Sterling Harrison was a journeyman soul singer whose career demonstrated he had a lot more talent than luck -- after years of making good but unsuccessful records for labels big and small, he finally made an album that demonstrated the full range of his talent, but didn't live to see it released.
Harrison was born in Richmond, VA, in 1941, and began honing his musical talent with his siblings in a gospel group called the Harrison Family Four. While Harrison enjoyed singing in church, he developed a more powerful taste for rhythm & blues and began appearing at talent shows in Richmond; after winning one such contest, Harrison was approached by a talent scout from VIM Records, and traveled to New York City to cut his first single, "I Do Believe (The Devil's Got a Spell on Me)," which appeared in 1955. The record didn't sell, but it did launch Harrison's career on what was then known as "the chitlin circuit," and after relocating to the East Coast he became a skilled live entertainer who shared stages with the likes of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Solomon Burke.
While Harrison scored a regional hit with a dance tune called "The Wobble" in 1962 and cut several sides for Smash and All Platinum, his career on the East Coast focused on live work more than recording, and in the mid-'70s he relocated to Los Angeles. The Holland-Dozier-Holland production team signed Harrison to Motown, and in 1979 he cut a would-be roller disco anthem for the label called "Roll Her, Skate Her," but the deal ended after the single flopped, and a 1980 album for Atlantic fared no better. Harrison recorded a pair of albums for soul specialist labels in the 1990s, but his bread and butter were still in live performances, and he became a fixture on the south side of L.A., playing R&B clubs and soul food joints for audiences who still appreciated soul in the classic style.
In 1999, Allen Larman, an artist manager and soul music maven, caught Harrison's act at an L.A. club and was strongly impressed; on his advice, comedy writer and music archivist Eddie Gorodetsky and Los Lobos saxman Steve Berlin checked out Harrison, and they agreed to help him cut a new album, featuring a set of songs that would show off his voice and superb backing band. Recording sessions for the album were completed in 2001, but shortly afterward Harrison was diagnosed with cancer, and the release of his album hung in limbo as he went through treatment. The disease claimed Harrison in 2005 with the album still on hold, but in the fall of 2007, the independent Hacktone Records label issued Harrison's final album under the title South of the Snooty Fox, receiving rave reviews from soul collectors and the music press. ~ Mark Deming