Friday, March 31, 2006

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.


Blogger MadPriest said...

Thanks for the information. In the U.K. Billy Harner has always been well respected. I would think his most popular, certainly his most famous, track over here would be "What About The Music" on Kama Sutra along with its instrumental version.

3/31/2006 04:21:00 PM  
Anonymous hipster said...

what is the title and label of the harner lp?i live in ne the depleated spot you're talking about the record connection?thanks.

4/03/2006 02:41:00 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Thanks for the post. I never heard anything but "Sally Saying Something" and this is amazing.


4/04/2006 09:36:00 PM  
Blogger Larry Grogan said...

The LP is called 'She's Almost You' and it's on Open/OR records. It was the Record Connection I was speaking of.

4/04/2006 10:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Lynn said...

billy was also a barber in "those days" and cut hair in the shop across the street from where i went to high school in merchantville, nj. it was always exciting when he was in the shop.

4/30/2006 07:40:00 AM  
Blogger sundown said...

I grew up in the Atlantic City area,listening to Billy Harner on WMID-AM 1340.Both "Sally Sayin' Something" and "What About The Music" were national hits.The last single I am aware of was "What About The Children"from 1972 which was also the last time I saw him at "Steel Pier" in Atlantic City, New Jersey

5/30/2006 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger terry alan said...

a Guitar players memories

I played guitar with Billy at the Steel Pier. Great, great memories. Billy was and is a hard working performer. I have learned so much from him. It was lots of fun playing on the same stage with the human perculator

Terry Alan Wade

9/04/2006 09:24:00 PM  
Anonymous tom troncone said...

i just got my hair cut today at Billy's Barber Shop in Westmont, NJ called "Perk's Place"....his nickname was "The Human Percolator" BACK IN HIS "SALLY" DAYS, because he held the mic outlike percolator on a cofee pot and rocked the joint like one when he sang....he's just a great , great guy....humble and family oriented....his shop is a throwback to a far better time...and his cuts and prices are far better than Hair Cuttery....its a blast to go there..AND HE LOVES HIS CUSTOMERS!..on Haddon Ave, in Westmont, NJ....its an experience and a great time. Tom T

10/28/2006 10:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ironic I also get my hair cuts there,but by his daughter Debie.
His shop is an old toll station for horse and carriages going down Haddon Ave. He is a great guy and preforms.
Lou M.

11/07/2006 02:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We, too, are big fans of 'the Perk's'. My husband often goes to Perk's Place for his haircuts--although you have to be careful about getting to conversational about the old hits--the more Billy talks, the shorter the haircut.

He sent me home a new CD not long ago--great stuff.

12/07/2006 08:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I produced a Billy Harner version of Magic Carpet Ride--the track was done in Muscle Shoals. It was never released--want to hear it??

1/18/2007 01:11:00 PM  
Blogger Kain Smith said...

Hey Billy....we had some great times together back in the days of the record hops. Miss ya my friend.

1/27/2007 03:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BH coverin' Steppenwolf?

Hell yeah, let's hear it.

3/13/2007 02:14:00 AM  
Blogger John H said...

I got into my car after a sporting event late last Saturday night and heard a song playing on a talk radio station, which is unusual to start with. So, I listened to it and said to my kids "Hey, that sounds like Billy Harner". I listened longer and became fully convinced it was Billy. Sure enough, the host is soon talking to Billy about a new album. Although it is not up yet, is under construction. And the two songs I heard last week sounded awfully good to me!

What's left of Billy's legacy differs from my fondest memories of his music. I feel that "Sally Sayin' Something" needs to be inextricably associated with Billy, before anything else is said. Sally is absolutely the one song on my life that rocks my world each time I hear it. "Homicide Dresser" is not that far behind in that category.

I recently became similarly enamored with "I Got it from Heaven" which must have preceded the two tunes I mention above.

I'm less fond of "What about the Music", "I Struck It Rich" and "She's Almost You", but, if they keep Billy's name in blogs, it's all good.

You nailed it when you refer to the weaker version of "She's Almost You" on the album. However, I was not fond of the whole LP.

I did realy like "Something You Got" and the Chuck Jackson cover "I Don't Want to Cry".

Let me think ... see if any of these Billy songs have survived:

These are Not My People
What about the Children
Bendin' Over Backwards
I'm So Hurt (one thing I did like from the LP)

6/15/2007 11:07:00 PM  
Blogger JamWel said...

Perk's CD will be released before Thanksgiving Day and will include some new songs as well as a cover of "Unchain My Heart" and "Open The Door To Your Heart". Check out to hear selections from the new CD. The old songs have been recorded again and sound as strong as the originals.

11/11/2007 11:47:00 PM  
Blogger JamWel said...

Perk's new CD is unbelievable...all fillers. Check out
My personal favorite is "Unchain My Heart".

12/29/2007 05:53:00 PM  
Blogger JamWel said...

Billy's new CD is unbelievable...all fillers.
Check out
My personal favorite in "Unchain My Heart".

12/29/2007 05:57:00 PM  
Blogger ddaniel said...

Can anyone tell me if the song 'She's Almost You' contains these lyrics: She walks like you and she talks like you, she wears her clothes and fixes her hair like you and I almost love her, cause she's almost you? I've been looking for this record for many years. Is that the same one by Billy Harner? Please let me know. Thanks.

1/27/2008 04:58:00 PM  
Blogger JamWel said...

Yes ddaniel. It is Billy Harner's
"She's Almost You" and it is on the new CD.

3/17/2008 05:19:00 PM  
Blogger Carol said...

That's the tune alright. I always thought that Billy and Joe Cocker sounded similar - and when he (Billy) does Unchain My Heart - the similarities are uncanny. I'm a former Philly girl who saw Billy perform many times - now a Jersey Shore girl - would love to see him perform at the 60's concert next April in Wildwood!!!!!

7/14/2008 03:15:00 PM  

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