Charles Pervis Harris, a Baltimore bass player who performed with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra during the 1940s and later with the Nat King Cole Trio, died of cancer Tuesday at Bon Secours Hospital. He was 87 and lived in Northwest Baltimore.
Born in Alexandria, Va,, one of eight children, Mr. Harris moved in 1917 with his family to the city's Perkins Square neighborhood.
He was 11 years old when he began studying violin and later played in his junior high school orchestra. He switched to bass while attending Douglass High School and started playing in local jazz clubs, where he earned $2 or $3 a night.
After earning a bachelor's degree in education in 1938 from Coppin Normal School, now Coppin State College, he taught elementary school for several years while performing at night.
"I was working with Mac Crockett's band on The Block, and with bands that played Gambia's [where comedian Redd Foxx got his start] and the old Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue, and I was making pretty good money and getting a lot of offers to go on the road," Mr. Harris, who was known as Sonny, told The Sun for a 1983 profile.
Mr. Harris started playing in the late 1930s with Tracy's Kentuckians at the Royal Theater, led by Tracy McCleary, who later changed the band's name to the Royal Men of Rhythm.
Mr. Harris gave up teaching in 1941 when he joined Lionel Hampton's band. Touring by bus, especially in the South in those years, meant discrimination and separate accommodations.
"It was rough sometimes, and some of the other time, we would get some very nice places to live, especially in homes. You know, doctor's homes, and a lot of people that would take in a certain type of musician at the time. But you always had that little feeling of not being wanted," Mr. Harris said in an interview last year with Elizabeth Schaaf, archivist at the Peabody Institute.
Another bassist who was also a member of Lionel Hampton's band was a young Charles Mingus.
"The young Mingus was so influenced by Sonny that he composed 'Harris Mingus Fingers,' the original title of 'Mingus Fingers,' as a feature for both of them. Sonny fondly recalled the two of them standing in front of the band and reaching across each other's instruments while playing the song," said Mr. Harris' daughter, Charlene Harris-Newton of Baltimore.
He was married in 1945 to the former Helen Galloway and five years later became the father of the couple's only child. Mrs. Harris died in 1991.
The hardship of being away from his family and touring for long periods influenced his decision to return to Baltimore.
In 1949, Mr. Harris left Mr. Hampton's band and returned to the Royal Theater. He and old friend guitarist Willie Mackel joined Howard "Church" Anderson, a piano player, and his wife, Sylvia Anderson, a singer, and formed "Three Strikes and a Miss." The quartet toured and played clubs in Baltimore and Atlantic City, N.J., before disbanding a year later.
In 1951, Mr. Harris went to work for Nat King Cole.
"Charlie had to be a terrific musician because Lionel Hampton and Nat could have had anyone in the business. He was one of the best jazz bass players around," Mr. McCleary said. "Nat spoke to me before he talked to Charlie, and I told him to take him. And not to worry, we'd make out. It was just a terrific opportunity for him."
In his Peabody interview, Mr. Harris recalled, "Everything that he [Nat King Cole] sang was a hit. Just about everything he recorded became big hits. And you can just start singing them in your mind; they were all great. He was one of the nicest men I've ever worked for. "
Mr. Harris' bass can be heard on such memorable Nat King Cole recordings as "Mona Lisa," "Unforgettable," "Ramblin Rose" and "Smile," and on his two favorite Capitol Records albums, "After Midnight" and "Penthouse Serenade."
"I feel Nat was one of the greatest entertainers the world has ever known," Mr. Harris told The Sun for a 1975 profile. "He was a perfectionist who had absolute pitch, but he wasn't cranky."
In addition to touring with the trio in Europe and Australia, Mr. Harris appeared in 1957 on the weekly Nat King Cole Show on NBC.
Mr. Harris left the trio in 1964, a few months before Mr. Cole died of lung cancer in 1965, and returned to Baltimore. He worked as a decorator and salesman for Fradkin Brothers Furniture Co. until retiring in the late 1970s.
He continued playing with local jazz groups for many years after and entertained family and friends on his 87th birthday in January.
"There was a band there, and he took the bass and played 'Happy Birthday' to himself. It had been some time since he had played in public," his daughter said.
He was a member of the Musicians Association of Metropolitan Baltimore Local 40-543 AFM.
Mr. Harris was a member of New Psalmist Baptist Church, 4501 1/2 Frederick Road, Baltimore, where services will be held at 11:30 a.m. tomorrow.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include a brother, Richard L. Harris of Springfield, Va.; a sister, Louise O. Johnson of Baltimore; two grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.