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Sterling Harrison - South of the Snooty Fox Print E-mail
Monday, 01 October 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8
sound:    7
released:    2007
label:    HackTone/Rhino/ADA
reviewer:    John Sutton-Smith

ImageSterling Harrison was the epitome of American rhythm and blues: a singer who struggled to carve out a career as a journeyman on the chitlin’ circuit of this country’s small town backstreets and byways, in the shadows of contemporaries like Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnnie Taylor or Bobby Womack, but in the forefront of the people’s soul.

South of the Snooty Fox, the title of the last album by the late Los Angeles singer, refers as much to a state of mind as it does to the actual saloon, located near 41st and Western in old South Central L.A., where Harrison regularly recited classic blues and soul standards, along with his memorable comic impressions of everyone from Moms Mabley, Al Green and Ray Charles to Ed Sullivan, Paul Lynde and even Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Harrison passed away two years ago and this posthumous album recorded in 2001 reflects a small but essential pocket of American culture that escaped the public glare, but captured its soul.

Harrison was a more than talented singer who made his living in small clubs in the neighborhood like the Snooty Fox and the M&M Soul Food on Manchester. His career ran four decades, and he opened for big name performers and cut records for majors and indies, but lived the chitlin’ life that defined black music for black America until Motown and Michael Jackson came along.
Co-produced by Los Lobos stalwart Steve Berlin along with TV and music writer Eddie Gorodetsky (also a producer of Dylan’s XM Radio show), South of the Snooty Fox highlights a singer who, with a small grain of showbiz stardust, might have followed contemporaries like Johnnie Taylor, Tyrone Davis or Little Milton into mainstream recognition.

This indie CD blurs the line between celebrity and talent; Harrison’s vocal style is the equal of many of his peers on soul standards like “Ain’t Nobody Home,” “Surprise Surprise,” “You Left the Water Running,” “There’s a Rat Loose in My House” and “I Believe in You (You Believe in Me).” He is backed up here by his longtime group the New Breed Band, including session drummer supreme Rick Marotta and guitarist Larry Johnson on the tasty blues licks (who also passed away after finishing the record).

Harrison makes his take on Tom Waits’ “The House Where Nobody Lives” wholly his own, along with vocal cameos from onetime Stiff chanteuse Rachel Sweet and Billy West, the voice of Ren & Stimpy. Perhaps the centerpiece of the album, however, is Sterling’s take on Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care of You,” also recorded by Bobby Bland, seven-plus minutes of soaring confession of sexual desire that once again Harrison personalizes, improvising intro and outro raps in his own inimitable way.

The depth of Harrison’s interpretive skills is readily apparent on covers of tunes popularized by Howard Tate, Otis Redding, Little Junior Parker and Bobby Womack, and on the hidden track, his 1965 single “Funny Life.”

Producers Berlin and Gorodetsky blend the classic feel of a ‘60s juke joint with the sonic possibilities of modern technology, and Sterling’s warm and flexible baritone fits perfectly in between. From his soulful yearning to his high pleading falsetto, Harrison’s voice is ever-present on these recordings, and with Berlin’s influence the instrumentation is tight, sharp and sensitive, a classic soul sound.

Harrison is undoubtedly one of L.A. soul’s unsung local heroes, and on South of the Snooty Fox he has left a moving and lasting legacy of smoky nights in the ‘hood when Sterling hit the stage.

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