Don “Sugarcane” Harris is probably best remembered today by Zappatistas for his scorching electric violin performance on “Directly From My Heart to You,” the Little Richard tune that provides the demanding album Weasels Ripped My Flesh with a welcome note of soul. I like the way Harris sometimes makes his violin sound like a blues harp. I also love his lengthy solo on “Little House I Used to Live In,” the standout track on the outstanding Mothers collection Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Even though he made outstanding contributions to those records, Harris had a lengthy career in his own right and hardly deserves his current obscurity.
Harris started out in music in the mid-1950s as a team with Dewey Terry, and as Don and Dewey the two write such early rock and roll standards as “Leaving It All Up to You,” “Farmer John” and “Justine.” Those recordings often featured the work of drummer Earl Palmer, a fascinating character in his own right, who died this past September after a 60-year career that included sessions with Little Richard, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Jan and Dean and even Tom Waits, who hired Palmer for his Blue Valentine album. But I’m losing the thread here.
Though he was a skilled guitarist as well, Harris made the electric violin his signature instrument following his breakup with Dewey Terry in the 1960s. He was noted for using a wah-wah pedal and other guitar effects in his playing, and he had plenty of session work with white blues-rock and psychedelic outfits. Along with his stint as one of the later iterations of the Mothers of Invention, Harris played with British rocker John Mayall, who featured Harris in his Bluesbreakers. Check out his performance of “Crying” on Mayall’s USA Union disc:
Harris later joined psychedelic guitarist Harvey Mandel in the band Pure Food and Drug Act, an ironic name given that Harris undermined his career and health with drug abuse. As late as the 1980s Harris was still plugging away with an experimental rock group called Tupelo Chain Sex. He died on November 30, 1999.