15th July 2021
One of the early articles I wrote was about the narcotics inspired songs of the 30s and 40s. In it I featured a song called ‘Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs Murphy’s Ovaltine?’ I had all but forgotten about the song and its performer Harry ‘The Hipster’ Gibson until his name (and that of the song) came up in the Punk poet, John Cooper Clarke’s autobiography, I Wanna Be Yours (highly recommended). I decided to do some prying and unearthed some facts about ‘The Hipster’ that may change your views on the origins of Rock n Roll.
Harry Raab (or Harry ‘The Hipster’) was rocking and rolling a decade before Elvis. He was a genius at the piano, master of boogie-woogie, Dixieland, bop, blues, classical, ragtime, stride, Bach, and styles of his own. He composed songs that got his records banned from radio stations…drugs, adultery, drinking, murder, and frantic freaks, they were all included. What a man!
After having seen the available footage of Harry’s performances there is no doubt the man was quite a character. Born in 1915 in the Bronx, the hyperactive boy learned to play piano thanks to his grandmother who would let him loose on her piano to try and calm him down and get him out of his father’s hair. He was obviously gifted and started his professional career aged fifteen by playing stride piano style in Dixieland jazz bands around Harlem. He picked up the popular barrelhouse boogie piano style which became a main part of his latter repertoire.
Harry Raab was fond of covering Fats Waller tunes. When word went out that there was a white Jewish kid playing Fats Waller songs around Harlem, the man himself sought him out. He sat in the audience requesting his own songs and tipping $5 each time. This led to Harry being hired by Fats Waller as his relief pianist opening the door for the young pianist to develop his name. During the years of WWII he played the Manhattan Jazz clubs on Swing Street (52nd Street New York) along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Holliday, Art Tatum, and all the rest of the pioneers of bebop who congregated there
Harry Raab had taken on the stage name Harry ‘The Hipster’ Gibson (taken from the Gibson brand of gin) and was well-known for his wild singing style, risqué and (as we’ll see) frowned upon songs. But it was his unorthodox piano playing that built his loyal fan base. He fused boogie rhythms, ragtime, stride and jazz styles into a frantic beat that can only be considered the forerunner of the Rock and Roll of the 1950’s, as you’ll see in the first clip.
Although there are a lot of audio recordings of ‘The Hipster’ there were very few filmed moments. Luckily he filmed three songs for the ‘Soundies’ film jukeboxes in 1944. This is ‘Piano Boogie Jump’ and here (apart from some pretty naff dancing) you’ll see where acts like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard got their inspiration. Playing while crouching on the piano stool? Scandalous!
Although a self-admitted hyperactive child, Harry Gibson was an extremely disciplined musician. In the years that he played Swing Street he also attended the Juilliard Graduate School which, at the time, was strictly a classical music institution. Although he excelled, he left to concentrate on his own compositions.
Where some musicians tried to copy the Harlem jive talk, Harry was the real deal. Having grown up around Harlem he naturally picked up the lingo and used it easily and honestly. His song ‘Stay Brown All Year Round’ is based on this topic.
When he coined his stage name the term ‘hep’ and ‘hep cat’ were popular, so popular in fact that even ‘squares’ were using the term. Some started using the word ‘hip’ instead and this sparked ‘The Hipster’ name. He started addressing his audience that way “Gather round, all you hipsters” ensured the name stuck, especially after he wrote the song “Handsome Harry, The Hipster,” in 1944.
Now to the story of Mrs Murphy and her Ovaltine addiction. Harry recorded and released ‘Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?’ in January 1946. The shockwaves saw radio stations across America refused to play it and resulting to him being blacklisted in the music industry. Shortly after the song’s release his debut mainstream movie appearance in Junior Prom with Mae West was screened. Although it was popular, it couldn’t overcome the notoriety of the “Benzedrine” record.
By the early 50s the rise of a young breed of Rock and Roll musicians saw many of the older musicians fading into obscurity. Harry ‘The Hipster’ Gibson had also developed a drug habit which led to a further decline in his career. It might have been the end, but, as you’ll see, you can’t keep a good genius down.
Harry seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth for a while. He spent time in jail for drug possession in the late 40s and spent some time driving a cab. The success of the Beatles in the 60s saw him switch his style to Rock and Roll and he made a surprising comeback in the late 1970s and 80s.
This was a different man from the Zoot-suited, animated faced man we saw in the first clip. The Hipster was now a white haired eccentric leading the rock and roll band ‘The Rock Boogie Blues Jammers’ made up of members 40 – 50 years younger than he. Three albums were released in the 80s. One is an obligatory Christmas album and two that have a mix of jazz, blues, ragtime and rock and roll and some typically Harry Gibson songs about reefer smoking, nude bathing, hippie communes, strip clubs and male chauvinists amongst others.
A lovely example of his style of novelty songs was recorded in 1979. ’I wanna go back to my little grass shack’ tells about a little grass shack in Hawaii made of Maui-Wowie, that can be smoked as needed, replanted from the seeds, and rebuilt from the stems and leaves.
Unlike his 1940’s contemporaries who continued to play the same music for decades, Harry changed to fit the times. He may be the only jazz pianist of the 1930s and 1940s to go on to play in rock bands in the 1970s and 1980s. What remained constant was his tendency to play hard-rocking boogie-woogie and his tongue-in-cheek references to drug use.
I am happy to have come across a short documentary that Harry Gibson’s family compiled in VHS format shortly before he died. Sadly, he suffered from congestive heart failure and wanting to avoid further health complications, died from self-inflicted gunshot on May 3, 1991, he was 75 years old.
I have included a link to the documentary. It is a fascinating glimpse into a man that deserves a lot more recognition than he has. I’m finishing with another of his early hits, ‘4-F Ferdinand’. This was another song that caused a stir when in the midst of WWII he released this tune in praise of a guy who won’t be drafted!
Hyzercreek.com describes Harry’s style perfectly : ‘Far from being a primitive version of rock and roll piano, Harry’s music came out of the slick jazz world, and his musicianship was superior to the clumsy piano smashing of Jerry Lee Lewis or others in the 50’s, but he rocks just as hard if not harder. His high level of musicianship shows that his teachers were the greats such as Fats Waller and many of the other top Harlem pianists. This is really amazing stuff!’
Thank you for taking the time to find out about a fascinating character. After having watched the documentary I feel that I would have got along with him well. Catch you soon.
Here is the link to the documentary ‘Boogie in Blue’
The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by me to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that does more than just share a song.
The Author owns no copyright on the images or videos in this article. All images and links sourced from YouTube and Google and within the public domain.
Words © Andrew Knapp 2021