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But Harris himself never got the recognition. And although he claimed his subsequent groups -- the Christland Singers, the Gospel Paraders, and the Masonic Quintet -- “ascended the heights of popularity,” Harris was never able to duplicate the furor he created with the Soul Stirrers. After leaving the group he became president of the National Quartet Association and worked for a florist to help support his first wife, ex-Golden Harps singer Jeannette Harris, and their four children. But his singing continued to impress the likes of critic Tom Smucker, who named 1972's Precious Lord, a gospel compilation featuring Harris, his choice for a desert-island album. In the book Stranded, Smucker writes that Harris's impassioned reading of “Peace in the Valley” tops a more famous version, “outstripping Elvis Presley's fervor with his urgency, commitment and desperation.”
Despite his miss with the masses, gospelheads know all about the prematurely bald dynamo who quit the Soul Stirrers too soon because he tired of a life on the road overrun with swindlers and Jezebels.
Harris claimed to have no musical influences besides those he found in the trees and fields of his family's farm outside Trinity. “The falsetto sound that traveled from gospel to soul to the Beatles began as a Texas birdsong mimicked by a latter-day Mozart,” wrote The Gospel Soundauthor Anthony Heilbut, who also produced a Harris album in the Seventies titled The Father of Them All.
Musical history is often made, not in the major cities and garden spots, but in the beat-down burgs of Tupelo, Mississippi; Gary, Indiana; Aberdeen, Washington; Hibbing, Minnesota; Liverpool, England; and Trinity, Texas. In such places the yearning for escape sweetens big dreams. On the surface there's nothing special about those towns. But if you believe in spirits, a visit to a place haunted by genius is good for the soul. I had to “Walk Around,” as the title of the Stirrers' first major hit suggests, where Rebert Harris, S.R. Crain, J.J. Farley, Walter LeBeau, and Edward R. Rundless first stirred the soul.
A sign proclaiming Trinity, population 2997, as “a city of prayer” welcomes visitors to this spot a few miles from where the Trinity River feeds into Lake Livingston. But it's also a prison town, located just fifteen miles from the Huntsville correctional facilities, the area's biggest employer. Harris grew up on a farm thirteen miles outside of Trinity. James and Katie Harris and their nine children (Rebert was their sixth) lived about 300 yards from the barbed-wire fence of the Eastham Prison Camp, where convicts would toil in the fields and sing a mixture of spirituals and blues. Rebert said he started arranging his first gospel quartet, with his brother Almo and two cousins, before he even knew what the quartet style was.
“I was seven years old, and the closest boy in age was six years older,” he recalled in that 1987 interview. “I heard the sound of each part in my head and I'd tell each person how to sing it.”
The group was called the Friendly Four and then the Friendly Gospel Singers when Harris moved to town to start seventh grade at the Trinity Colored High School. After tenth grade, which is as far as the school went, fifteen-year-old Harris attended Mary Allen College nearby and weighed a tempting offer to join Crain's group the Soul Stirrers, who had moved to Houston. At the time the Stirrers were a jubilee group, singing poppy, uptempo numbers such as “Down By the Riverside.” But as soon as Harris finally committed (Rebert said the year was 1931; gospel historians usually put the year at '35 or '36), he helped change the group's sound to a slower, deeper, more passionate hard gospel style.
Harris's parents were devout churchgoers and choir singers who, in 1911, helped build a church that bears their name (Harris Chapel C.M.E.) on the main road leading into town. It's one of 23 places of worship in Trinity, which is one of those seemingly joyless hamlets where porches are piled like thrift stores and folks sell barbecue and trinkets out of their homes. But on Sunday the burdens dissipate in feverish church singing.
I hit town without much of a clue about where to begin my soul search ten days after R.H.'s death, but I was pretty sure my immediate future held conversations with various elderly African Americans. Possible sources presented themselves at the Texaco station, but the two old men in bibbed overalls said they didn't know much about the Soul Stirrers. They suggested that I visit Rev. Douglas DeBose -- “He's some kinda kin to one a dem” -- and gave directions that included a brown station wagon with a flat tire as a landmark.
It sounded like a revival was occurring inside the DeBose house, but it turned out to be a couple of the twelve DeBose children banging away on a pair of pianos, one electric and the other one an upright of faded turquoise.
“I taught 'em how to play, but they passed me a long time ago,” says their mother, Susan DeBose, one of the few white people in the neighborhood just north of downtown. Seemingly oblivious to the racket, she told me how to get to the tabernacle group meeting. In an annex to the aluminum temp building, I found DeBose, current pastor of the Lone Star Baptist Church, where R.H. Harris and the Soul Stirrers sang in the early days. I made plans to meet with DeBose the next day.