By Marie Lingblom ©
|“Blues is like kudzu,” Holly
Harris says, motioning her hands zealously to mimic the fast-growing vine
one recent Sunday evening just before taking her familiar place in the
WBOS studio. “It grows all the time.”
That building block quality, says Harris, separates blues from other genres of music that tend to trail after the next big thing. It also fits her personality well because, as Harris says with a kind of bashful smile, she’s not particularly good at getting rid of things.
That’s lucky for Boston blues fans who tune into 92.9 WBOS each Sunday from 9 ‘till midnight to hear Harris spin out songs from what must be one of the finest collections of blues music anywhere. Harris, goddess, gatekeeper and supporter of everything blues in Boston for nearly three decades, this year is marking 10 years as host of WBOS’ Blues on Sunday.
Adam Klein, marketing director for Greater Boston Radio’s WBOS, says Harris’ incredible, in-depth knowledge of blues music and a unique tapestry of blues styles she programs herself has become part of the fabric of the WBOS family.
“Holly has earned a lot of respect, not only in the blues community, but in radio listeners who are fans. They know the music because she’s introduced it to them,” said Klein. “She’s an institution.”
Reached at his Los Angeles area home, legendary blues musician Guitar Shorty, aka David Kearney, doesn’t hesitate in expressing his affection and appreciation for Harris’ support and friendship.
The two met, says Shorty, long after Harris’ first began playing his fierce trademark blues guitar, featured on stage over the years with the likes of such blues greats as Ray Charles, Guitar Slim, T-Bone Walker, and Big Joe Turner.
When the two finally did meet, he says, the warmth was immediate. “I just love her. She’s a sweetheart,” says Shorty, whose fiery guitar style and playful energy on stage inspired rock guitar legend, Jimi Hendrix, Shorty’s brother-in-law and friend until his untimely death in 1970.
Shorty says it’s impossible to express adequately the tremendous effect support from DJs like Harris have had in the world of American roots music whose musicians have notoriously been underpaid, and underappreciated.
“I wish all the DJs in the country was like her, I really do,” says Guitar Shorty. “It would be a better world for musicians, especially blues musicians trying to make it.”
Harris is quick; however, to shift all the credit back to the musicians and music she loves, and truly seems content with her supporting role in the world of blues.
“It’s really to celebrate the blues. I’m not the musician, they’re the musicians,” says Harris. “But I have access to the airwaves, and if I can get more people to hear, that makes me happy. It really does.”
It’s fitting that a live musical celebration featuring some big Boston names at Johnny D’s in Somerville on October 18 will not only officially mark Harris’ decade with WBOS, but also pay tribute to a woman who has for many more years been one of the Boston blues scenes most staunch and enthusiastic supporters.
Harris, who made Boston her home in the early 1970s, has also played host to other popular blues radio shows including 10 years on WMFO 91.5 “Morning After Blues,” and a brief stint with the Sunday night blues program at WCGY 93.7.
One of Harris’ radio trademarks is found in her identifying the artist she’s playing after the song is finished, so listeners who dig what they’re hearing don’t miss the artists’ names. She’s usually got several cases with her in the studio, each with its own special purpose, from new local blues music to important notes about the musicians she features each Sunday.
There are also lots of photos, such as Harris with blues legends such as Weepin’ Willie at the House of Blues, or with Matt “Guitar” Murphy at Harper’s Ferry, and B.B. King, the reason Harris says she got into blues in the first place.
On air there are blues birthday celebrations, plenty of ticket giveaways and a new CD spotlight at 10:30 p.m. “She pulls out all the right stuff at the right time,” says Sarah Sherrow, an inter/assistant producer with Harris since 1995, just before picking up the listener line to take a request.
Off the air, Harris is also co-founder of the Boston Blues Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the blues. When asked about the local blues scene Harris enthusiastically points out a wealth of untapped talent in Boston.
“And we have some really powerful female vocalists here,” says Harris, noting Toni Lynn Washington, Shirley Lewis, and Nicole Nelson, but emphasizing there are too many to single out everyone.
Harris says she can’t pick a favorite musician but describes a ‘beautiful energy’ when she talks about people like musical greats such as Etta James, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, and Louis Armstrong. She also notes she’s a fan of everything from blues to do wop, to country and reggae.
“The blues,” says Harris, “is music that will never die because it’s about love and feelings and people. It’s really a blessing.”
It’s a safe bet that Harris will pop up at any time, anywhere there’s blues in Boston. She’s played host to the Harper’s Ferry annual blues challenge since its inception in 1986, and hosts any number of events such as the Boston Music Awards, Boston Harbor Blues Cruises, and regularly introduces legends such as Etta James at venues including the FleetBoston Pavilion.
In 2000, the Boston Blues Society she co-founded paid tribute by awarding Harris’ the Stage Person on the Year at the annual City of Presidents Blues Festival in Quincy.
Mark Ryder, friend and former president of the Boston Blues Society, says unlike a lot of other radio personalities, Harris is multi-dimensional and clearly finds joy in sharing the music and her knowledge with others, in and out of the studio.
“What she does is truly from her heart. I mean, she does a lot of this stuff pro bono,” says Ryder. “This really is the kind of person you want to gravitate toward; she’s someone willing to give you such good and honest information she’s acquired over the years. She’s really wonderful.”
Harris has been singled out with a number of other notable awards including the W.C. Handy ‘Keepin’ the Blues Alive’ (1995) award and recently the first ever Mai Cramer Award for Excellence in Blues Radio from the New England Blues Society.
“Oh, God, I really miss her,” Harris says of Cramer, host of WGBH 98.7’s Blues After Hours show for nearly 24 years before losing a battle with cancer in February 2002. “We talked nearly every day, and we didn’t just talk about the blues.”
The two Boston blues radio legends fatefully first met serving jury duty of all places, and wound up the closest of friends. The two women shared not only a love for music, particularly blues music, but also spent many birthdays together. Cramer was godmother to Harris’ daughter, Brianna.
“She was so good to me,” says Harris, who often filled in as host of Cramer’s show. “She was probably one of the most brilliant human beings I’ve ever met.”
It’s truly easy to find any number of examples of how Harris, like Cramer did for her, serves as a revered friend and mentor to fellow music lovers, blues musicians and industry professionals.
Jim Carty, one of Harris’ first associate producers in the early 90s, says he and Harris serendipitously kept running into each other at blues shows for a couple of years when she encouraged him to join her in the studio.
“We always used to say if we could put what we say while the music was on the air maybe we’d have a better show,” jokes Carty, who credits Harris with helping him land his own radio blues show on WMFO.
Carty says his relationship with Harris has only blossomed over time and the cosmic connections, such as having children born on the same day, continue to grow and envelope the most significant friendships in his life.
“A lot of the things about being accepting and showing your love for fellow man through the music community or any other way possible – Holly has taught me those things,” says Carty. “It’s been just about the best relationship in my entire life.”
Harris herself comes from extraordinary musical roots. Her grandfather played trumpet for Al Jolsen and toured with the original production of Oklahoma! and his brother played with Glenn Miller. Harris’ father, now in his 80s, still plays trumpet and piano. Harris’ mother was an entrepreneur and one of the first executive directors of the New York State Council for the Arts.
“Both of my parents really encouraged me,” says Harris, who also plays her own music as a hobby and dances every chance she gets.
In keeping with her role as mentor, Harris also works as a social worker for middle school students. Besides, a life dedicated to blues music isn’t exactly known for paying the bills. Being a single mom to her daughter, Brianna, however, is perhaps Harris’ biggest challenge, she says. “But I love it,” says Harris. “She’s got a really strong will.”
Those who know her well say the same of Harris. Deborah Miller, a Boston-area artist working to put together a collection of female blues artists’ portraits, says like everyone else who meets Harris; she’s charmed by her humility, passion, warmth, and generosity.
Miller says she particularly admires Harris’ quality of being true to herself, true to blues music and working so hard to keep the blues alive. Blues, like other art forms, says Harris, just isn’t going to happen without that kind of support.
“I mean, when people like B.B. King want to stop
and talk to her, and ask her how her daughter is doing…,”
says Miller. “There’s such kindness there and it’s
really there, and in the blues community, they know when you are BSing
and when you’re not.”