Category Archives: Harlean Harris

Memorabilia musings

At one point you could get the original Pearl Music royalties contract for “You Better Know It” with Jackie Wilson’s signature for a mere $2000 (USD). And for an estimated $100-$200 (USD), you might have snared a photo of Jackie and his “mama,” suitably framed and autographed (please don’t laugh) “Jackie Wilson.”

[Note: These items are no longer listed for sale, so if you want to take a look at them, you had better click the URLs sooner than later, because they may come off the Web at any time.]

Not “Mama!” An advertisement for the photograph contains the following “item description”:

American soul and R&B singer (1934–1984) best known for such hits as ‘To Be Loved’ and ‘Lonely Teardrops.’ After suffering a heart attack while onstage in 1975, Wilson remained in a coma until his death nearly a decade later at the age of 49. Vintage glossy 6.5 x 4.5 photo of Wilson and his mother at Robert’s Show Club in Chicago, matted to a size of 8.75 x 7, signed and inscribed on the mat in blue ballpoint “To Mama! Forever & Always, Your son! Jackie Wilson.” Photo is matted and framed to an overall size of 12 x 10.25. Two staple holes around inscription, another staple hole to bottom of mat, and a spot of damp staining next to signature, otherwise fine condition. Accompanied by the photo’s original folder.

Moms Mabley portraitEven if a son were likely to inscribe a photo to his own mother using his surname, the folks insisting they have authenticated the photo might have noticed that Jackie wrote “To Moms,” not “To Mama.” His handwriting is quite clear. The woman in the photo with Jackie is not Jackie Wilson’s mother, but rather the very well-known x-rated comedienne Moms Mabley (shown without stage costume in the studio portrait to the left). Mabley’s face could be identified by almost any African American over age fifty who still has a pulse, and, of course, the “authenticating” team could have just asked the average Jackie Wilson fan if the woman in their picture could have possibly been Jackie’s mother.

JW w eliza freda cropOne of the few photos of Jackie’s mama (and a major digression by the blogger). Jackie’s mother, Eliza Mae Wilson Lee, is on the left in this photo of Jackie exiting Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. The picture was taken six weeks after Our Hero had been accidentally shot twice in the abdomen while trying to confiscate a handgun wielded by Juanita Jones, a girlfriend who had shown up at Jackie’s front door, intending to threaten, maim, or kill her old chum and rival, Ebony cover girl Harlean Harris, (shown here and here), who was at the time Jackie’s live-in woman for New York City. (See Jackie Wilson Biography). The incident took place as Jackie and Harlean returned to his apartment in the early hours of February 15, 1961.

If Jackie looks a bit tired, remember that he had just lost a kidney, had nearly lost his life, and was still carrying a bullet in his back at the moment the picture was snapped. If he looks a bit apprehensive, it is probably because the woman on the right is Freda Hood Wilson, Jackie’s childhood sweetheart, first and current wife, and mother of four of his children (not pictured because they are in Detroit, where Freda, Mrs. Lee, and the kids normally live). Freda has spent much of the last six weeks in Jackie’s New York City apartment, tearing up compromising photos of Jackie and Harlean together and tossing Harlean’s clothing into the street—at least according to what Freda told Jackie’s biographer, Tony Douglas.

How soon was Jackie performing again? Here he is on The Ed Sullivan show on May 28, 1961, just a little more than fifteen weeks after the Valentine’s Day “Date from Hell”:

The hospital photo was staged to bolster the image of Jackie, the family man, as the American press continued to report Jackie’s progress after the shooting, which had been publicized as an accident that occurred when Jackie heroically attempted to disarm “a deranged fan” who was attempting suicide, presumably due to unrequited love for Jackie.

Hey, it seemed a plausible story to me, reading it as a teenager out in Ohio.

The “You Better Know It” contract. As Jackie Wilson memorabilia goes, this contract, offered at auction by Argosy Old & Rare Books Prints & Maps, is certainly worth more than ten times the suggested price for the Moms Mabley photograph. Although the contract has not been signed by the other listed songwriter (Norm Henry), it does appear to be Jackie’s signature on the document, along with that of Nat Tarnopol. Neither signature is witnessed.

Nat the Rat owned Pearl Music (named, according to various sources, for a Tarnopol aunt). The contract is dated January 26, 1959. “You Better Know It” would be released as a single the following August and make it to #1 on the Rhythm and Blues chart and #37 on the Hot 100.

The “You Better Know It” video clips. The film clip at the top of this post is from “Go Johnny Go,” the last of the Alan Freed teen flicks to be released before he became the target of the payola scandal that should have hit Morris Levy instead. The film was supposedly going to include a clip of Jackie singing “Lonely Teardrops” as well, and no one seems to know if it was ever even shot. It certainly did not appear in the movie. Jackie looks great in the film, beautifully coiffed and elegantly dressed.

Why is Jackie performing in front of a coffee cup graphic? At the time, it was important to keep this sort of film free of references to alcohol, so Jackie had to be performing in a coffee house, not a night club. I call this video the “the coffee cup (CC) version.” There is another video of this song, however, that has puzzled me for a long time. It is highly unlikely that this other video was shot for the movie.

In the no-coffee-cup (NCC) version, we see a younger-looking  Jackie, almost baby-faced, with jet-black eyebrows and a less sophisticated hairstyle, looking much more like the Jackie Wilson in publicity shots for Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Jackie is nicely dressed here, but the style of the jacket is not close to the refined tailoring we see on the suit from the coffee-cup version. And his bow tie, of course, is actually a clip-on, something fans are not going to see anywhere else on the suave Mr. Wilson. In fact, it seems unlikely that Jackie would commit such a fashion faux pas once he had had a hit record and invested in a first-rate stage wardrobe.

The dance steps are virtually the same and the vocal is the same, albeit a bit shorter on the CC version, however, the NCC version (the video of the younger Jackie) is more engaging. There are no cuts to a faked audience, and this clip features close-ups of Jackie’s dancing feet and dimpled cheek. His eyebrows are coal black and rounded. It builds up to a wonderful few seconds focused on Jackie’s boyish-looking features, catching a series of winks and smiles as he tells his lady friend, “You can love me, come on. You can hug me, come on. You can squeeze me, come on. Just come on . . . Love me, honey. Love me long. Love me right. Love me strong . . .”

NRRArchives has posted a clear copy of the video on YouTube:

Back to the songwriting contract. Given the date on the royalties contract that was offered at auction, the NCC video becomes more intriguing than ever.

Below are some screen grabs of Jackie performing (lip synching) “Lonely Teardrops” on Dick Clark’s Beechnut Show on March 21, 1959, three months after the contract and five months before the release of “You Better Know It.” (A memorable weekend for me: I had just turned twelve the day before, and I was already in love with Jackie Wilson from listening to the Top Forty every night on my bedside radio.):

JW Beechnut 032159 1JW Beechnut 032159JW Beechnut 032189 2Notice that Jackie looks older and is much better dressed than in the NCC “You Better Know It” video. The hair looks professionally groomed, and his stage makeup is more sophisticated: the ultra-dark eyebrows have been scaled back and arched slightly, possibly even plucked.

The front page of the songwriters’ agreement with the publisher shows the Detroit address crossed out, with no substitution. The Detroit address is intact on the inside page, where the contract itself appears. I believe Pearl Music was housed in the Brill Building after the move to New York (someone correct me, please, if I am wrong.), but I don’t know at what date this occurred.

By January 1959, Nat and Jackie were already established in New York City. “Lonely Teardrops” was already a major hit. Taking the artifacts all together, the evidence is strong that the NCC video of “You Better Know It” existed before this contract with the song’s writers, one of whom, Norm Henry, never signed the contract. Given Tarnopol’s business practices, that writer may never have existed anyway. I’d bet the “Norm Henry” half of the paltry royalties due the songwriters went back to Nat’s pocket along with the publisher’s royalty. (Given that the publisher did so much better than the actual songwriters, I have never understood why Nat and others of that era were so reluctant to allow those songwriters have their names on the recordings and collect their legal shares, which were less than those of the artist, who also bore all the expenses. But I digress . . .)

The mystery about the video remains. NRRArchives describes the NCC video as a product of Brunswick Records’ promotional work and dates it in 1959. This writer just does not buy that. I cannot picture Nat the Rat spending the few bucks it would cost to make the video at the point when it was clear that a performance of the song would be shot for “Go Johnny Go.” If Nat were funding a video in 1959, surely it would be of “Lonely Teardrops”?

My personal guess is that this NCC version of “You Better Know It” was put together by Al Green in Detroit in 1957, when Jackie had returned to his hometown to put together a solo career. Green, who already managed rhythm and blues queen LaVern Baker, employed Jackie to sing in his Detroit clubs and became Jackie’s manager at the time. I think the video clip may have been made to use in the process of selling a record company on the stage presence of Green’s client.

The other possibility is that Nat Tarnopol did make the video, but made it in 1958, before he and Jackie relocated to NYC. But why he would have made it is hard to imagine.

At any rate, I have to believe that the NCC video, and therefore the recording, of “You Better Know It” predates the songwriting contract. The song was to be the first non-Berry Gordy single, and Nat may have thought or at least hoped it would be a major hit. If he didn’t actually own the publishing rights for the song, a video of Jackie lip-synching it might have been problematic. Perhaps that is why Brunswick insisted that both film clips are from 1959.

If anyone reading this has reached other conclusions, I would love to hear from you, because this has been puzzling me for a long time.

Jackie Wilson’s death (2): Harlean Harris

Background note: If you want to see photos of Harlean Harris, check here, here and here. There are a number of photos of other young Black models that are at times labeled as Harlean. The stepladder photos and the Jet cover are really her, as she looked a few years after Jackie first met her, when he was eighteen and she was probably sixteen. Harlean’s age is a mystery in itself: note that the stepladder photos are from the same photo session, but Harlean is a different age in the two photos. Jackie had just joined The Dominoes when they met, and Harlean, whom Jackie called “Harris,” was one of the co-presidents of the Billy Ward and His Dominoes Fan Club . . . along with Juanita Jones, who years later shot Jackie twice in the abdomen as he tried to wrest a gun from her hands.

Juanita was not aiming for Jackie. Her intended target was Harlean.

The shooting took place in 1961, outside Jackie’s New York City apartment, where he was bringing Harlean home in the wee hours after what turned out to be the “Valentine’s Day Date From Hell.” Police reports, by the way, listed Juanita as twenty-eight. It’s not unlikely that Harlean was closer to that age than the twenty-three or twenty-four she claimed to be at that time.

Jackie’s estate. When Jackie Wilson collapsed, he was deeply in debt to Brunswick, his record label, for “recoupments” on the many hit recordings he made for them. (Check here for an introduction to how recording contracts work for contemporary artists—and remember that things were much worse from the artist’s standpoint in Jackie’s day.) Jackie also owed a staggering sum in back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service.

Why would anyone fight for control of such an estate, an estate that consisted of no valuables, no bank accounts, no known assets whatever? At the time of his death, there was no reason to assume that much money would come from the piddling royalties that would be owed to the estate on any future sales of Jackie’s recordings, given that Tarnopol claimed Jackie owed Brunswick so much money.

The most obvious reason to fight for control of the estate was, of course, to control access to information about the status and history of Jackie Wilson’s financial affairs.

Jackie’s domestic life. At the time of his collapse in late 1975, Jackie considered Lynn Crochet his wife. According to his major biographer, Tony Douglas, Jackie lived with Lynn in Detroit and ultimately in Georgia, where the couple had purchased land to build a kennel so that dog-loving Jackie could enjoy his retirement from show business as a small businessman, breeding Malenois.

Jackie Wilson singing a duet with Shirley Ellis
Jackie Wilson singing a duet with Shirley Ellis

It is noteworthy that Jackie was looking into retirement at age forty-one. Jackie and Lynn had two small children, one born in 1972 and another born in 1975, less than two months prior to Jackie’s collapse.

On the other hand, Jackie and Harlean Harris had been separated at least seven years at the time of his collapse, and they were neither friends nor even friendly throughout those years.

Jackie’s relationship with Harlean Harris had ended acrimoniously after little more than a year of their marriage, which had taken place in 1967. Jackie had left their apartment for good upon finding evidence that convinced him that Harlean was conducting an affair with his manager, Nat Tarnopol, and he never saw Harlean or their son (born in 1964) again after the breakup.

Although a financial agreement had been established by a court (allowing Harris to have Jackie arrested for non-payment of support any time he entered New York City), the final divorce degree was never granted, providing the legal loophole employed to establish Harlean Harris as Jackie’s wife and widow.

In such circumstances, no contemporary American court would recognize Harlean Harris as Jackie’s wife, putting Jackie’s physical well being in the control of an adversary. Why did it
happen back then?

To some degree, race could have been part of the decision-making process or at least a justification for the decision. Historically, it was a time when there were public debates about whether white couples should be permitted to adopt black children, and many Blacks were angered by celebrities of their own race dating or marrying whites. Indeed, many Blacks were angered when any of their race even dated whites. Harlean Harris was black. Lynn Crochet was white.

If there were no assets, what would Harlean Harris achieve by being declared Jackie’s wife? Any child support or alimony owed her would still be owed to her as an ex-wife, so what was her interest in being legally named Jackie’s wife?

One answer would be vanity, grabbing a last chance at the spotlight. Harris had once been a model, a stunningly beautiful young woman. However, by the time of Jackie’s collapse, Harlean Harris’s once-spectacular looks were deteriorating. In a photo taken of her with a celebrity helping to raise money for Jackie’s medical bills, she appears plump and unhealthy. Photos taken at Jackie’s funeral show Harlean fat, frumpy, and looking far older than the number of years she claimed to be.

Another possibility would be that Harlean Harris was thrust into a role she didn’t choose for herself. Perhaps she was made an offer that she could not refuse.

Harris could not afford the legal battles she undertook, so she must have had financial backers. Maybe her family helped out there—a wealthy aunt, or a generous sister . . . or possibly even a solicitous godfather?

Part Three of this series will address Brunswick and Jackie’s notorious manager, Nat Tarnopol.