ACE HARRIS (By Dave Penny)

Born Asa Harris, 1 April 1910, New York City, New York

Died 11 June 1964, Chicago, Illinois

Perhaps more than any other during the swing era, the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra had its fair share of talented musician-arrangers and future bandleaders; when one considers that the likes of Sammy Lowe, Bobby Smith, Avery Parrish, Julian Dash, Dud and Paul Bascomb, Leroy Kirkland, Bill Johnson and Heywood Henry all found fame with the band, the list is indeed impressive enough to overshadow a more minor name such as Ace Harris. Hopefully the recent Classics

CD will help to restore the charismatic singer/pianist/arranger to his rightful place among the mighty.

Born on 1st April 1910 in New York City, Asa "Ace" Harris learned to play the piano as a child and got his first professional job in early 1930 with Billy Steward's Celery City Serenaders; a popular Florida-based territory band that regularly toured the Eastern Seaboard and ventured as far west as Wyoming. By 1935, Harris had joined the celebrated Sunset Royal Serenaders managed by Bill Mears and fronted by Steve Washington, and by 1937, having proved himself to be a talented pianist and singer - and a charismatic front man after Washington's death in 1936 - Harris took over leadership of the band which recorded for Vocalion in 1937 as Ace Harris & his Sunset Royal Orchestra. At this time, the band included Joe Murphy, Jimmy Harris and Bobby Smith who would later play in Erskine Hawkins band alongside Ace (the Sunset Royals, then under trombonist Doc Wheeler's leadership, recorded once more, for Bluebird, in 1941/42). Ace left the Sunset Royals in 1939 to remain in New York City, where, during the period 1940-42, he was employed as the accompanist/arranger with the successful vocal group The Ink Spots, touring on package shows with a line-up that often included the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra.

The Sunset Royal Orchestra

Ace Harris' attractive, bluesy piano-playing graced a Hot Lips Page session in early 1944, following which he was asked to join the Erskine Hawkins band, along with his old pal Bobby Smith, and he quickly quelled, and indeed, mastered the ghost of the band's star pianist/arranger Avery Parrish who had left the band the year earlier. His boogie woogie piano and fine singing voice made him a natural for jump tunes like Caldonia (#2 1945), Let's Have Fun Tonight and Hawk's Boogie (#2 1947), and he remained with the Hawkins orchestra, recording for RCA Victor, until the summer of 1947. Like many of the Hawkins alumni, Harris conducted his own solo recording career while still a member of the big band, and between 1945 and 1948 he recorded for New York City labels Hub and Sterling - including a cheeky tip-of-the-hat to Parrish with a new version of After Hours. He rejoined Hawkins' band in 1950 to record for Coral Records, reprising After Hours and providing Hawkins with his last r&b chart hit, Tennessee Waltz (#6 1950). Also recording with his friend Bobby Smith's offshoot unit for Apollo Records during this period, he left Hawkins again in 1951 when he struck his own recording contract with Teddy Reig at Coral, going on to record three sessions in 1951/52.

Disbanding his small working unit in 1953, he relocated to Chicago and began working as a solo singer/pianist at nighteries like The Cloister Inn. He enjoyed a one-off reunion with his brother-in-law Erskine Hawkins' band in 1955 to record a couple of singles for Decca, and the following year he was featured playing the title track of a King LP called After Hours, when the Cincinnati-based record company used his decade-old Hub recording for a compilation album. Also in 1956 he was featured on Mercury recordings by hot new tenor star Sil Austin - including the saxophonist's #3 r&b smash Slow Walk. Ace then sank into obscurity and died at the young age of 54 in Chicago on 11th June 1964. His legacy is carried on by his daughter, also named Asa, who is a singer with the Gene Esposito Jazz Orchestra in Chicago and recording artist in her own right with a CD on the MaxJazz label.

Recommended listening:

The Chronological Ace Harris 1937-1952 - Classics 5087


The Chronological Hot Lips Page 1940-1944 - Classics 809

The Chronological Erskine Hawkins 1946-1947 - Classics 1008

The Chronological Erskine Hawkins 1950-1951 - Classics 1257

Bobby Smith: That's For Sure - Delmark 484 (Smith's Apollo recordings)

Sil Austin: Swingsation - Verve 5478762 (Austin's Mercury recordings)

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

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