Jesus' Favorite Singer

Fifty years after leaving the Soul Stirrers, Rebert Harris has been called home

The next morning we sat with 72-year-old Lois Saldana, who says Harris used to come home once a year, but the last time she saw him was in 1996, when he came for the funeral of original Soul Stirrer Silas Roy Crain.

DeBose had a plumbing job to get to, so he steered me in the direction of 79-year-old Tom Rogers, whose mother was Rebert's first cousin. Rogers didn't know that Harris had just died, but the news didn't have much effect on him. “Say a prayer I make 80,” said the man who had just been chopping wood.

“You gotta meet Hill Perkins,” Rogers said, and I perked right up. Besides lining up next to guard Rebert Harris on the Trinity Thoroughbreds football team, Hill Perkins was a member of the Friendly Gospel Singers, the group Harris formed when he was eleven years old.

R.H. Harris: His soaring tenor forever changed the way gospel would be sung
R.H. Harris: His soaring tenor forever changed the way gospel would be sung

“Rebert had a kid with his girlfriend Lucille Norman in high school,” Perkins said, when we met him on his porch.

“Nah, it wadn't Lucille -- it was that other gal,” Rogers countered. “But he never got in any real trouble,” Perkins said. “He was a good kid.”

At age 84, Perkins struggled to remember his old friend. He recalled that Harris was always singing, even on the football field, but he was confused about which of his brothers was also in the Friendly Gospel Singers (it was Fred). He doesn't remember much about the group's early performances at Harris Chapel, but a mention of “I Want Jesus to Walk Around My Bedside,” which Harris claimed to have written at seven years old in 1923 (nearly two decades before it was recorded by New York City's Selia Singers), brings a sparkle of recognition.

“Walk around, walk around, walk around,” Perkins hummed, reciting his old part, eyes dancing to the nostalgic beat. “Walk around, walk around, walk around.” For a brief moment, he was there again.

On the way to Trinity, I had started to question my obsession with Harris. Was my appreciation spiked by the sense of discovery? Did my mission to tell as many people as possible about this great singer make his notes all the sweeter in my mind? Was he merely a secret I was bursting to tell? Or was Rebert Harris really that good?

The answer to all those questions is, simply, yes. This moment of clarity came just before I left Trinity. I decided to visit the Harris Chapel one more time. I sat in my car outside that simple, white, boxlike church and listened to Rebert Harris sing on my CD player. God, what a marvelous voice, so pure and clean and filled with passion. In my mind, the chapel doors outside my window opened to reveal a little boy standing on a chair so he could be as tall as his fellow singers. His voice, like those of the mockingbirds, was effortless in its leap from the soul. “We'll understand it better by and by.”

Two months earlier I sat in another car, listening to a different version of Rebert Harris's voice on my cell phone. I was a block away from his home on the West Side of Chicago, just calling to let him know I'd be at his front door in minutes. But Rebert said on the advice of his lawyer he'd changed his mind about doing the interview.

“People are making all this money offa me, and I don't see a cent,” he said. “You could turn around and write a book, and I wouldn't get nothin'.” He tried to shake me down for money, saying the Chicago Tribune paid him a little something for an interview (untrue). When it became apparent that he wouldn't budge, I told him that since I was in the neighborhood, I just wanted to shake his hand and thank him in person for all the great music, then I'd be on my way.

“Well, all right then, I'll see ya for a minute,” he said. His wife met me at the door and led me inside a dark, ornately decorated house. A plastic trail on the carpet led us to a back room, where Harris rose from a chair with much effort and the aid of a walker to shake my hand. I gushed for a few moments, then he sat down and gestured for me to sit. A little shell-shocked from his initial refusal to talk during our earlier phone conversation, I left my tape recorder in the car, but it didn't matter. The information was invalidated by several contradictions, which may have been intentional, to throw off the nosy stranger. When I asked him how much he taught Cooke, he refuted decades of liner notes and gospel anthologies by saying Cooke already had his own style before joining the Soul Stirrers. I got the feeling that Harris had decided to not give me any useful quotes and instead showed me fan mail from as far away as Japan and described pictures on his wall. Or maybe he had finally made peace with his past.

Family photos dominate one wall. Facing it is a wall containing Soul Stirrers memorabilia, including a newspaper article announcing the group's 1989 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When I asked him with whom I should speak in Trinity about the Soul Stirrers, he said, “I'm the only one who knows the real story.”

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