THURSTON HARRIS

Little Bitty Pretty One

Competition can be a good thing, but it isn't always fair to the parties involved. Thurston Harris couldn't have foreseen that he would be in a heated battle for record sales and airplay some four years into his thus far less-than-momentous recording career, considered by some to be the guy who encroached on a creative cat named Bobby Day, a singer working the same L.A. streets as he. His label, Aladdin, essentially imposed this rivalry that had two rounds; Harris handily won the first with his late-'57 cover of Day's "Little Bitty Pretty One."

Thurston was born in Indianapolis in 1931 and developed his love of music early as a member of various church choirs; after an early-'50s Army stint, he moved to Los Angeles and joined The Lamplighters, a South Central group that had been performing in local night spots including the Club Alabam and Johnny Otis's Barrelhouse in Watts. Ralph Bass of Cincinnati's King Records, through his association with Otis, checked out the act and signed them to the company's Federal label in 1953. Al Frazier, Willie Ray Rockwell and Matthew Nelson made up the ranks of the original Lamplighters; Harris proved valuable as a songwiter and lead singer on many of the foursome's sides. Their first single, the doo wop-drippin' ballad "Part of Me," was penned by Harris. Uptempo party tune "Be-Bop Wino" ('...sorry old fellow') received some airplay in L.A. in early '54, suggesting a bright future lay ahead. It just didn't materialize right away.

They backed Jimmy Witherspoon on a strong rhythm track, "Move Me Baby," and had several good releases of their own, but a pattern became clear: Federal regarded them as a west coast equivalent to its top-selling group The Dominoes, a situation made glaringly obvious with the fourth Lamplighters disc, "I Used to Cry Mercy, Mercy," a thinly-veiled reworking of Dominoes smash "Have Mercy Baby." Add to this a tense situation within the group stemming largely from Harris's take-control attitude, an arrogance that, in early 1955 after several more releases, resulted in his leaving the group, confident he could make it as a solo act. The Lamplighters replaced him with Carl White and soon after became The Tenderfoots (the name suggesting a new beginning) for four releases; when none of these sold, they resumed as the Lamplighters.

While Thurston struggled to get any kind of foothold, his former group made a number of records under yet another name, The Sharps (appearing on the Tag, Jamie and Vik labels), and backed 15-year-old Paul Anka on his debut disc for RPM, "I Confess," likely the only song in Anka's developing repertoire that would be considered rhythm and blues. Harris finally signed a solo deal with Leo and Eddie Mesner's L.A.-based Aladdin Records and was promptly placed in the studio to lay down his version of Bobby Day's undeniably catchy "Little Bitty Pretty One," a song Day had written and just recorded for the Class label with backing from The Satellites (who were really Day's group The Hollywood Flames...shades of the Lamplighters and their multiple names!)

The song is one of those well-produced, lyrically uncomplicated hum-along delights that easily gets inside listeners' heads (and incites others to do their own versions; witness the many remakes through the years including Frankie Lymon's in 1960 and Clyde McPhatter's in '62); Thurston's version (which features the Sharps, uncredited on some, but not all, copies of the single) landed on the charts first and by the time Day's appeared near the bottom of the list in December '57 it had been eclipsed by the Harris cover, comfortably top ten on the pop and R&B charts, one of the biggest hits ever for Aladdin. Thurston had won round one, though neither artist realized there would be a second bout.

The public embraced Thurston's "Pretty One," but industry types saw him more as an imitator. That impression was tossed aside with the next release, Harris's own composition, "Do What You Did." Here we have his true rock classic, a two minute scorcher with a wild, imposing saxophone break by Jackie Kelso. Dare I say it should have been Thurston's biggest hit, a plea to his love interest to repeat the ne'er revealed, stimulating maneuver that had achieved the thrilling result '...when you held-a me close...when you made my soul roast!' A two-month mid-chart run in early 1958 hardly seems suitable; increased airplay would certainly have sidetracked any previous perception of Harris as a copycat.

The Sharps had one record on Aladdin's subsidiary label Lamp (considering their previous name, it just had to happen) and one for the parent label while backing Harris on some sessions (they're on his third Aladdin single "Be Baba Leba," a fun song, though derivative of Lionel Hampton and similar in sound to Little Richard). The group kept moving, with Al Frazier leading an ever-changing lineup, making records for Chess, Combo, Dot and Jamie. Harris, meanwhile, was having difficulty getting another hit. In the summer of '58 he recorded a near-exact duplicate of Bobby Day's "Over and Over," again going head-to-head with his contemporary but falling seriously short this time (Day's original, half of a two-sided smash with "Rockin' Robin," was rightly more popular).

Harris used various gimmicks for his 13 releases on Aladdin: "Purple Stew" is a chaotic cross between "Stranded in the Jungle," "Witch Doctor" and "Purple People Eater." "Hey Little Girl" set Dee Clark's hit to a decidedly non-Bo Diddley beat. "Runk Bunk" and "Slip Slop" relied on nonsensical lyrics. "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer," a peculiarly bouncy take on Amos Milburn's 1953 hit, was not only Thurston's last single for Aladdin, in 1961, but the label's final release before the operation shut down and the masters were sold to Imperial Records. He made recordings for Cub, Dot and Imperial, then had a brief experience with Reprise in 1964, working with producer Jimmy Bowen and arranger Jack Nitzsche; Bowen was certain "Dancing Silhouettes," penned by Sharon Sheeley and Jackie DeShannon, would be the singer's big comeback, but it was not to be.

By this time, The Sharps had finally "made good." One more name change did the trick; as The Rivingtons they made radios pulsate in '62 and '63 with the unconstrained "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" (the 'funniest sound I ever heard...and I can't understand a single word!') and the notorious dance tune "The Bird's the Word," placing themselves in a soul/novelty sector the tongue-in-cheek Coasters and Olympics had dominated for some time. Thurston, on the other hand, had more of a problem than most in dealing with his fall from grace. With two dozen or so records over a little more than a decade, all he'd been able to muster was one major hit and a couple of other chart singles (though the two best-known, particularly "Do What You Did," are, arguably, classics). It was the bottle that finally did him in; he died in 1990 at age 58. Despite the perception that he was little more than a Bobby Day imitator, Thurston Harris actually made some tremendous records, including "Little Bitty Pretty One." Of the song's many versions, it's the one that sounds just right. Sorry, Bobby!

- Michael Jack Kirby





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Little Bitty Pretty One