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Ground-breaking electric violinistCopyright © 2000The Scotsman, 1999
Harris, Don 'Sugarcane'Sugarcane Harris was the first violinist to make a serious impact on rock and blues music, although his improvisational abilities allowed him to bring a jazz-like freedom and power to that music, as well as to fit comfortably into a jazz context.
He devised a simple means of amplifying his violin long before such a thing was commonplace, adapting a cartridge from a record player for the purpose, and developed an exhilarating style and aggressive attack which one of his employers, the British blues singer John Mayall, likened to the power of electric guitar, an instrument which he played.
He was born Donald Bowman Harris into a family of travelling carnival entertainers, and acquired an initial grounding in classical music at school in Los Angeles. He soon turned his attention to pop music, forming firstly a doo-wop group named The Squires and then a duet with pianist Dewey Terry in the early-50s, and recording with John Lee Hooker on his celebrated Folk Blues album in 1959.
He acquired his nickname (an allusion to his prowess as a ladies' man) while working for singer Johnny Otis, and both he and Terry toured in Europe with Little Richard, in a band which also included a very young Jimi Hendrix. Don and Dewey released a string of singles on the Speciality label, and although they never had a major hit in their own right, many of their songs were successfully covered by a diverse spread of other artists, ranging from The Osmonds to Neil Young.
Their music also caught the ear of two major figures who would play a big part in his career. Frank Zappa had been captivated by their song 'Soul Motion' (produced by the late Sonny Bono in the days before his own brief flirtation with pop stardom), and recruited the violinist to add a powerful improvisatory flair to his band in 1969. He contributed to the radical innovations evident on albums like Hot Rats (1969), Burnt Weeny Sandwich (1969) and Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970).
He released his first solo album, Keep On Driving , in 1970, and joined up with John Mayall for the otherwise all-American band featured on USA Union (1970). Mayall had been impressed by Harris's playing on the Don and Dewey single 'Stretchin' Out', and the violinist toured with him for several years, although a damaging drug habit meant that he was not always available when required.
The Mayall connection was also reflected in Harris's association with another member of the pianist's band, guitarist Harvey Mandel, which included the blues-rock outfit Pure Food and Drug Act as well as albums under Mandel's name.
Harris continued to release his own records, including Sugar Cane (1970), which looked back to his early training in a jokey parody of classical music entitled 'Funk and Wagner', and Fiddler On The Rock (1971). In 1973, he teamed up with fellow jazz-rock violinists Jean Luc Ponty and Michael Urbaniak for the album New Violin Summit .
He continued to tour and record regularly, including further work with Zappa, Mayall and John Lee Hooker, and cut an album with jazz violinist Billy Bang, Changing Seasons (1980). He was reunited with Dewey Terry in 1975, an association which continued until last year, when Harris's increasing problems with pulmonary disease forced him to give up playing.
His career declined after the 1970s, partly as a consequence of his personal problems, although he was occasionally heard on record in the 1990s, including an album with Mayall in 1994. Nonetheless, he left a significant legacy in his best work, and broke down many perceived barriers on his instrument.