about 25 years at American Hoist & Derrick until, he said, he was "pushed out for being too old." That was almost 25 years ago. Since then, he has worked at various jobs but relied mostly on suppertime gigs that he still drives himself to every week.

  • Chris Riemenschneider: Cornbread Harris

    ""80th"" Birthday Bash: 8 p.m. Sun., Shaws Bar & Grill, 1528 University Av. NE., Mpls. Free.

    Every Fri: 6-10 p.m., Loring Pasta Bar, 327 14th Av. SE., Mpls.

    Every Mon.-Wed.: 5-9 p.m., Thistles Restaurant, 4168 W. Broadway, Robbinsdale.

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