Originally from Texarkana, Texas, he first recorded in Houston, as Peppermint Nelson, in the late 1940s, accompanied by his friend Lightnin' Hopkins. He then made further recordings including "Raining In My Heart" for a record label run by Bob Shad, who allegedly forgot Nelson's name and released them as by Peppermint Harris.
In 1951 he moved to Modern Records in Los Angeles, California, and had his biggest R&B hit with "I Got Loaded", which reached number one on the U.S. Billboard R&B chart in November that year. However, later releases on various small Southern California labels were less successful.