As often is the case with these so-called “newcomers”, their career spans a long way back, and by no means is Mr. Harrison an exception. His new CD, Two Way Love Affair, is released on KonKord Records, which gave us Rue Davis' first CD in the mid-90s. Those days the company was run by Messrs. Estus and Lester Patterson, but since then Lester has left the business leaving Estus and Duane Jackson to handle the production on Sterling's newie.
Sterling's voice is very down-to-earth, rough and gritty, and it is perfectly suited to the title track, a solid and swaying r&b bouncer, which has since become somewhat of a favourite on airwaves. Besides that opener there are four other in-house tunes, which lean heavily on the uptempo blues side - one of them is even called Viagra Blues.
The rest are covers. “Some of them are my favourite songs that I do when I'm performing live, so I really enjoyed putting that album together. I really like `Last Two Dollars' and `Members Only'.” Besides those Johnnie Taylor and Bobby Bland favourites there are Otis' I've Been Loving You Too Long, Tyrone's Turn Back The Hands Of Time and Denise's Someone Else Is Steppin' In. There's also a fascinating cover of Little Willie John's '58 hit, Talk To Me, on which Sterling surprises us with some imitations (Ray Charles, Al Green, Richard Nixon) - a part of his stage act - and which was picked up as the first single. “I've worked with so many of those artists. I can go back to the times when I worked with Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, everybody.”
The set closes with a spiritual slowie, Your Grace And Mercy. “It's always been one of my favourite gospel songs. I've been a gospel singer, I started in church, so I wanted to put a religious song in the end. A lot of singers are putting those songs on their album. Lionel Richie did one and Whitney Houston did one.”
Sterling was born in Richmond, Virginia. “We had a musical family. Everyone in the family could sing except my oldest brother - he couldn't carry a note. We had a family group called The Harrison Family Four. During that time we must have appeared on about forty amateur shows and we won everyone. We never lost.”
After the church spell in his formative years, Sterling more and more lent his ear to secular sounds. “I love soul music - Otis Redding and James Brown - and, believe it or not, one of my favourite singers was Elvis Presley. He could really sing. There are so many other favourites, but those three are the ones I listen to a lot.”
Gradually, after school, Sterling's growing interest in performing led to recordings. “When I was seventeen we had a real big talent show in my home-town - like a Pepsi Cola contest - and I won the first place on there. After that one night I was performing at a place called The Richmond Arena with Chuck Jackson and Baby Cortez. Buddy Lucas was the band director. After the show he came to me and said 'I've never raved about anything, but you are unbelievable'. We had breakfast at the hotel that morning after the show, I flew with him to South Connecticut, stayed with him and his wife and recorded my first single called I Do Believe (The Devil's Got A Spell On Me) for VIM Records in '60.
In the early 60s I went with Jimmy Evans, who was a booking agent out of New York City. He booked Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Nappy Brown - he had all the biggies. I stayed with him for a period of from like 1960 till about 1972. I worked everywhere. I played The Apollo Theater five times - without a hit record - and I played a lot of other places in New York, Boston, New Jersey. During that time I went to Nashville for two weeks, and they wound up keeping me for eighteen weeks. I became such a big favourite over there that one time I broke the record - I stayed for thirty-four weeks. On the last show I did over there in '73, believe it or not, the MC was Oprah Winfrey.”
Sterling's next record was released in '62. “I did a song called `The Wobble'. There was a dance called 'the wobble' and I was 'the king of the wobble'. That was on Teddy Vann's Four V label.” (Let's Wobble/Church Bells Ring; V 1001). “During the time I was with Jimmy Evans I did two singles on Smash Records. I wrote all four tunes.” The records were released as Smash 1856 in '63 (Sad And Lonely/Right There With You) and Smash 1896 in '64 (Funny Life/I'm A Man). “After I left Jimmy in '72, I signed with All Platinum.” The solitary single that was released, P's And Q's, came out on Astroscope 108 in '72.
There really have been big intervals in Sterling's recording career, to say the least, and for the next one we had to wait almost till the turn of the decade. “I signed with The Holland Group Production - Holland-Dozier-Holland, that was - and the first thing I released with them was a 12” on Motown called Roll-Her, Skater (on Motown 1468 in '79, as 'Sterling', with an instrumental flip). My first album, Sterling Harrison, came in '80 on a label called Real World. It was a lot of dance music.”
The next album, One Size Fits All, was released one year later on Phonorecords, and - besides the title track - highlights included a dance-floor favourite, She's So Sensitive, a reggae song called Jamaica and the ladies' choice, a Barry White type of ballad called You Got That Thing. “After that we did a project for Holland-Dozier-Holland called Yesterday, Today And Forever - I guess in '84 - along with Lionel Richie, Eddie Holland, Brian Holland and Eloise Laws. I had a couple of songs on there.”
Two Way Love Affair isn't the only recording Sterling has had released in the 90s. “I did a beautiful song that Mary Love Comer and her husband wrote (the latter as a birthday present for her), Lady Love, for the Voices From The Shadows in '91.” Lady Love was Rod Dearlove's first attempt at releasing records (VFTS 001), and still today he thinks that the 12” in question is Sterling's best work ever.
“The Pattersons had seen me perform quite a few times. Many times they talked about me recording for them, but at the present I was under the contract with The Holland Group. When my contract was up, they came out to see me, we talked, I liked what they were saying and we went ahead.”