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.
"I don't mind playing in the background, because I've always been playing for myself anyway," he said of the Loring and Thistles shows. "But more people are listening than you think. Every once in a while someone drops in a big tip, and it makes me feel good."
I'd say Mr. Harris at least has that coming.
"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.
Insane for Asylum
You have to admire the huevos of any band that would come into Minneapolis to play an entire set of Soul Asylum tunes. But you especially have to love the fact that Grand Champeen did it last Friday at 7th Street Entry without replicating much of Soul Asylum's own set list from two nights earlier at the Fine Line.
The Texas quartet -- which donated proceeds to the Karl Fund -- stuck entirely to '80s material, from "Cartoon" and "Closer to the Stars" to lesser-knowns such as "Be on Your Way" and their closer, "Passing Sad Daydream." Pretty sweet all around.
A lot of those old songs are featured on a new Rykodisc CD, "Soul Asylum: The Best of the Twin/Tone Years." Ryko got the rights to the old Twin/Tone catalog when it took over Restless Records, although now Rykodisc itself has limped into the arms of Warner Bros.
Not surprisingly, word is that Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy didn't give input or any kind of blessing to the release, which comes painfully close to the release date of their new CD (July 11). Nonetheless, there's obviously a lot of great songs on it.
Too many CD parties this week to mention them all, but here's a short list:
Freakish ambient-rock trio the Danforths (think Animal Collective) plug their second one, "Look Out for the Wolves," tonight at the Turf Club. ... Stingray Green, led by ex-Vandalias Kent Militzer and Dan Sarka, will be at the Hexagon Bar on Saturday, brandishing the jangly garage-pop from their debut, "Hard Numbers" (think the dB's). ... And lastly, Bunkers and Fine Line regulars the New Congress move over to the Varsity tonight to promote their debut, "Everybody Gets Up!" (think "American Idol" doing Stevie Wonder).
Here's a band hard at work: Piano rockers Dropping Daylight just finished a tour with Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins and his Coattail Riders, who play the Varsity on Monday. The DD boys have their own show Thursday at the Ascot Room and are slated to join the Warped Tour the week of their June 22 debut, "Brace Yourself." ...
Gary Louris and Mark Olson are reviving their "not a Jayhawks" tour with a string of dates starting next weekend (nothing local). Louris also just played some dates with Kraig Johnson in Spain, where he winters. ...
Radio K (770 AM) is doing its PowerSurge fundraiser all week, with guests including Haley Bonar, Doomtree and Thunder in the Valley. Check www.RadioK.org for times, and keep in mind that their annual budget is about the same as an office chair at Minnesota Public Radio. ...
Who can argue with a show called Rock Against Rape, especially when the lineup (Saturday at the Nomad, $10) includes great female-fronted punk bands like Koalas, the Line-Ons and Ouija Radio? Not sure how Lili's Burlesque Revue and Toki Wright fit that formula, but they're playing, too.