Born: February 21, 1969 Primary Instrument: Guitar
Corey Harris's life and music embrace the black experience in all its dimensions. He burst onto the scene in 1995 with his debut recording “Between Midnight and Day,” an acclaimed exploration of acoustic, rural blues styles. At the time, few really grasped the scope and range of Harris's musical persona. He had solid blues credentials. After street-busking and taking small gigs wherever he could drive to from his home outside New Orleans, it quickly became clear that pigeonholing Harris as a blues musician was never going to work.
A native of Denver, Colorado, Corey Harris fell in love with music at an early age, and made his own music with a toy guitar he received at the age of three. Now 31 years old, Corey grew up watching his favorite music television shows - including Hee Haw and Soul Train - and listening to all the popular music of the day. But when his mother turned him on to a real guitar and the blues of Lightnin' Hopkins, Corey - just 12 years old - found his true musical calling. He learned to sing and play by ear, listening to his favorite albums over and over again until he knew all the parts. He sang in church groups, played trumpet and then tuba in his junior high school marching band, and played in a rock band in high school.
After attending Bates College in Maine, Harris, along with his newly acquired National steel guitar, left for Cameroon in West Africa in 1991. While there, Harris' love for acoustic blues grew, as did his understanding of the importance of the indigenous juju music. The polyrhythmic drumming associated with juju is clearly reflected in Harris' propulsive rhythmic, drum-like guitar playing. After returning to the United States, Harris moved to rural Louisiana and began teaching French and English, all the while continuing to play his music and refining his craft by moonlighting as a street musician in nearby New Orleans. Before long, Harris was not only playing on the streets and in coffeehouses, but colleges and clubs as well.
Harris went into the studio in 1994 with producer Larry Hoffman, recording the traditional blues he honed as a street musician. The 1995 release of “Between Midnight And Day” catapulted Harris to international recognition. Critics, fans and fellow musicians could barely contain their enthusiasm. “Harris brought time to a stop,” raved the national edition of The New York Times, “invoking the ghosts of Robert Johnson, Lightnin' Hopkins and Howlin' Wolf.” After reading the article about Harris in The New York Times, singer Natalie Merchant bought a copy of “Between Midnight And Day” and immediately invited Harris to open every date on her West Coast tour, and even had him join her on stage for her finales. He's toured Europe many times - including a tour as part of Alligator Records' 25th Anniversary celebration - and toured Japan in 1997.
With his 1997 follow-up, “Fish Ain't Bitin',” Harris added socially conscious songwriting and a few musical twists to his repertoire. Taking the solo acoustic sounds of Between Midnight And Day and adding a full New Orleans brass section on four songs, Harris mixed nine originals so entrenched in the tradition that they blended seamlessly with blues covers to create his own brand of music.
He teamed up with pianist Henry Butler in 2000 for“vu-du Menz” on Alligator Records. Featuring sometimes serious, sometimes rollicking, acoustic duets from these two exceptionally gifted artists, “vu-du Menz” is a joyous celebration of deep South musical styles, as Harris and Butler combine forces to create an album of pure Southern musical magic.
His 2002 release of “Downhome Sophisticate” expanded his commitment to a worldly approach to the blues and its acoustic roots.
In 2003 Harris traveled to Africa on a journey of discovery and consequently released “Mississippi To Mali,” as a testament to his African roots. On this record he teams up with the legendary Ali Farke Toure. “Daily Bread,” was released in 2005 and the reggae flavored “Zion Crossroads” in 2007.
In 2007, Harris was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship commonly referred to as a “genius award” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The annual grant, which recognizes individuals from a wide range of disciplines who show creativity, originality and commitment to continued innovative work, described Harris as an artist who “forges an adventurous path marked by deliberate eclecticism.” That same year, he was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Bates College, his alma mater in Lewiston, Maine.
Harris shifts his focus to more traditional American blues and related styles with the September 29, 2009, release of blu.black, a collection of fourteen original songs primarily blues and reggae, but with generous doses of other genres that examine the African-American story of earlier centuries and connect it to the present day and future generations.