Berklee freshman Julian Harris entered school this year with a coveted Influential Artist sponsorship from the St. Blues guitar company in Memphis, Tennessee. Here, Julian’s father, JB Harris, outlines Julian’s journey to Berklee and to his partnership with St. Blues.
Born in Arlington, Virginia, the oldest of three siblings, Julian found his calling at the age of five, when he picked up a guitar and never let go. Following a concert by a performer who played guitar, sang songs and told stories to pre-schoolers, Julian begged his parents to buy him “a real guitar, not a toy.” As luck, or perhaps fate, would have it, Julian’s first serious guitar teacher was a Berklee grad who opened Julian’s eyes to what became a burning passion: to master the guitar well enough to attend the finest popular music school in the world.
Julian’s early successes included a stint at the School of Rock in Miama, FL, where he and his band once opened for Blue Oyster Cult and Joan Jett on a huge stage at the Homestead Ribfest, summer courses in jazz performance at the University of Miami, Frost School of Music Young Musicians’ Camp, and nights appearing at countless open mics around town. Staying up late and jamming with adults when most kids his age had long since gone to bed, Julian’s dad would take him every Monday night to a restaurant and bar called The Fish House, where Julian played the blues with some of Miami’s finest.
A bluesmaster named Papa Joe took Julian under his wing and showed him how to really play, with all his heart and soul. Local NBC6 even caught wind of the kid with the hottest hands in town, and filmed a special on high schoolers who love to play the blues, featuring Julian as a rising star.
Although Julian enjoyed playing the blues at night, his true love was playing jazz. Using the blues as a basis for learning jazz, Julian’s tastes grew to encompass the music of giants like Miles, Trane, Bird, Billie, Ella, Satch, Ray, Bags and others immortalized in the Great American Songbook. As a shy, quiet kid whose communication skills were hampered by dyslexia, Julian was drawn to the infinity of improvisation and the eloquence of instrumental comp and dialogue that jazz provides, a language he naturally understood and could express better than any other.
Julian applied and was accepted to Berklee’s famous five week summer program, where he played with some of the highest level musicians from around the world. To help him attend, the Blues Foundation in Memphis honored Julian with a scholarship for his contribution to the blues and promise as a young musician.
Drawing incredible energy from those around him, Julian observed: “Everyone at five week was so talented I felt a certain competitiveness yet positive force among musicians that raised the bar and pushed me to grow musically and creatively. I was surrounded by other gifted players and creative people I could relate to. Nirvana would not come close to the amount of pleasure and enjoyment I experienced at Berklee that summer. It changed my life”
With this experience to spur him on, Julian redoubled his efforts at perfecting his skills with an eye toward applying and getting accepted into Berklee early admission. As a senior in high school, Julian also was the only student to participate in a dual enrollment program with the Miami Dade College music program, where he spent part of his day taking college level music courses while completing his high school degree.
The highlight of senior year, however, was being invited to play a show with Latin jazz star, Tito Puente, Jr., the son of Tito Puente, “The King of Latin Music.” Together Julian and Tito brought the house down with Tito’s signature encore rendition of Oye Como Va, a song written by Tito’s late father and made popular by Carlos Santana.
During this time, Julian also connected with one of Miami’s top guitar teachers, Berklee alum Benjamin Kaskel. In addition to learning ever more complex pieces, Ben and Julian worked tirelessly to prepare Julian for his Berklee audition. Two weeks before the audition, he participated in a mock tryout with three well known local musicians, including Leo Quintero, a former Berklee guitar professor now living in Miami who has recorded albums with Chick Corea, Arturo Sandoval and many other Latin jazz greats; Jim Gasior, Dean of the Music Division at the New World School of the Arts High School, and Joe Donato, a big band saxaphonist who has played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Jack Jones, and Arturo Sandoval.
This group of pros put Julian through the paces, critiquing him like never before. As uncomfortable as the mock audition was, the experience gave Julian the confidence he needed to walk into the Berklee tryouts and nail it. Returning from Boston on cloud nine, the years of dedication and hard work having paid off, Julian knew he had made it.
It’s appropriate, then, that a kid with an independent streak five miles wide, fingers as long and skinny as Jimi Hendrix’s and a creative spirit to match, would team up with a tough little guitar maker like St. Blues. After Julian purchased a guitar from St. Blues known as the 61 South, owner Bryan Eagle became intrigued, not only with this young musician’s talents, but also his knowledge of the craftsmanship and quality required in producing custom guitars. Learning that Julian had been eyeing St. Blues for sometime, Eagle then checked out some of Julian’s performances on YouTube, and thereafter offered him an Influential Musician Sponsorship Agreement, which Julian, of course, jumped at.
Interestingly, St. Blues traces its roots to the turbulent civil rights era of the 1960s, when Tom Keckler, known as “TK,” joined Mike Ladd’s Guitar City, then located across the street from Graceland, where the two of them built one of a kind guitars, including a guitar for Elvis Presley’s father, which Elvis played in “Aloha from Hawaii.”
Sadly, after Ladd contracted a long-term illness, Guitar City was forced to close in 1972. TK then moved his custom builds to famous Strings & Things, where Jimmy Page first met TK and asked that he repair his axes. It was there that TK and his colleague Charles Lawing also designed and built the first Bluesmaster.
In 1978, TK left to help launch Schecter Guitars in LA, but being a Southern boy at heart, TK returned to his home in Memphis where he rejoined Strings & Things to build S&T custom guitars. The year was 1983.
In 1984 S&T launched St. Blues, producing their guitars in Japan and doing final assembly in the US. The list of people who played a St. Blues guitar in the 80’s is impressive, and includes Bono on the Rattle and Hum album, Elliot Easton of the Cars, Eric Clapton, Marshall Crenshaw, Jeff Carlisi of .38 Special, Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, Scott Page (Pink Floyd, Toto), Billy Squier, Martin Briley, Elvin Bishop, Joe Walsh and Glenn Frey of the Eagles, Dave Edmunds, Albert King, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and many more.
While the guitars were a critical success, the business was continually hampered by lack of capital. In 1989, the Yen doubled against the dollar and St. Blues was priced out of the market. Without the capital to retool elsewhere, St. Blues stopped production later that year. In 2006, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Bryan Eagle purchased St. Blues with the goal of producing custom made guitars aimed at independent retailers. Bucking the trend toward outsourcing, in 2011 Eagle and his partners, husband and wife Jeff and Teri Cox, brought St. Blues’ manufacturing back to the heart of Memphis on Marshall Blvd., across from Sun Studios where Elvis and countless other greats once cut their records.
Never Eagle’s intention to mass produce guitars for big box stores, each model is a signature work of art, handcrafted with care by luthiers like the famous TK, Greg Mitchell, and Production Manager Greg Hooper.
With a sound as sweet as Tupelo honey, St. Blues now makes a variety of custom guitars, from the famous solid body Bluesmaster series, to the versatile semi-hollow 61 South. Before leaving for Berklee, Julian settled on a 61 South, a guitar as adaptable as it is beautiful, filled with a broad range of tonal possibilities.
The guitar is named after Highway 61, the famed route that leads from Memphis south through the Mississippi Delta, where legend has it, at a crossroads along the way, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for Blues immortality. This is the same highway where Blues singer Bessie Smith died in an automobile accident while traveling on it, Elvis Presley grew up in a housing project near it, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot in a motel on 61’s extension into Memphis, and Bob Dylan memorialized it in his iconic album “Highway 61 Revisited,” the spirit of the roadway is incanted into each 61 South the same way the soul is joined to the body.
From its hand-wound P-90 and single coil Jason Lollar® pickups, to its 25.5inch maple neck and mahogany body finished in rock-hard nitrocellulose, the 61 South can take audiences from the meanest, lowdown, dirty Delta Blues, to the rarified stratosphere of jazz improv, as easily as a knife through warm butter. This is the reason Julian has made it his instrument of choice.
If you ever see a tall lanky kid walking around Berklee with a machine-gun tweed case imprinted with a St. Blues logo, you’ll know immediately it is Julian Harris. Stop and ask him about the benefits of being a sponsored musician with St. Blues. He’ll be more than happy to tell you about one of the finest guitars ever made, and may even take some time to jam with you as well. Play on!