At a young age already he became a blues shouter and rhythm and blues singer of upbeat songs featuring humorous, often ribald lyrics. In 1931 at age 16, he dropped out of high school in North Omaha. The following year his first child, a daughter, Micky, was born to Naomi Henderson. Ten months later, his son Wesley was born to Laura Devereaux. Both children were raised by their mothers.
In 1935 Harris, age 20, started dating 16-year-old Olive E. (Ollie) Goodlow, of Council Bluffs, Iowa, who came to neighboring Omaha to watch him perform. On May 20, 1936, Ollie gave birth to a daughter, Adrianne Patricia (Pattie). Harris and Ollie were married on December 11, 1936. Later they lived in the Logan Fontenelle projects in North Omaha. Ollie worked as a barmaid and nurse; Harris sang in clubs and took odd jobs. His mother was Pattie’s main caretaker. In 1940, Wynonie and Ollie Harris moved to Los Angeles, California, leaving Pattie with her grandmother in Omaha.
Harris formed a dance team with Velda Shannon in the early 1930s. They performed in North Omaha’s flourishing entertainment community, and by 1934 they were a regular attraction at the Ritz Theatre. In 1935 Harris, having became a celebrity in Omaha, was able to earn a living as an entertainer, in the depths of the Great Depression. While performing at Jim Bell’s Club Harlem nightclub with Shannon, he began to sing the blues. He began traveling frequently to Kansas City, where he paid close attention to blues shouters, including Jimmy Rushing and Big Joe Turner.
His break in Los Angeles was at a nightclub owned by Curtis Mosby. It was here that Harris became known as “Mr. Blues”.
During the 1942–44 musicians’ strike, Harris was unable to pursue a recording career. Instead, he relied on personal appearances. Performing almost continuously, in late 1943 he appeared at the Rhumboogie Club in Chicago. Harris was spotted by Lucky Millinder, who asked him to join his band on tour. Harris joined on March 24, 1944, while the band was in the middle of a week-long residency at the Regal in Chicago. They moved on to New York City, where on April 7 Harris took the stage with Millinder’s band for his debut at the Apollo Theatre, in Harlem. It was during this performance that Harris first publicly performed “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well” (a song recorded two years earlier by Doc Wheeler’s Sunset Orchestra).
After the band’s stint at the Apollo, they moved on to their regular residency at the Savoy Ballroom, also in Harlem. Here, Preston Love, Harris’ childhood friend, joined Millinder’s band, replacing the alto saxophonist Tab Smith. On May 26, 1944, Harris made his recording debut with Lucky Millinder and His Orchestra. Entering a recording studio for the first time, Harris sang on two of the five cuts recorded that day, “Hurry, Hurry” and “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well”, for Decca Records . The embargo on shellac during World War II had not yet been rescinded, and release of the record was delayed.
Harris’s success and popularity grew as Millinder’s band toured the country, but he and Millinder had a falling out over money, and in September 1945, while playing in San Antonio, Texas, Harris quit the band. Three weeks later, upon hearing of Harris’s separation from the band, a Houston promoter refused to allow Millinder’s band to perform. Millinder called Harris and agreed to pay his asking price of one hundred dollars a night. The promoter reinstated the booking, but it was the final time Harris and Millinder worked together. Bull Moose Jackson replaced Harris as the vocalist in the band.
In April 1945, a year after the song was recorded, Decca released “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well”. It became the group’s biggest hit; it went to number one on the Billboard R&B chart on July 14 and stayed there for eight weeks. The song remained on the charts for almost five months, also becoming popular with white audiences, an unusual feat for black musicians of that era. In California the success of the song opened doors for Harris. Since the contract with Decca was with Millinder (meaning Harris was a free agent), Harris could choose from the recording contracts with which he was presented.
Wynonie went on to have fifteen Top 10 hits between 1946 – 1952, he is generally considered one of rock and roll’s forerunners, influencing Elvis Presley among others. His hits include “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well”, “Bloodshot Eyes”, “Good Rocking Tonight”, “Good Morning Judge” and “All She Wants to Do Is Rock”.
His final large-scale performance was at the Apollo, New York in November 1967, where he performed with Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton, Jimmy Witherspoon and T-Bone Walker.
He sadly died of esophageal cancer at the USC Medical Center Hospital in Los Angeles on June 14, 1969. He was 53.
Wynonie was the subject of a 1994 biography by Tony Collins. Since the end of the twentieth century, there has been a resurgence of interest in his music. Some of his recordings are being reissued and he has been honored posthumously:
• 1994 Inducted into the W.C. Handy Blues Hall of Fame by the Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tennessee.
• 1998 Inducted into the Nebraska Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Lincoln.
• 2000 Inducted into the High School Hall of Fame at Central High School in Omaha, Nebraska.
• 2005 Inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame
Elvis Presley saw Harris perform in Memphis in the early 1950s. According to Henry Glover, Harris’s record producer, Elvis “copied many of the vocal gymnastics of Wynonie as well as the physical gyrations. When you saw Elvis, you were seeing a mild version of Wynonie”. Harris remarked in a 1956 interview that Elvis’s hip movements were stirring controversy in a way his own never did: “Many people have been giving him trouble for swinging his hips. I swing mine and have no trouble. He’s got publicity I could not buy”.