“Get your black ass into the studio.” It was the final shot across Kurt’s bow.
“Ships…pass in the night…so on the ocean of life, we pass and speak to one another, only a look and a voice…” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
We often do pass like ships in the night, knowing not what seas the other encountered. So, I stopped—and I looked— and I heard a voice.
Kurt Harris, strumming and singing, is a fixture on the boards. His electric guitar, and his seasoned voice, add soul to the salt air.
About four years ago, Kurt was a street musician, a busker in Greenwich Village. But he suffered a bad fall near West 4th St. and ended up in a wheelchair and a nursing home for three years.
Kurt’s recovered enough for assisted living now. “Freedom,” he said, about the change, waving his weathered hand to the sea. He didn’t have much freedom in the nursing home; he said he couldn’t even go near the windows. Now he has the vista of the sea, sand, and sky. And he sings to it daily.
As Kurt spoke, his binder of better days was at his side. You’re familiar with the stars, the legends, of rhythm and blues. But there’s a flip side to that success.
Much of Kurt’s life is depicted in the photos and writings in his blue binder. Kurt was lead singer of the original Drifters:
He was the lead of the Imperials “before they got Anthony,” he said. He sang with Doves, and many other groups. Kurt was also a boxer and an actor, appearing in small parts of “The French Connection,” “Serpico,” “Panic in Needle Park.”
Kurt started life in Brunswick, Georgia, in the forties. Life was hard, as it was for so many singers of song. At about age nine, his dad left him, soon after, his mom too. Kurt said after his dad left, his mom got pregnant by a man named Lonnie Scott, “She didn’t want me,” and she left with Scott.
Kurt was placed with family friends who abused him. But he heard his mom had gone to Miami, so he went to Miami—at age ten. Kurt didn’t find his mom but was picked up in Florida and placed in a juvenile home.
Scott brought Kurt’s mom to the Florida court where Kurt’s case was being held. Kurt said, “Outside court, she said to Scott, ‘We’re not taking that bastard anywhere’, and they left me standing right there in front of the courthouse.” Kurt said, “That kinda hurt.” But he said, “I still wanted to be with her even after all she did.” Florida authorities located his mother’s mom in Brooklyn. So, they gave Kurt a ticket and put him on a bus to New York—at age 10 1/2.
Kurt said he didn’t fare well with Grandma either. He said, “She said I was too much, ‘you’re just like your father.'” So, he ran away again, this time ending up in reform school, in upstate NY, (The Boys Correctional Facility at Warwick, NY).
It was in Warwick where Kurt met Kenneth Harris. Ken’s family took Kurt in and later adopted him. Kurt used the name Scott, then Harris. His birth name is Curtis Futch Jr. Kurt really got into singing after the adoption.
Kurt started singing Gospel at age two. He had to go to church and sing, but didn’t love it. He said, “At about nine, I began to feel something.” He said, “I began singing the Devil’s music.” I said, “Devil’s music?” Kurt said, “Yeah, Devil’s music, R&B,”
Kurt said, Roselee Harris (He called her Jesse) told him, “What good does it bring to you, son, to gain the world yet lose your soul?” As Kurt spoke, he seemed to recall Jesse vividly. Kurt said, “Jesse told me, ‘Most of these music singers die from drugs’, and she was right.”
Kurt met many famous singers and musicians as he became better known, Myles Davis, Sammy Davis, both of whom were his mentors. He cut records, he looked like a rising star. But a record company he worked with were “bad people, mob like,” he said. He said, “They were really nice to me at first, they said I sang like a bird.” Then, “they treated me like a slave,” he said. They told him, “Get your black ass into the studio.” He said he wanted his freedom, so he picked up his guitar and left. Kurt said, “I ended up in a room on 111th St. in Harlem, not the penthouse I once lived in.
Kurt said, “I became an alcoholic and drug addict—but not heroin,” he insisted. He said, “I later became homeless, but it wasn’t because of alcohol or drugs, it was because of a bad marriage. My wife wanted me to be a husband and I wanted to be a star.” Kurt’s clean now or “trying to,” for 22 years.
Kurt is seventy-six. But those were seventy-six stormy years.
The life of a Black man born in the deep South in the forties, born to parents who didn’t want him, born to a life of shuffling to and from different homes, to different institutions, contrasts in great relief to many of us who sailed on calmer seas, under fairer skies—with fairer skin.
Kurt said his music came from his heart. He said, “The average person sings Amazing Grace with a straight-up beat” and he gave me an example with his soulful voice.
He gave me Frank Sinatra’s “straight-up” singing, “That’s life, that’s what people say…” “But,” he said, “when you feel it your heart coming from deep within,” and he gave me another more heartfelt rendering, doing a bit of Ray Charles, “Baby tell me what I say… what I say…”
In his performance, I noticed many variations in Kurt’s notes, soul-like innovations, Gospel-like adaptations. Notes rose and fell like the flight of a tern.
Kurt said when he was twelve, the R&B guitarist, Eric Gale gave him his first good singing advice, “Once you learn the notes, sing around them.”
Kurt said, hand to chest, “Aretha Franklin sings from way deep inside, something that’s a gift from God.” Kurt said the record company he worked with didn’t want him to put that sound in, “‘Gospel singers do that, and not everyone believes’, They wanted a pop sound like Nat King Cole.”
As he spoke, Kurt seemed to be getting into his soul. He said, “The words from “The Emperor” were so much me, and then he sang a few lines from his, “The Emperor of My Baby’s Heart”:
“When I’m walking down the street, I’m just another guy.” I lived that,” he said.
He continued singing, “No one pays attention anytime I’m passing by but when I’m with my little girl I’m something special in the world.”
“That was me!” Kurtis said with great emphasis. I could hear Kurt’s heart in, “That was me!”
Kurt said, “But my first record was, “Let Her Dance.” I was in the Daily News because of that record. And my mom saw it and contacted me because they knew I had money. He had gotten a $50,000 advance, and he said, “I wanted to see her so bad, so I went (to Florida). I spread a lot of money around. His girlfriend, Rita, was angry that they were taking advantage of him, and her. They broke up when they got back to NY.
Kurt went back to see his mom, again, in 1989. They, again, thought he had money— this time he didn’t—they had a different attitude—he didn’t stay long.
That was the last time Kurt saw his mom.
Kurt is the father of seven children, but he only hears from one. He hasn’t seen any of them in twelve years.
So, Kurt Harris sings to the sea. He’s a street musician turned boardwalk busker. A busker who performs a service and people show their appreciation for that service.
As Kurt strums and sings, strollers, joggers, bikers often drop appreciation into his canister. Some bring cold bottled water, or an ice cream, or even a new hat to fight off the sun’s blaze.
Kurt said, “I want to make my mark before I leave this Earth. And Kurt may see his mark made—and better days too. Diamond and Outta Sight records, in the UK, just re-released that song he sang so many years ago, “The Emperor of my Baby’s Heart.”
You can hear it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I48VMJe21AQ
This boardwalk of Long Beach, the avenues of America, are much like channels in the sea of life. We pass each other, phones in hand, ear buds in place. We pass with hardly a notice. Maybe, if, as Longfellow says, “… on the ocean of life, we pass and speak to each other,” life just might be a bit better for us all.
( Correction: in my initial posting of this essay, I reported that Mark Taylor, hero of my “Misfits…” post, https://tinyurl.com/393k7krp had died. Since then, I’ve learned he is very much alive. A communication error. But so glad to hear he’s alive, as are you, I’m certain. )