NORMAN HARRIS-THE HARRIS MACHINE.
NORMAN HARRIS-THE HARRIS MACHINE.
For Norman Harris, all his hard work building Gold Mind Records had been in vain. Gold Mind Records had been experiencing financial problems and eventually became part of Salsoul Records. Latterly, Gold Mind Records didn’t even have a distributor. Eventually the Cayre brothers decided that the only solution was that Gold Mind became part of Salsoul. Previously, Gold Mind had been an independent company, which the Cayres had formed and Norman Harris had ran. Among the artists Norman Harris signed to Gold Mind were the first Lady of Disco Loleatta Holloway, Philly’s finest vocal trio First Choice and Double Exposure. With Gold Mind now no longer Norman’s label, he decided that now was the time to do something he’d never previously done…release a solo album. So, he signed to the label he’d left in 1975, Philadelphia International Records and would release The Harris Machine, his debut solo album.
Despite his career starting in the early sixties, Norman Harris had never released a solo album. The Harris Machine would be his debut solo album. He’d either been a member of a group, including The Fabulous Playboys, M.F.S.B. or The Salsoul Orchestra. Two years earlier, in 1978, Norman, with his partners in the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, had released Baker, Harris, Young’s only album B-H-Y on Salsoul Records. Apart from that, Norman’s career had seen him work as a musician, songwriter, arranger and producer for numerous artists.
During his career, Norman hd been a member of Philadelphia International Records’ legendary house-band M.F.S.B. accompanying artists like The O’Jays, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, The Three Degrees and Joe Simon. Then when many of the original members ofM.F.S.B. left Philadelphia International Records in 1975, after a dispute with Gamble and Huff over money, Norman became a member of The Salsoul Orchestra. At Salsoul Records, Norman accompanied everyone from Loleatta Holloway, First Choice, Carol Williams, Charo, Eddie Kendricks and Double Exposure. Then there was Norman’s work away from Philadelphia International Records and Salsoul Records, as The Harris Machine.
By the early seventies, Norman had built a career as a successful producer. The Harris Machine was a collection of musicians, songwriters, arrangers and producers and that he’d put together. Soon, artists like Blue Magic, Major Harris, The Dells, First Choice, Loleatta Holloway, The Trammps, The Whispers, and Eddie Kendricks were benefiting from Norman’s skills as a musician, songwriter, arranger and producer. However, by then, Norman Harris was an experienced producer, having learnt from producers like Thom Bell and Gamble and Huff. As the seventies came to a close, Norman wasn’t yet forty, but was almost a veteran musically. So, he was ready to release his debut solo album.
Now back at Philadelphia International Records, work began on Norman’s debut album The Harris Machine. Only three songs written by Norman appeared on The Harris Machine. He cowrote Dodge City, Hit City and In Search of Peace of Mind with his regular songwriting partners Alan Felder and ex-Temptation Ron Tyson. The other Norman Harris composition was Bright Eyes, which he cowrote with Kenny Gamble. Other songs were cover versions. There were covers of Major Harris’ I Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely written by Bobby “Electronic” Eli, Vinnie Barrett and John Freeman. Linda Creed and Thom Bell’s You Make Me Feel Brand New and a cover of Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes’ Don’t Leave Me This Way, penned by Gamble and Huff with Cary Gilbert. Among the other tracks were Jack Faith and T.J. Tindall’s In Good Faith and two tracks penned by alto-saxophonist Zach Zachary. These were Skoo-Be-Dooby and Zach’s Fanfare ’80. Recording of The Harris Machine took place at Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios.
Joining Norman Harris for the recording of The Harris Machine, were M.F.S.B. and The Sweethearts of Sigma, Barbara Ingram, Evette Benton and Carla Benson. Various arrangers and producers worked on The Harris Machine. Arrangers included Norman, Bruce Hawkes, Jack Faith, Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey and Zach Zachary. Producers included Jack Faith, Zach Zachary, Norman and Gamble and Huff. Once The Harris Machine was recorded at Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios, the album was released in 1980.
On the release of The Harris Machine in 1980, it failed to chart. This was disappointing for Norman’s debut album. It seemed Norman Harris was out of luck. He’d lost Gold Mind Records and now his debut album The Harris Machine, had been a commercial failure. However, is The Harris Machine one of the hidden gems of Philadelphia International Records’ back-catalogue? That’s what I’ll now tell you, when I tell you about the music on The Harris Machine.
Opening The Harris Machine is I Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely, arranged and produced by Norman Harris. Rasping horns, dancing strings and cooing harmonies from The Sweethearts of Sigma join the rhythm section creating a jazz-tinged, joyful and dramatic arrangement. Lead by a standup bass, the unmistakable sound of The Sweethearts of Sigma’s tight, tender harmonies take charge of the vocals. Norman’s guitar is fluid, crystalline and chiming, never once missing a beat. Meanwhile, thunderous drums, growling horns and flamboyant, flourishes of strings dance above the arrangement, while The Sweethearts of Sigma’s delicious harmonies are key to this jazz-tinged makeover of a true Philly Soul classic. With their help and M.F.S.B. providing the musical backdrop, Norman Harris rolls back the years.
Dodge City, Hit City was one of two tracks Norman penned with Alan Felder and Ron Tyson that feature on The Harris Machine. Pounding drums and hissing hi-hats open the track before blazing horns and swirling strings combine. Soon, keyboards, percussion and then The Sweethearts of Sigma add punchy harmonies. Their harmonies are like a sassy, proto rap with a mass of strings, grizzled horns and the rhythm section helping drive this musical juggernaut along. Philly Soul, funk and jazz combine. Bursts of horns and searing, sizzling guitars from Norman combine. Zach Zachary’s saxophone and Norman’s guitar become like two gunfighters. They walk ten paces, turn and shoot. It’s a close call, but Norman comes out the winner, in this shoot-out of virtuoso musicians.
You Make Me Feel Brand New was written by Linda Creed and Thom Bell. Sweeping, heartfelt, harmonies from The Sweethearts of Sigma join punchy horns and swathes of sweeping strings. Add to that, congas, keyboards and percussion. Soon, a familiar song is given a makeover. Drama comes courtesy of the drums and growling horns, while The Sweethearts of Sigma add beauty and emotion. Later, Norman lays down a peerless solo, while thunderous dramatic drums dramatically reflect the beauty and emotion of the song. Cascading harmonies are then added, taking the song to a new level of drama, beauty and emotion.
Zach’s Fanfare ’80 is captivating taste of what might have been. It’s updating an earlier track for a new decade. Grizzled horns, stabs of Hammond organ and the rhythm section combine to build and build the drama. Then just as you’re reveling in M.F.S.B. at their very best, it’s all over. However, it was delicious while it lasted.
Bright Eyes was written by Norman and Kenny Gamble. From the get-go, the arrangement bursts into life. Flourishes of strings, bursts of braying horns and the rhythm section combine. They combine jazz, funk and Philly Soul. Having set the scene, The Sweethearts of Sigma add sassy, sensuous vocals. Swathes of dancing strings, a funky rhythm section and muted horns then take charge, as the arrangement veers between a jazzy to a tough funky sound, as Norman and M.F.S.B. dramatically demonstrate their versatility and combined talents.
In Search of Peace of Mind with written by Norman with his regular songwriting partners Alan Felder and ex-Temptation Ron Tyson. Bursts of thunderous drums, sultry horns and flourishes of strings combine, creating an arrangement that’s reminiscent of something Salsoul would release. The arrangement is dance-floor friendly, floating along combining disco, funk, jazz and Philly Soul. Tender, floaty harmonies from The Sweethearts of Sigma join wistful, rasping horns, Norman’s chiming guitar and fluttering strings. This just goes to show, albeit somewhat belatedly, that Philadelphia International Records could make disco. It’s just a pity that Gamble and Huff let Norman Harris and the rest of M.F.S.B. become The Salsoul Orchestra. If they hadn’t then maybe Philadelphia International Records may have become disco’s premier label.
Don’t Leave Me This Way has become synonymous with Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes. Here, Norman Harris, with M.F.S.B. and The Sweethearts of Sigma reinvent a Philly Soul classic. This isn’t easy. Just a wistful combination of lush strings, percussion, rhythm section and Norman’s fluid, jazzy guitar combines. Adding cooing harmonies are The Sweethearts of Sigma, while Norman lays down one of his best solos. Then M.F.S.B. kick loose. The Sweethearts of Sigma add powerful, soaring harmonies accompanied by blazing horns, swathes of strings and powerhouse of a rhythm section. Then having kicked loose, the arrangement slows back down, allowing Norman’s guitar to take centre-stage. From there, the arrangement veers between the two, bringing new life and meaning to a Philly Soul classic.
In Good Faith sees just percussion, grizzled horns and moody, cinematic strings combine. They produce a broody, haunting backdrop, thanks to pizzicato strings. Then the arrangement grows, filling out. Horns and the rhythm section add drama, before as the song veers between moody, broody to haunting and dramatic. The Sweethearts of Sigma then add elegant, cooing harmonies that provide a contrast. When both sides of the song unite, the result is one that’s moody and cinematic, but also elegant and beautiful.
Skoo-Be-Dooby is another short song written by Zach Zachary. Here, M.F.S.B. become a big band. This gives M.F.S.B. the chance to kick loose, and showcase their versatility. Blazing horns and the rhythm section lead by a standup bass drive the arrangement along. For just one minute, you’re transported back to another age and given another tantalizing glimpse of just what Norman and M.F.S.B. were capable of.
Closing The Harris Machine is I Wish, written by Stevie Wonder. Dramatic bursts of blazing horns, keyboards, rhythm section and whooping, cooing harmonies from The Sweethearts of Sigma combine. Then M.F.S.B. dramatically drive the arrangement along. At breakneck speed, the arrangement unfolds. Just keyboards, the rhythm section and bursts of braying horns combine. Punchy harmonies and dancing strings are added as one last time, M.F.S.B. kick loose. Spurred on, The Sweethearts of Sigma surpass themselves, their harmonies sweeter, sassier and even more soulful. This proves the perfect way to close The Harris Machine.
Nearly twenty years after the start of Norman Harris’ career, Norman released his debut album The Harris Machine in 1980. Sadly, The Harris Machine wasn’t a commercial success and it proved to be Norman’s only solo album. There was nothing whatsoever wrong with the music on The Harris Machine. Rather, it was a case of changes in musical fashions. Disco had died in 1979, and now, as a new decade dawned, the post-disco age dawned. Gone were the days of when fusions of Philly Soul, funk, disco and jazz sold in huge amounts. Neither Philadelphia International Records, nor Salsoul Records were the same forces in music. So, The Harris Machine was a victim of changing musical fashions. After The Harris Machine, Norman Harris never released another solo album.
Indeed, seven years after Norman Harris released The Harris Machine in 1980, Norman Harris died, just aged just thirty-nine. Ten years later, Ron Baker of Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section and production team died in 1990 aged forty-three. Two members of the the legendary Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section had passed away.
Norman Harris was one of Philly Soul’s founding fathers and architects. Music had lost one of its great innovators and pioneers. Norman Harris was much more than a musician, but a songwriter, arranger and producer. In many ways, Norman Harris was a true musical genius. The Harris Machine, Norman Harris’ 1980 debut album was his belated debut solo album and demonstrates just how talented, versatile and innovative a musician, songwriter, arranger and producer Norman Harris was. Standout Tracks: I Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely, Dodge City, Hit City, You Make Me Feel Brand New and Don’t Leave Me This Way.
NORMAN HARRIS-THE HARRIS MACHINE.