Teddy Harris: A Jazzman at Motown

By Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert

Teddy Harris, Jr.

Few Detroit musicians better illustrate the link between Jazz and Motown music than Theodore Edward Harris, Jr. (1934-2005). He boxed with Berry Gordy, sang with Jackie Wilson, and was a Motown road band conductor/arranger.  He was the Supremes Music Director for over a decade. His jazz roots are deep, too.  His father, Teddy Sr., worked for decades as a bandleader, pianist, and organist. Harris was a central figure in Detroit’s informal “Jazz Academy,” and he exemplifies what playwright Bill Harris calls, “The Detroit Way” – older musicians helping younger musicians.

Detroit is a premier jazz city.  It’s been a premier jazz city for a long, long time.  Our reputation grew during the turbulent 1940s, when Bird was the Word.  We absorbed Bird’s language and made it our own.  During the nineteen fifties, Detroit’s pool of jazz talent overflowed, swamping Manhattan with musicians.  

A robust music curriculium, both in and after school is a necessity.  During most of the twentieth century our education system was second to none.  Youngsters were instilled with the basics of playing their instrument, scales, and reading music.  Lessons of equal import happened after school, in homes, bands and clubs, where dedicated musicians with a knack for nurture, practiced what playwright Bill Harris calls the “Detroit Way.”  Older musicians show younger musicians. Those nurturing musicians essentially forfeited their chance for national exposure and recognition; a city’s reputation is made by those musicians who leave, it is sustained by those who remain.  Musicians who remain, or return, are special and they form the backbone of our jazz community.  Louis Cabrera, Barry Harris, Harold McKinney and Marcus Belgrave are among their number.

Teddy Harris is one of those special musicians. 

Theodore Harris, Jr. was born in Detroit on August 27, 1934, to Theodore Harris and Ruth Woody.  Both parents came to Detroit from the South and met at Miller High School.  Their families lived on the East Side of the city, moving to the North End after World War ll. 

Harris’ grandfather played trombone, and he gave it to Harris Sr. as a wedding present.  “My dad never could play it, so he took it to the pawn shop and traded it for a clarinet,” said Harris.   That clarinet became his first instrument.  Harris Sr. played keyboards, and there was always a piano in his house.  “Seems like from the time I could walk, I was always fooling around on the piano,” mused Harris. 

Teddy was attracted to the saxophone (“I have no idea why,” he chuckled) and captivated by Duke Ellington, whose music he first heard at the age of nine.  

“My parents took me to the Paradise Theater to hear Duke’s band,” he recalled with a smile.  “I knew then and there I wanted to be a musician.”[1]

Musicians, even those with impressive talent, sometimes take a “day job” when times are tough – gigs become scarce, venues stop featuring music, clubs hire a Disc Jockey – Teddy Harris held such a job during his youth, but once he matured musically he let his fingers do the earning.  

Teddy as a High School Senior

“The only non-music job I recall Teddy having was a job at a Service Station (Gas Station),” his brother Don remembered.  “We both worked there for a few years…it was obvious to me that Teddy would be a musician.”[2]  Don, five years younger than Teddy, is a businessman who loves music. He’s managed musicians and bands, including Jackie Wilson and the Butterfield Blues Band.  The brothers are similar in many ways – thoughtful, earnest, responsible, and confident.  They comport themselves with dignity and class.  Both are passionate about music.    

Teddy, 1960s

Teddy Harris went to Northern High School.  Like most Detroit High Schools, it had a superb music program.  Harris’ teacher at Northern was Orvis Lawrence, “who played with Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers,” according to Harris.  “I went to Northern the same time as Donald Byrd, Sonny Red, Tommy Flanagan.  I studied saxophone” 

Teddy was in neighborhood bands during his Northern years, including one group with legendary tenor saxophonist Stoney Nightingale.  He developed on several fronts while at Northern – saxophone, piano, and arranging.  For the latter he got some help from fellow saxman Frank Foster, who was then a presence on the Detroit scene.

“Frank Foster used to help me…he was becoming a pretty astute arranger.  He would come over to the school (Northern), we got out of school at 2:30, he would get Donald Byrd, Sonny Red and myself and (trombonist/pianist) Claude Black and take us to his house where he would teach us how to read his arrangements.”

After graduating, Harris began playing in bands.  He gained valuable experience from working with his father – “…my dad was playing organ, I was playing tenor sax,” he recalled.  Harris Sr. led bands around town for many years, including a stay at the 606 Horseshoe Lounge in 1954, where he was billed as an “interpretive organ stylist.” 

“My daddy was one of the first organists in Detroit,” Harris recalled.  “His main instrument was piano, but he played nine different instruments, all of them well.”  Harris and his pals used to drop by his dad’s gig, said trumpeter Felton Jones.  “He had a gig at the Gay 90’s on Woodward playing solo piano,” Jones remembered.  “Teddy played his tenor when we did that.” All of Harris’ early jobs (in the 1950’s) were on tenor sax; according to bassist Robert Allen and trumpeter Jones, Harris was a fine tenor man with a big, strong sound.[3]   That’s not surprising considering his respect and admiration for Yusef Lateef and Sonny Rollins.

“Yusef, I grew up on Yusef, he was really one of my favorite guys. When I played tenor sax, people used to tell me I sounded a lot like him…he was a REAL influence on my playing.”

Teddy with Tenor, early 1950s

Sonny Rollins, then the dominant tenor voice on the jazz scene, was another favorite.[4] “Teddy used to always play ‘Shadrack’, that was his favorite tune,” said Felton.[5] “He loved Sonny.” Jones and Harris played in a Bebop quintet organized by Robert Allen in 1954 – The Modern Moods Quintet – that stayed together until Harris started working at Motown. Jones played trumpet, Harris was on tenor, Johnny Cleaver played drums, and the piano chair was pretty open. “We were all about Miles and Sonny,” Jones remembered. “One day, (drummer) Louis Hayes brought Eddie Chambliss by, and Eddie had his horn (tenor sax) with him. After Teddy heard Eddie play, he switched over to piano, and Eddie played tenor,” Jones laughed. “Eddie was even MORE like Sonny. Teddy couldn’t touch him.” Harris was a nimble instrumentalist, able to move from one to another thanks to his talent and his schooling. Jones characterized Harris’ playing as “two fingered” at first, but he improved quickly, and their band found steady work for dances and club gigs as far north as Flint.

Teddy drove a tank for the U.S. Army

Harris was drafted in August, 1959, “two days before my 26th birthday[6].” he recalled.  Much to Harris’ chagrin, he ended up in a tank, not an orchestra.  He tried several times to join the 7th Army band, but he was good at his job and Harris’ Commanding Officer didn’t want to lose him.  “Every time they would cut orders to send for me to be transferred to that band, my company commander would send back a notice they were short of personnel, and they needed me.  I never did get into the Army band!” 

Teddy met Eddie Harris, who was in the band, and the two Harris’ traded lessons. “He was playing the piano,” Teddy remembered. “I was stationed in Germany by this time…in my little outfit, the musicians had no piano player. So I started playing the piano, and studying, I got a chance to study with a couple of German piano teachers. Eddie Harris and I became friends…he started to tutor me on the piano, and I started tutoring him on the saxophone. He wound up being a saxophone player, and I play the piano most of the time.” Harris’ piano chops improved significantly.

Eddie Harris

Teddy was less a music theoretician and more a practitioner with an intuitive grasp of music theory.  “I met a guy in the Army with a Master’s in Music who could not play (jazz).  I could play everything he talked about.  Maybe I didn’t know the terminology, but I could play it.” 

After his discharge, Teddy went straight to Paris, soaking up the rich Left Bank jazz scene and studying briefly with respected French pianist and pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger.[7] Harris returned to the U.S. late in 1962, just in time to latch onto the Motown juggernaut. 

During the 1960’s, Mr. Kelly’s eastside club featured Sunday afternoon Jazz sessions hosted by WJLB Jazz radio personality Ed Love. A lifelong Jazz promoter, Love is a Detroit treasure. Love, a former trumpeter and Armed Forces Radio broadcaster, featured musicians currently appearing in Detroit. He also had a House Band. “Everybody got paid,” Love told me. “The show was called Ed Love’s Jazz Workshop with LeBaron Taylor.” Ed’s show attracted many Detroit notables, including Berry Gordy (who named his “Jazz Workshop” label after Love’s show.)8 Drummer George Davidson, a longtime friend and associate of Harris’, was always on hand. “Any national guys who were playing in town would be there, along with guys like Kirk Lightsey, Freddie Waits, Bennie Maupin, and Teddy. Those sessions were real learning experiences for me.” Harris led a Quintet at Mr. Kelly’s which backed up Sonny Rollins during a guest appearance in November, 1962, shortly after Harris returned from the Army. It is important to note that Harris had many gigs in many places, often two or three each week, so they were parallel, not serial.

Nadia Boulanger, 1968

Berry Gordy was a friend from High School – “We were both on boxing teams at Brewster Center,” Harris said. Teddy was also tight with Jackie Wilson.  “Jackie and I were like brothers,” he recalled.  “In fact, most people thought we were brothers.  We used to sing in a little quartet.  We used to sing in churches.”  Harris backed up Wilson in a Gordy-produced single of “Reet Petite” which was a smash hit.[9]  Harris worked in saxophonist Choker Campbell’s orchestra, backing Gordy’s vocal groups.  He worked for Motown in the arranging department. 

Teddy with the Supremes

“I kept all of the road charts after the recording was done,” he remembered.  “My biggest job was on the road.  When we went on the road with the Motown Revue…I could handle the girls pretty good…they liked that.”  After Diana Ross left Motown, Harris began working with The Supremes, arranging their music and occasionally going on road trips conducting the band.  “When Gil Askey finally left, I took the reins,” Teddy recalled.  “Those girls had so many hit records…I made them into three medleys so they could do a little bit of each.”  Harris worked with the Supremes well into the 1970’s. 

He was in demand, seldom idle, working at clubs like Odum’s Cave (Joe Henderson was in that band, according to Teddy) and leading the house band at Dummy George’s in the early 1980’s. 

The Queen of Soul

Harris joined Aretha Franklin’s trio in 1965.  Hindal Butts played drums and James “Beans” Richardson played bass.  George Davidson replaced Butts in Franklin’s group, and recalls Harris (whom he first met at that time) as “perfect for Aretha.  He was a traditional Bebop player, bluesy, safe.  He gave her just what she needed.”[10]

That meeting was the start of a long lasting collaboration between Davidson and Harris.  They played together in many bands, including the Paul Butterfield Blues Band from 1969-71.  Butterfield’s band included Rod Hicks on bass and vocals.  Hicks recommended Harris to Butterfield (rumors circulated that “Butter” unsuccessfully tried to snag ace jazz arranger Gil Evans), and Harris used the talented horn section (which included David Sanborn) to craft a unique sound, a mix of Jazz, electrified blues, and rock n’ roll.[11]  Harris’ playing and arranging captured the cultural zeitgeist of the late sixties. Butter’s band paralleled Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” experiment which fused Jazz and rock n’ roll.

Harris (left, seated) and George Davidson with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, c1969.

Teddy Harris was always aware of the wealth of fresh, young talent available in Detroit, and always tried make use of it. Harris knew the importance of a disciplined environment for neophyte musicians. He started his New Breed Be Bop Society Orchestra in 1983. It was a premier Motor City Jazz outlet until Harris’ death. The New Breed was a solid mix of seasoned Detroit regulars and youngsters. Teddy started Like his idol Duke Ellington, Harris got to hear his music immediately, but the real kick for him was helping young musicians find their voices. Sometimes after a performance, a beatific grin would slowly form on his face and his eyes would sparkle. That look was the reason Harris kept his band together, even if their only gigs were the Tuesday night rehearsals in his basement. “He was the most giving person,” said saxophonist Olujimi Tafataona. Tafataona spent four years in Harris’ big band. “All he wanted was for you to put everything into playing his music,” he continued. “He wanted you to ask questions. Teddy loved Bebop, and he wanted you to love it, too. He was so full of encouragement.”[12] Veteran singer Naima Shamborguer (sham-bor-zhea) worked with the band for several years, and she has fond memories. “I fit better with New Breed and Jimmy Wilkins’ big band,” she said. “I was more compatible with Teddy’s band. I dug his arrangements.” Harris, or Gene Kee, crafted charts for songs which Shamborguer chose.[13]

The Stylish Ms. Shamborguer with the New Breed
The first New Breed BeBop Society Orchestra, 1983, possibly in Harris’ basement.. Naima Shamborguer was their vocalist. Arnold Clarington, Baritone sax. Courtesy Naima Shamborguer

Detroit saxophonist James Carter cycled through the New Breed while in High School. “He put us right into a professional situation and helped us become polished as musicians and polished as human beings and cultural warriors.” [14] 

Saxophonist/teacher Ernie Rodgers kept his ears open for subs for Harris’ big band, thus ensuring promising students spent time in jazz bands.  Educators such as Rodgers and Ben Pruitt were the equivalent of Minor League managers, developing students through the Detroit “Farm system.”  A trio comprising Harris, Davidson, and bassist Don Mayberry hosted the Wednesday jam sessions at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge for years, ending only with Harris’ passing.

New Year’s eve, 1994, BoMac’s Lounge, Detroit. Kenn Cox, piano Rod Hicks, bass Teddy Harris, soprano sax Phil Lasley, alto sax. Author’s collection

One of Harris’ finest bands worked at BoMac’s Lounge[15] (“Friendliest place in town,” said their business card) in 1992.  His group included saxophonist Phil Lasley, Roderick Hicks, and drummer Lawrence Williams, with trumpeter Dwight Adams occasionally added to form a classic Bebop quintet. 

That band played at BoMac’s every week, and for six months they were BURNIN’.  A good drummer can push a band to new heights, and Williams did exactly that – some nights it sounded like Elvin Jones was in the house!  Teddy kept his band, and his drummer, on time and in line with his choice chords and right tempos, and his discipline.  Harris’ Passion Dance was a highlight most every night.  Lawrence Williams composed several originals. They were audacious and powerful, and oft requested by Jazz people.

Teddy met the love of his life in the early 1960’s.  Martha Hall was beautiful, classy, vivacious, a model who was married with three young daughters.  The attraction between them was irresistible, and they finally got together and married in the early 1970’s.  “They got married in Las Vegas, while Teddy was touring with the Supremes,” Karla Hall-Harris recalled.  “Mary Wilson gave the reception.”  So, what did Karla think of her Step-father and his occupation?  “I learned so much from Teddy.  I was sixteen years old when they married, and Teddy kept an eye on the young men who wanted to go out with me…he had ways of letting me know who I should date.”  Harris’ feelings for Martha made a deep impression upon Karla.  “I learned how a man is supposed to love a woman from Teddy,” Karla said.  “And I saw how much music meant to Teddy.  It was his life, he was always at the piano, or practicing, or rehearsing.”[16]  Martha was a great partner, publicizing his gigs, encouraging him, helping with details.  They were rarely apart, a Jazz power couple who moved easily around our universe of music.  The bond between them was eternal.

Martha and Teddy, 1990s Photo courtesy Jim Gallert

Martha and Teddy Harris, 1980s

After Martha passed in October, 2000, Teddy lost some of his flair, but his music was always there. Harris had his Tuesday rehearsals and a steady diet of gigs, and his family’s ever-present love and support. He worked until he couldn’t make his gigs, then, when he went into Detroit’s V.A. Hospital, he worked there, too, playing for his fellow patients. He passed on August 15, 2005; two weeks shy of his 70th birthday. His funeral was stately and filled with warmth. The church was overflowing and the music was wonderful. Teddy meant a lot to many folks.

For fifty years Teddy Harris contributed to Detroit’s fertile music community as a musician, teacher, and bandleader.  He worked in jazz clubs and Motown road bands, spreading Detroit’s music message to the world.  His big band was an incubator which allowed younger musicians like Dwight Adams, James Carter, and (the late) Geri Allen to gain valuable experience.  Harris knew that young musicians had to receive an education – and practical experience – for jazz to survive and prosper.

Harris received many awards, including the Arts Midwest Award in 1993, and he recorded and toured with the Michigan Jazz Masters, an elite group (re-named the Michigan Jazz Monsters by Davidson) that ventured to Africa.

Michigan Jazz Masters Wendell Harrison, Donald Walden, Teddy Harris, Marcus Belgrave, George Davidson, Ralph Armstrong, Harold McKinney (seated). Courtesy Clyde Stringer 1995, Detroit

  The 2005 Detroit Jazz Festival was dedicated to Teddy, and it featured a reunion of his beloved New Breed Be Bop Society Orchestra, stocked with many of the musicians who played in it decades ago. 

Teddy and Powerhouse Drummer, Lawrence Williams, BoMac’s Lounge, c1992 Photo courtesy Jim Gallert

Teddy Harris is a good example of a “pure” jazz musician adapting to and working for Motown Records.  Detroit had many such musicians, and they contributed an important ingredient to Motown:  Improvisation.  Jazz guys could always come up with a nifty riff or slick lick that propelled the music over the top and made it fill the performing space with that tingly feeling people love to feel.  Vocalists put the songs over, but Jazz guys like Teddy Harris are the Foundations.


Endnotes Special Thank-you to the late Felton Jones, Ace Trumpeter and dear friend

  • [1] Ellington had a week-long stand at the Paradise on February 11-17, 1944.  This was Duke’s first Midwest tour following his second Carnegie Hall appearance in January; he likely featured parts of “Black, Brown, and Beige” in this concert. 
  • [2] Don Harris, interview by Gallert, July 14, 2013.
  • [3] Hindall Butts, interview by Lars Bjorn, July 29, 1993.  Harris worked in Butts’ Quartet in 1959; when Harris was drafted, his replacement was a young Joe Henderson.
  • [4] John Coltrane didn’t attract much attention until joining Davis in 1955.
  • [5] “Shadrack” was recorded by Rollins for Prestige on December 17, 1951. Felton Jones, conversations, Jim Gallert, December, 2018.
  • [6] Harris was 25 years old in 1959.
  • [7] Boulanger (1887-1979) was a highly regarded pianist and pedagogue.  Her pupils include Donald Byrd.
  • [8] Interview of Ed Love by Jim Gallert, October 25, 2002. Love currently hosts “Destination Jazz” on WDET-FM, Detroit.
  • [9] Discographies show this title recorded in NYC, but it’s possible the Detroit session was a demo disc.  Teddy was adamant that the session took place in Detroit.
  • [10] They appear on Franklin’s “The Great American Songbook” collection on Columbia Records.
  • [11] Hear them on “Keep On Movin’” and “The Paul Butterfield Blues Band Live!” The Jazz Alliance of Michigan organized a Butterfield reunion in 1998 that featured Davidson, Hicks, and Harris, among others. 
  • [12] Olujimi Tafataona, conversation with Jim Gallert, December 11, 2020. Martha Harris named the band.
  • [13]Naima Shamborguer, conversation with Jim Gallert, March 9, 2021. Gene Kee was a fine pianist/arranger/alto horn man.
  • [14] James Carter, quoted in the Detroit Free Press, August 17, 2005.
  • [15] BoMac’s was at 281 Gratiot. It was a wonderful place to absorb wonderful music. Harris switched to soprano sax as his saxophone of choice in the 1960’s; after that he rarely touched his tenor.
  • [16] Karla Hall-Harris, interview Gallert, July 14, 2013.

Teddy Harris on Record, etc.

Here’s a 1989 performance at Dummy George’s, longtime Detroit Jazz club.

9 thoughts on “Teddy Harris: A Jazzman at Motown

  1. My “second Dad”

    There is nothing like a good, strong Intelligent black man that enters into the life of a young black man and changes him forever. Teddy will be forever cherished in the anals of history. Thanks for a lifetime of musical memories!

    Like

  2. Thank you guys for your great piece, and your great work teaching us all about the treasures of Detroit. Irene

    On Fri, Mar 12, 2021 at 12:30 AM Detroit Jazz History wrote:

    > radiorhythm posted: ” By Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert Teddy Harris, Jr. Few > Detroit musicians better illustrate the link between Jazz and Motown music > than Theodore Edward Harris, Jr. (1934-2005). He boxed with Berry Gord” >

    Like

  3. The article was Great. I had the blessing and honor to work with the wonderful Dr Teddy Harris. I sang vocals with His “Detroit Voice’s.”I was honored to play percussion and sing vocals on His “Hastings Street jazz experience” Album the song is“Yes Lord” Teddy would always say. “It’s about the Music”. A Great Man.

    Like

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