Don & Dewey (Don “Sugarcane” Harris and Dewey Terry) were, and still are, the greatest duo in the whole history of rock’n’roll. They never had a chart hit but they originated at least half dozen standards, many of which charted for acts as diverse as the Premiers, Dale & Grace, Donnie & Marie Osmond, the Olympics, the Searchers, the Righteous Brothers and Neil Young. Of course, that’s not what makes them great. What makes ’em great, is that they were great– Mormon incest fantasies be damned.
The story begins in Pasadena, California which is where they came from. At John Muir High School they sang with a doo wop group called the Squires. The Squires cut a couple of singles for Kicks and Vita records and called it quits. That was in 1955. Our subjects could not be satisfied with mere harmony. Both were multi-instrumentalists, Dewey played guitar, piano and bass while Don mastered guitar, bass and violin. They both sang and together their sound took off like a rocket ship. In 1956 Don & Dewey hooked up with a guy named John Criner (later to become the manager of the Olympics) who recorded two singles with them, both issued in January 1957. Nobody seems to know which disc was issued first but one, released on Spot was a Little Richard styled rocker– Miss Sue b/w My Heart Is Aching which would hint at glories to come. The other 45 Fiddlin’ The Blues b/w Slummin’ was on the Shade label and both tunes are instrumentals, showcasing Don Harris’ bluesy electric violin, a talent that wouldn’t be fully exploited until after Don & Dewey’s break-up, but one that kept him in work for decades.
By the time these records hit the streets Don & Dewey who had been gigging around the L.A. area, were spotted by Specialty Records’ Art Rupe and he cut their first session on January, 29, 1957. Rupe’s thinking was sound, if one Little Richard sold a million records, two Little Richards should sell two million–at least. Their first Specialty single was perhaps the most auspicious debut in the history of history….aw, hell–just listen to it– Jungle Hop b/w A Little Love. A stripped down affair, Dewey played piano, Don guitar, they were accompanied by the monstrous Earl Palmer on drums and a bass player nobody remembers. They both screamed their lungs out. Despite a growing following around L.A. the disc was just too raw for the radio and while it sold well locally it never charted. Seven more sessions followed in the next two years. Rupe would fill out their sound bringing in ace session men Plas Johnson on sax, the severely under rated Rene Hall on guitar, Ted Brinson on bass, and eventually (in March of ’58) turning over production duties to future Scientologist, Congressman and spazz skier Sonny Bono.
Their next single was probably their best seller– I”m Leavin’ It Up To You b/w Jelly Bean got airplay in L.A. but the rest of the country wouldn’t hear the tune until it became a hit for Dale & Grace in 1963 and then again for Donnie & Marie in 1973. Still, Rupe believed in them as belied by the fact that he kept recording and issuing records, some of the highlights– Farmer John (later a hit for Chicano garage rockers the Premiers), the frantic Justine (and it’s equally wild flipside Bim Bam), Big Boy Pete (a hit for the Olympics), the stop time instrumental Jump Awhile (issued on the Specialty subsidiary Fidelity), the you gotta hear it to believe it Kill Me (also released on Fidelity) on which Dewey Terry’s guitar solo comes close to matching his idol, Specialty label mate Guitar Slim. Some of the material that Rupe didn’t release was better than some of what was, like their sublime rendition of Joe Liggins’ Pink Champagne, the only time Rupe let Don Harris take his fiddle out of its case, and the rockin’ Mammer-Jammer, the most un-folk like disc to ever mention a hootenanny. The later two saw light of day when Specialty finally got around to putting out a Don & Dewey LP– Rockin’ Til Midnight, Rollin’ Til Dawn in 1970. It’s one of the greatest LP’s of all time. What Rupe did issue was often trite, like the Sonny Bono tune Koko Joe, although their delivery overcomes the material.
By 1959 Don & Dewey had packed it in with Specialty. They recorded a few singles for Rush and then joined Little Richard’s band when he returned from touring the U.K. where he had played with both the Beatles and the Stones. In 1964, Richard led them right back to Rupe’s doorstep where they backed Little Richard on his final, glorious Specialty single– Bama Lama Loo b/w Annie’s Back, Rupe’s attempt to re-introduce Little Richard to America by replacing his saxophone heavy sound with wild electric guitars. It failed to sell but remains one of Little Richard’s greatest discs. At the same session Don & Dewey waxed their fairwell to Specialty, a killer rocker called Get Your Hat which turned out to be their prophetic swansong. Soundwise, it could have been recorded eight years earlier, but it was out of step with the Beatlemania that ruled radio that year. Nothing good lasts for very long and by 1965 Don & Dewey split up. Don “Sugarcane” Harris cut a few solo singles for Johnny Otis’ Dig label and would eventually join the Mothers Of Invention (where he can be heard soloing on Willie The Pimp), play in a hippie group called Pure Food and Drug Act and finally land a deal with Epic where he cut a couple of LP’s. He also appears on sides by Harvey Mandel, John Mayall, Johnny Otis, and a punk band led by Mayall’s son called Tupelo Chain Sex. Dewey Terry cut a blues album called Chief for the Tumbleweed label in 1972.
They reformed a few times in the 1990’s, appearing mostly at Festivals in Europe, and when Don Harris (real name Bowman) passed away in 1999, Dewey did a few shows with a replacement Don. Dewey Terry himself bought the farm in 2003. The complete Don & Dewey on Specialty/Fidelity is available in the U.S. on Specialty (now owned by Saul Zaentz’s Fantasy Records) and in the U.K. on Ace (available here). It has nine un-issued tracks (but not the Spot and Shade singles). A complete discography can be found here.