One has to marvel at the musical magic that arose from the hallowed halls of Warren Easton High School. In the early ‘50s New Orleans most notorious alma mater hatched the city’s first bona-fide white rock ‘n’ roll band the Sparks; by the end of the decade blue-eyed R&B legend Roland Stone had emerged from its ranks. And in between there was Joyce Harris, whose scalding blues-drenched pipes were second only to her glamorous pin-up sex appeal.
Born in Bowling Green Kentucky in 1939, Joyce and her sister Judy moved to New Orleans with their family and, like so many of the city’s budding rock ‘n’ rollers, were soon recording at Cosimo Matassa’s studio. Their first three singles, for Dot, Decca and Seville respectively, were waxed as Judy and Joyce and yielded the standout rockers “He’s the One,” “Hey, Pretty Baby” and “Rock and Roll Kittens.” In 1959 Joyce struck out on her own, continuing the pandemonium with “It’s You” and the flirtatious “The Boy In School.”
By 1960, she was singing in Austin, Texas, where she hooked up with the recently-revived Domino label, teaming with local doo-wop group the Slades for “I Cheated,” an answer song to their original “You Cheated, You Lied,” which had been buried by the Shields’ L.A. cover version. Next, she was paired with black rock ‘n’ roll combo the Daylighters, and the coupling was sheer sonic abandon. The cult classic “No Way Out” has baffled fans for years: is it rockabilly? Soul? Proto garage rhythm and blues? It would be safe to assume that with an artist as unique as Miss Harris, all of the above and quite a bit more. Her rendition of “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” challenges both Ann Cole’s original and Muddy Waters’ well-worn standard, utilizing the patented Harris recipe of throwing it all into the mix to come up with something unlike quite anything you’ve ever heard before.
Relocating to Los Angeles in 1962, Joyce signed with Serock Records and laid down her most over-the-top, down-in-the alley blues rocker yet. Opening with a wailing harmonica that yields to a whammy-bar-obsessed lead guitar, the attitudinal “Don’t Knock It” was released, fittingly, under the name Sinner Strong. The nome-de-plume was a little more innocent than most revisionist history would dare let on. Joyce’s intention was to call herself Cina, but the company misunderstood the rarely heard French name and one of the great mysteries of rock ‘n’ roll came to life. Returning to New Orleans to cut the soulful “Baby, Baby, Baby” b/w “How Long (Can I Hold Back My Tears)” for Eddie Bo’s Fun label in 1964, Joyce began frequenting the Mask Lounge at the Mardi Gras Lanes, where she activated her penchant for creative stage names yet again by christening he house band — and Gentilly Woods garage greats-to-be — with the unforgettable moniker Dr. Spec’s Optical Illusion.
As is often the case, one endlessly deep musical genre often leads to another and Joyce’s current musical activities include playing mandolin and guitar in a bluegrass gospel group. In what is certainly one of the most anticipated performances at the 2010 Ponderosa Stomp, Joyce returns to the rock ‘n’ roll stage for the first time in decades on Friday night with old running partner Earl Stanley and Michael Hurtt and his Haunted Hearts.
Joyce Harris, No Way Out
Images courtesy of COLOR RADIO AND R+B, DOO WOP, ROCK+ROLL web site. There is also a Joyce Harris interview on the home page.