Monday, January 14, 2008


Joyce Harris, I Got My Mojo Working.
Joyce Harris, Dreamer.
Joyce Harris, No Way Out.

The Sixties begin with the first five seconds of Joyce Harris' version of "I Got My Mojo Working."

The track opens with a summoning, a howled note Harris holds until she shreds her voice to pieces. She starts the verse, slides into the song, but soon enough the madness returns: she shreds her voice again, howls and shrieks again, so much that you can imagine there's blood on the studio floor. There's something unnerving in just how much power she can channel, as though it's a self-exorcism.

"Mojo" was kept a secret: for whatever reason--whether it was too raw or too uncommercial, or whether the timing just was never right--the track was left in the vaults, not released until 1998.

There was a single that came out of the same session. The B-side, "Dreamer," is a step back from the ledge--it's an attempt to do a Latin-tinged piece, but the crudity of the studio band and Harris' still-feral singing derails any effort to be conventional. It's a bit of a mess, but a compelling one; there's a sense the band is freely translating something from a barely-grasped language.

And there's...NO WAY OUT!

And the A-side, "No Way Out," starts with a man out of his league, at first fronting as though he's in charge, but by song's end, he's talking about jumping out of the window. You can't blame him--Harris sings as though she's carrying a knife. Harris and the man (he's unknown; my best guess is he's Clarence Smith, leader of the backing band) trade lines and spar, but as the song goes on, they seem to lose sight of each other, delving further into obsession, lust and claustrophobia, until the track suddenly ends, winking out, the players trapped.

While "No Way Out" only got modest airplay, enough copies circulated to make the single into a minor legend. Dave Marsh's entry on it (#1001 of his top 1001 singles) details the story of how a reel-to-reel copy of "No Way Out," taped by the writer Michael Goodwin at Cornell's radio station in 1963 (Goodwin, listening to his tapes a few years later, had no memory of ever recording "No Way Out," and so had no idea who was singing it), was traded like contraband among record collectors and reviewers for decades.

"A lot of people thought she was black, but she was a red-headed white girl who just sounded that way," Lora Richardson, talking about Joyce Harris.

Joyce Harris was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 1939, and moved to New Orleans with her family in the early '50s. She began performing with her sister Judy, and in 1958, the sisters were signed by New York producer Danny Kessler, who had come to New Orleans on a talent hunt. They had two singles, "He's the One" and "Washboard Sam," but the pair split up when Judy got married. By 1960, Joyce Harris was in Mexico, singing in restaurants.

Lora Richardson, one of the owners of Domino Records, was vacationing in Mexico and heard Harris. (An aside on Domino--one of the odder indie labels of the '50s. Based in Austin, Texas, Domino was founded by 11 respectable Texan professionals who had attended a seminar in 1957 on "How to Market a Song." So Domino, essentially a night-class project to which all the members contributed $5 a week, began signing local singers and bands, and wound up with some popular singles--The Slades' "You Cheated" being the most prominent.)

By 1960, Domino was winding down. Most of the original owners had sold out, leaving three women in charge--Richardson, Kathy Parker and Anne Miller. In a last bid to save the label, they re-launched Domino with a string of new singles, and some new talents, including Harris, who was backed in the studio by a black Austin-based bar band called "The Daylighters."

"No Way Out," Harris' second single for Domino, was released at the tail end of 1960 and by April 1961 it had sold enough to be leased to an LA-based label, Infinity (which was allegedly backed by Howard Hughes), and Harris made an appearance on American Bandstand. But that was as far as it went--Domino Records closed later in '61, while Harris, after a move to LA that proved unrewarding, eventually came back to Louisiana, where she lives in retirement and sings bluegrass on occasion.

As for the Daylighters, they were Clarence Smith, leader and rhythm guitarist (he later changed his name to Sonny Rhodes and, wearing a turban on stage, became a modest success playing the blues in Europe); Willie Cephas (lead guitar), George Underwood (b), Mack Moore (p) and Ira Littlefield, Jr. (d).

Much of this information comes from Rob Finnis' liner notes for The Domino Records Story, where all these tracks can be found.

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