Billy Harner - I Struck It Rich
Wheeee! It’s Friday, it’s getting warmer outside, and I’m just about done with this godforsaken week. I mean, really. Some weeks fly by without a hitch and before you know it the weekend is upon you and all is well with the world. Not this week. The days have seemed painfully slow, and the nights strangely short. What up with that? And then, just when I was hoping that things couldn’t get any worse, I realize that daylight savings time begins this weekend, which means we lose an hour of sleep. AAARRRRGGHHHH!!! This of course means that I’m not going to sleep right for at least a week. “Spring forward” my ass..... Anyway, that optimistic forecast out of the way, it’s time for today’s selection. Unless you’re a habitué of the Northern Soul scene, or a soul music collector, (or a long-time resident of Philadelphia), the name Billy Harner may not ring a bell. If memory serves, the first time I heard any of Harner’s music was on the turntable at one of my old, favorite (and now sadly depleted) record spots, way out in rural Pennsylvania. I was picking through one of the hundred or so boxes in the room and pulled out a 45 with a tune on it called ‘Homicide Dresser’. “This looks intriguing”, I thought. So I put it in my “to be auditioned” stack and kept digging. Later that afternoon, when I was either too tired (or too poor) to continue, I settled down at the store’s turntable and started checking out the records. As was the case, a good 80% of the “blind” picks - i.e. records that were previously unknown to me but that had interesting sounding group/label names, or song titles – were duds. However, the remaining 20% were/are often better than I expected. Thus was the case with this Billy Harner record. It was a tough soul mover with an excellent vocal and arrangement. It wasn’t until I got home and started doing some research that I found out that Billy Harner was not only Philly-based, but was also a white guy. The surprise I felt at finding out the latter says a lot about the soulfulness of his voice. In the years since, Harner’s records have become favorites of mine, and I’ve tracked down a bunch of them, including his rare late-60’s LP. Harner started making records in 1964 as part of Billy Harner & The Expressions on the Lawn label. That year he would also record solo 45s for both Lawn and Cameo/Parkway. By the mid-60’s he was making records for Kama Sutra, including the aforementioned ‘Homicide Dresser’ and 1967’s ‘Sally Saying Something’ which charted in Philadelphia and several regional markets including New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans (I believe it was also issued overseas, possibly more than once). By the late 60’s he was recording for the local Philadelphia label Open/OR records, also home to the Persianettes. It was for Open that he would record a number of 45s and an LP. It’s important to note that at least one of his Open 45s – Honky Dory – was picked up for wider distribution by the Kent label, and he also managed to have a track (‘A Message To My Baby’) appear on an 1969 Arctic Records compilation ‘Donnie Brooks (Soul Finger) Presents 20 Great Oldies Various Artists’ (which included both Arctic and non-Arctic performers like Steve Mancha, Darrow Fletcher and Jamo Thomas). The LP he recorded for Open/OR, ‘She’s Almost You’ is composed largely of tracks that were also released on 45, and is quite good. The title track was a hit all over Canada (?!?) and in several US markets in 1969. Today’s selection ‘I Struck It Rich’, a Gamble/Huff composition was first recorded by Len Barry (speaking of Philly “blue eyed” soul) in 1966. While I dig his recording, Harner’s reading of the tune is far superior. The arrangement is tight and Harner’s vocal is outstanding. Sporting a tough four-on-the-floor beat, bright horns and snapping drums the record is understandable popular with the Northern Soulies. It’s one of my favorite Philly soul singles, not only for ‘I Struck It Rich’ but for the smoking cover of Bobby Parker’s ‘Watch Your Step’ on the flip side. Interestingly enough, though the label states that ‘I Struck It Rich’ is from the LP “She’s Almost You’, the version of the track on that LP is quite different, sounding as if it had been tinkered with after the fact. The mix is different, and someone has added incongruous tack piano in the chorus. That said, the rest of the album is excellent, and if you’re ever lucky enough to track down a copy, I recommend it highly. As far as I know, after he parted with Open Records, he only ever released one more 45, on the obscure 66+6 label, a funky cover of Chris Kenner’s ‘Something You Got’. Once you’ve heard the best of Harner’s 1960’s recordings, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that he should have become much better known. In my opinion he ought to rank with the best white soul singers of the era, including Mitch Ryder, Skip Easterling, Billy Vera, and Felix Cavaliere. Another piece of trivia, UK mod-revivalists the Prisoners apparently liked this record so much, they “borrowed” the tune from the chorus for their own ‘Thinking of You (Broken Pieces)’ in 1985. Aside from tracks here and there on soul comps, there is no comprehensive survey of Billy Harner’s work in print. Most of his 45s are findable at reasonable prices (most for less tan $25), especially if you live in the Philadelphia area. These days, Harner works as a barber in Camden, NJ (right across the river from Philly) and still performs on the oldies circuit.