Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris; Pioneering Rock Violinist
Don “Sugarcane” Harris, a pioneering rock violinist who played with artists ranging from Little Richard to Frank Zappa to John Mayall, died last week. He was 61.
Harris’ body was discovered Tuesday night in the room he rented in South-Central Los Angeles. His longtime musical partner Dewey Terry said he died of natural causes after a long struggle with pulmonary disease.
The Pasadena native’s career began with doo-wop and rhythm and blues groups and went on to encompass early rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and underground rock.
“He really put rock ‘n’ roll violin on the map, and I think he’s still probably the best rock ‘n’ roll violinist there’s ever been, Papa John Creach notwithstanding,” musicologist Barry Hansen, a.k.a. radio personality Dr. Demento, said Thursday.
Harris, who was given his nickname by bandleader Johnny Otis, started out in the doo-wop group the Squires, which included his childhood friend Terry. The two began playing rock ‘n’ roll in 1956 as Don & Dewey. Signed to the Los Angeles label Specialty Records, home of Little Richard and Lloyd Price, they wrote and recorded a series of singles that included “Justine,” “Farmer John,” “Big Boy Pete” and “I’m Leaving It All Up to You.”
None were nationally successful, but versions of the songs recorded later by the Olympics, the Premiers, Dale & Grace and the Righteous Brothers became hits. In addition, Harris and Terry played in Little Richard’s backing band on tour in Europe, along with a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix.
The Beatles-led British invasion dried things up for groups such as Don & Dewey, who went their separate ways in the mid-1960s. Later in the decade, Harris found an unlikely niche, contributing to four albums by rock renegade Zappa and then joining English rock-blues founding father Mayall. He also recorded his own albums of jazz-influenced improvisation, and in the early 1970s with another Mayall sideman, guitarist Harvey Mandel, in the blues-rock group Pure Food and Drug Act.
“As a violin player, he really was in a category all of his own,” Mayall said this week. “He played with an aggressive, electronic [style], the same sort of vitality that an electric guitar would have.”
Harris also contended with a drug habit for much of his career.
“He had a wonderful sense of humor, a very gentle sort of person,” said Mayall, who had sought Harris out after being impressed by his playing on the Don & Dewey single “Stretchin’ Out.”
“The only thing that stood in his way was his unreliability with the drug thing, which was sort of his downfall,” Mayall added. “Occasionally he would disappear. You just had to take that as it came. . . . He never had a phone number. You usually had to leave a message for Dewey’s mother or something like that and somehow the word would get back and he’d call in.”
Harris and Terry got back together in 1975 and played together until a year ago, when Harris’ health declined. Terry had made new recordings of the duo in recent years in his home studio, but none have been released.
Harris, who is divorced, is survived by a daughter and two sons. Services are scheduled for Saturday at 3 p.m. at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier.