Gibson in New York, c. 1948
|Birth name||Harry Raab|
June 27, 1915|
The Bronx, New York, U.S.
|Died||May 3, 1991
|Occupation(s)||Musician, singer, songwriter|
Gibson played New York style stride piano and boogie woogie while singing in a wild, unrestrained style. His music career began in the late 1920s, when as the young Harry Raab, his birth name, he played stride piano in Dixieland jazz bands in Harlem. He continued to perform there throughout the 1930s, adding the barrelhouse boogie of the time to his repertoire, and was discovered by Fats Waller in 1939 and brought down to mid-town Manhattan, where he made a splash and changed his surname to Gibson. Between 1939 and 1945, he played at various Manhattan jazz clubs on 52nd Street ("Swing Street"), most notably the Three Deuces, run by Irving Alexander, and Leon and Eddies, run by Leon Enkin and Eddie Davis.
In the 1940s, Gibson was known for writing unusual songs, which are considered ahead of their time. He was also known for his unique, wild singing style, his energetic and unorthodox piano styles, and his intricate mixture of hardcore, gutbucket boogie rhythms with ragtime, stride and jazz piano styles. Gibson took the boogie woogie beat of his predecessors, but he made it frantic, similar to the rock and roll music of the 1950s. Examples of his wild style are found in the songs "Riot in Boogie" and "Barrelhouse Boogie". An example of his strange singing style is in the song "The Baby and the Pup." Other songs that Gibson recorded were "Handsome Harry, the Hipster", "I Stay Brown All Year 'Round", "Get Your Juices at the Deuces", and "Stop That Dancin' Up There." Gibson recorded a great deal, but there are very few examples on film. However, in New York in 1944, he filmed three songs for the Soundies film jukeboxes, and he went to Hollywood in 1946 to guest star in the feature-length film musical Junior Prom. Gibson preceded the first white rock and rollers by a decade, but the Soundies he recorded show significant similarities to rock and roll.
While working on "Swing Street" at night, Gibson was a fellow at the Juilliard Graduate School during the day. At the time, Juilliard was strictly a classical music academy; Gibson excelled there, which partly explains the richness of the music he brought to the jazz world. The other part of the explanation is his own inventiveness, and Gibson was almost always billed and promoted as a musical genius.
Unlike Mezz Mezzrow, who was white but consciously abandoned his ethnicity to adopt black music and culture as a "white negro," Gibson grew up near Harlem, New York City. Gibson's constant use of black jive talk was not an affectation; it was simply his uptown New York dialect. His song, "I Stay Brown All Year Round" is based on this. In his autobiography, Gibson claims he coined the term hipster some time between 1939 and 1945, when he was performing on Swing Street, and he started using "Harry the Hipster" as his stage name.
His career went into a tailspin in 1947, when his song "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine" put him on the music industry blacklist. His own drug use led to his decline, and with the rising popularity of young rock-and-roll musicians among teenagers in the 1950s, older musicians were not in demand. He spent time in and around Miami during the 1950s, and just before Christmas 1956 he appeared at the Ball & Chain on the same bill with Billie Holiday. In the 1960s, when Gibson saw the huge success of The Beatles, he decided to switch to rock-and-roll. By the 1970s, he was playing hard rock, blues, bop, novelty songs and a few songs that mixed ragtime with rock-and-roll; and his hipster act became a hippie act. His old records were revived by Dr. Demento, particularly "Benzedrine" which was included in his 1975 compilation album Dr. Demento's Delights.
His comeback resulted in three more albums. Harry the Hipster Digs Christmas, made of new recordings in 1974, is a home recording and is not noteworthy. Two professionally produced albums were released after this: Everybody's Crazy but Me, (its title taken from the lyrics of "Stop That Dancin' Up There"), by Progressive Records in 1986, and Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine released in 1989 by Delmark Records. Those two include some jazz, blues, ragtime, and rock and roll songs about reefer, nude bathing, hippie communes, strip clubs, male chauvinists, "rocking the 88s", and getting hip to Shirley MacLaine.
Gibson may have been the only pianist of the 1930s and 1940s to go on to play in full-scale rocking blues bands in the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike his 1940s contemporaries, most of whom continued to play the same music for decades, Gibson gradually shifted gears between the 1940s and the 1970s, switching from jazz to rock. The only constant elements were his tendency to play hard-rocking boogie woogie, and his tongue-in-cheek references to drug use.
In 1991, shortly before his death, Gibson's family did a biographical movie short on his life and music: Boogie in Blue, published as a VHS video that year.
Suffering from congestive heart failure, Gibson had long before decided that he would end life on his own terms if he ever became chronically ill. He took his own life by putting a handgun to his head on May 3, 1991.
- Boogie Woogie In Blue (1944)
- Harry The Hipster Digs Christmas (1976)
- Everybody's Crazy But Me (1986)
- Rockin' Rhythm (unknown)
- (30 seconds of) "Barrelhouse Boogie"
- (30 seconds of) "Riot In Boogie"
- (30 seconds of) "The Baby and The Pup"
- (1 minute of) "Hipster's Boogie"
- Harry Gibson, Flavin Feller (December 1995). Boogie in Blue (VHS). Rhapsody Films.
- Gibson, Harry (1986). Everybody's Crazy but Me (Liner notes). New York: Progressive Records.
- Yanow, Scott (2003). Jazz on Record: The First Sixty Years. Backbeat Books. p. 277. ISBN 978-0879307554.
- Junior Prom at the Internet Movie Database
- Yanow, Scott (2004). Jazz on Film: The Complete Story of the Musicians and Music Onscreen. Backbeat Books. p. 28. ISBN 978-0879307837.
- Boogie Woogie in Blue (Liner notes). Musicraft Records. 1944.
- Cooper, Kim; Smay, David (2005). Lost in the Grooves: Scram's Capricious Guide to the Music You Missed. Routledge. pp. 98–99. ISBN 0-415-96998-0.
- Lopes, Paul Douglas (2002). The Rise of a Jazz Art World. Cambridge University Press. p. 210. ISBN 978-0521000390.
- Statement by drummer Tom Magee in movie Boogie in Blue
- Gibson, Harry (1944). "Boogie Woogie in Blue". Musicraft Records.
- Wright, Morgan (March 2009). "Harry "The Hipster" Gibson". Blues and Rhythm Magazine (237).