James Samuel Harris Sr. loves to play the blues. Born in Chicago in 1927, Harris moved to St. Paul, Minnesota as a teenager and lived with his grandparents who introduced him to music.
“My grandparents decided I should have some culture and music was the culture they thought I should have,” he says.
Harris says country western music was an early influence - Hank Williams Sr. and Gene Autry were among his favorites. Harris says Catholic nuns first taught him to play the piano.
“If you hit the wrong note, the nuns would hit you with a ruler. I said, ‘Oh, no, I don’t need that,’ so I started skipping lessons. I started then playing by listening to music, and I gradually learned how to read a little music and then I taught myself how to blend the two things in order to get a song to go out of me.”
The first time Harris says he saw his name in lights was at a performance in White Bear, Minnesota. Harris says people enjoyed his playing so much that he soon started having jam sessions at a local cafe. He says the sessions helped him learn new tunes and his repertoire got bigger and bigger.
“It was all about playing the blues. Then, after playing with other musicians, I decided to add some jazz as well to my performances,” says Harris.
Harris has a son who is also a musician. James Harris III, better known as R&B producer Jimmy Jam, has produced records for Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey and Usher. Harris says he vividly recalls the time he and his son played together.
“I played at the American Legion hall over on Broadway and St. Paul. He played drums and I played the piano and the last song we played together, I remember, was ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,’ and then he ended up being taken out on the road by Prince.”
Harris also plays the congas, bongo and guitar. After recording his signature song ‘Cornbread,’ he acquired his nickname.
“The song Cornbread got kind of popular. At shows, people would say, ‘Cornbread, could you play your song?’ And so, I started to be called Cornbread,” says Harris.
Harris has been a part of Minnesota music history. He played on “Hi-Yo Silver” by Augie Garcia, said to be Minnesota’s first rock and roll record. Harris was inducted into Minnesota’s Blues Hall of Fame in 2012.
At the age of 91, Harris still is active in Minnesota’s local music scene. He says he is committed to sharing the blues with everyone.
“No matter what I play, I end up getting more than I gave. If you want to be blessed, be a giver,” says Harris. “So, it's a joy to be able to do it and I enjoy doing it.”