By Nick Cooper
Photos courtesy of Harry Sheppard
Photos of Harry at Cafe Brasil by Mark Armes
Harry Sheppard has never been a music teacher, a composer, an arranger, or a pit musician for musicals. He’s a jazz player. Back in New York, Harry was often called “The Swingin’ Shepherd,” for the jazz/big band tune by that name, but nowadays, he’s just known as Harry. Born in the Swing Era, and growing up during bebop, Harry’s life history connects Houston to Roy Eldridge, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and many others. At 84, despite his age, two recent strokes, a couple of surgeries, and a cancer diagnosis, he can still play faster vibraphones than the younger musicians in town, but this Christmas season Harry took a much-needed break.
Like many, Harry is skeptical of the medical industry and its tendency to push chemo and radiation. Doctors can be pretty scary about the risks of refusing such treatments, so even a guy like Harry, who thinks he may have discovered the cure for cancer years ago, has to weigh his options. The Japanese ume plum is Harry’s magic bullet, and for years he has been telling his friends with cancer to take five a day. Upon receiving his diagnosis, Harry tripled his dosage of ume and is also taking laminine. He has a few weeks to decide about radiation therapy.
His friends, his fans, even his doctors always tell him that he is the youngest old man they’ve ever seen, but he feels the age. When doctors are pushing these devastating therapies, Harry thinks “Maybe if I was 30, 40, 50, it’d be different, but at my age… I’m still very young in mind. I enjoy life very much, but I don’t want to go out that way.”
When he told his doctors he was thinking about refusing their treatment, they treated him like a nut. During one consultation, Harry was asking his doctor specific questions to help him make the best decisions possible for his health. Harry noticed his doctor was typing on the computer.
“I thought he was taking notes, but my wife saw he was googling answers to my questions!”
Harry has been playing old-age homes and hospitals for years, and he always shares his ideas about ume plum balls with cancer patients.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say they’re cured. A guy at MD Anderson told me ‘I came in for my checkup and they can’t find the cancer!’”
So Harry asked him what the doctor had to say about his miraculous recovery and the patient responded, “He looked at me with a blank look.” Harry asked the man if he had told the doctor about the ume plums he had been taking and he said no. Harry asked why not, and the patient responded, “I was afraid!”
“In the bands, we used ume for hangovers,” Harry says. “Then Eden Foods came up with the plum balls. I don’t care how lousy you feel from drinking, put five of these under your tongue for five minutes, then swallow with a drink, and in an hour the hangover is gone. When we used to travel, everywhere we went there were parties after the concerts. Sometimes you come in and you know you got to wake up in like five hours to catch a flight. So, we would take the plum balls and it would never fail. With Benny Goodman’s band, half the band was so wasted. We’d play in Buenos Aires for example, and afterward people are taking you to parties. We had a wonderful time. We had no responsibilities, nothing to do. We didn’t have to drive, we just had to make it to the plane, and ume always worked.”
“About 10 years ago, it came out that cancer, diabetes, and other diseases can’t really grow in an alkali environment. I asked doctors about it. They all say it’s true, but they don’t know how to change the pH. Then, I found out the plum balls prevent the hangovers by changing your pH. So then I decided instead of just taking them for hangovers, I am gonna take them every day.”
Harry feels the ume helped keep his own cancer from spreading from a tiny spot on his tongue.
Like many percussionists, Harry started on pots and pans, around age four.
“I’d play along with the radio.”
Eventually, Harry’s mom said to his dad, “Buy him some drums, he’s ruining my pans.” Harry’s older brother, Harvey, is also a percussionist and gave Harry his first lesson when he was 15 and Harry was eight.
Growing up in Leicester, Mass., Harry lived with friends. Harry’s mom had passed away, and his dad, a travelling salesman, had a breakdown. So Harry lived with his buddies on a chicken farm, and across the street was a dairy farm. All the kids were friends and went to school together. In the summertime, the kids would take the thick cream off the top of the milk and use it to make ice cream.
“You have no idea what it was like to put that in my mouth. Oh my God it was wonderful. But I’m the only one who changed my diet over the years, and they’re all gone. They passed away 20, 25 years ago with that same diet. It was all natural milk, but their bodies couldn’t handle it.”
Harry grew up seeing Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, and Benny Goodman, never imagining that one day he’d be in Benny’s band.
After serving in the Navy, Harry met his first wife Betty Ann Miller when she was 16. He was 19.
“The piano player brought her on the gig. He said ‘can she sing with us tonight?’ I said ‘sure.’ That’s how it started.”
His first professional gig in New York was with the Sol Yaged Quintet in the world famous Metropole. Harry was thrilled. They were the house group. “Everybody came through there,” Harry says. “We used to alternate sets with Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Henry ‘Red’ Allen…”
He remembers Dizzy as a very funny guy, but his most prominent memory of Dizzy was of him punching someone.
“Once, in front of Birdland in the wee hours, there was a DJ, Symphony Sid, who thought he was God’s gift to jazz musicians. He thought he had the power to make and break jazz musicians. I don’t know what he said to Dizzy, but Dizzy caught him on the jaw and knocked him right into Broadway. The street was full of people and they all saw it, were applauding, and saying ‘About time!’”
In 1954, Harry had a trio in New York with his wife Betty on bass. They alternated with Latin bands. Sometimes it was Tito Rodriguez, sometimes it was Tito Puente. One night, José Curbelo was playing, and he asked Harry and his wife to record vocals for a song he had written called “Cha Cha Cha in Blue.” It would be the first cha-cha in English. It hit big in the New York area (and is on YouTube). In the first six weeks, it sold a quarter million. Harry and Betty didn’t see a penny, but what’s a few million between friends?
Harry’s marriage to Betty lasted into the ‘60s.
“We went together for five years and then got married for 12 and had two daughters. And I fucked it up….”
In 1958, Harry got to play with Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, and others on a TV show called Art Ford’s Jazz Party, which are all readily viewable on YouTube. The film doesn’t seem to have held up to the years as well as Harry. But there he is, over 50 years ago playing fiercely, like he still does today.
Harry’s uncle, Jack Robbins, was a prominent music publisher. He is the lesser-known face sitting at the table with Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman watching Ella Fitzgerald singing in the famous photo (image search for “ella duke benny” to check it out). Harry says Robbins was a good friend of Benny’s and was the one who persuaded Benny to do his biggest hit, “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
Years later, Harry got the call to go with Benny Goodman. Harry’s uncle had his mother’s last name, so Harry didn’t tell Benny who his uncle was.
“I always thought sometime I’ll tell him,” says Harry, “but I never did.”
Harry played with Benny Goodman in the ‘60s, when Benny was beginning to slow down. They’d do some things locally in New York, or do a tour in South America for a month, and after that Harry wouldn’t hear from him for a year.
Transforming the Instrument
Over the years, Harry helped innovate his instrument, the vibraphone. Vibes are big and heavy, and over the years many a vibe player has envied the trumpeters who can just walk in, unzip a case and start playing. Many vibes can be broken down, but it takes a while. In the ‘60s, Harry developed a system to save time. He mounted his vibes on ambulance gurney wheels and could roll them up a ramp right into his Volkswagen minibus. He had a big heavy Deagan, the same model played by Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, and Terry Gibbs, but Harry had no breakdown time and just rolled out the door.
In the ‘70s, Harry and a few others invented the electric vibes. The light bulb went off when an electronics engineer who lived in Harry’s building was talking about strain gauges used to test bridges. They were used to turn vibrations into a sound the engineers could listen to help check for cracks. He and Harry decided to try putting these tiny transducers into one bar of Harry’s vibraphone and it worked.
Harry contacted the Deagan repair department, and a technician named Gilberto Serna, who is still there today, drilled in and put an epoxy to hold the pick-up in each key, creating an electric instrument. Deagan planned to try to introduce this innovation in their big models, but Harry explained that (aside from being able to run them through a wah-wah pedal) the whole reason players would want electric vibes was because they could be smaller. Harry explained that an amplified set of vibes wouldn’t even need the resonator tubes under each bar. The last tweak was adding a bass boost, and a new instrument was born.
“Over the years,” Harry says, “guys realized. They were more [often] in bands with guitar players. It was getting so loud — you couldn’t do it with unamplified vibes.”
In the late ‘90s, Harry switched to a MIDI vibes controller called a MalletKAT, leaving behind the instrument he had helped create. Along with the Fender Rhodes electric piano, the Hammond Organ, and the Hohner Clavinet, the electric vibraphone is an extremely beautiful and funky instrument that has been discontinued and largely replaced by smaller, lighter digital controllers.
In 1975, Harry worked with Gloria Swanson who used to do The Mike Douglas Show out of Philadelphia. She was in her late 70s.
“She was a health food nut long before it was fashionable,” says Harry. “She said, ‘I know why you have health problems–give up animal fat. If you can’t give up meat, at least give up dairy.’ So, I went cold turkey.” After that, Harry’s health and digestive problems all went away.
Harry first came to Houston in 1984 to take care of his daughter, Susan, who was a cancer patient. It was then that he started to get into macrobiotics.
“I was cooking for her in the hospital,” says Harry. “I wouldn’t let her eat the hospital food.”
She died a year later, and Harry went from volunteering at the macrobiotic center to working with them full time. He went full vegan.
“If you do it properly, it’s a healthy fast. It’s a healthy diet, but it won’t stop cancer. I know that now. I used to think it would.”
A few years later, Harry met macrobiotics guru Michio Kushi who told him, “Don’t be too perfect; cheat a little. Have a couple pieces of fish a week.”
Live, Laugh, Love
After a second marriage ended, Harry was single for decades until he met Pam Bingham. She was a clarinetist in the Houston symphony. One night, on the way home from their respective gigs, the couple met in the dog food aisle of the Kroger on 11th Street.
“We were the only two in the store,” says Harry. “We were both reaching up for dog food, and she said ‘I know you,’ and we started talking. That’s how it started. Her whole life has been classical, and my whole life has been jazz. And under the sheets it don’t matter.”
Erin Wright, a bass player who first saw Harry play in the ‘80s when she was in high school, has become Harry’s frequent collaborator.
“When people ask me where I went to school,” she says, “I don’t say University of Houston, I tell them I went to the Harry Sheppard School of Music.”
Harry signs his emails “Live, Laugh, Love, and make Music,” and Erin says that’s really what Harry and brother Harvey both still do. Harvey is 92 now, and he still performs many times a week. The brothers and Erin live next door to each other.
“Harry is more than any musician I know an authentic representation of that idea, ‘Don’t ever complain of being bored. If you’re bored go do something,’” says Erin. “He plays for retired nuns, Alzheimer’s patients, cancer patients… It’s never a question of how much, it’s always ‘I’ll be there.’”
Bob Chadwick has been playing flute along with Harry for the last 25 years and gave Harry his first gig in Houston. “When we met,” Bob says, “he was here for his daughter, but what kept him here was getting involved in the music scene.”
Prior to meeting Harry, Bob had played with many jazz greats, but there had always been something missing.
“The musicians might joke on the breaks, but when we were playing it was serious. With Harry it was the first time there was a happy-go-lucky feeling while playing, and the audience picked up on that. With Harry, people are smiling, whether they know anything about music or not.”
Through the years, Harry, who claims he has never taught music, may have ended up teaching many musicians something they could never learn in a class.
“Harry wouldn’t claim to have taught me anything,” says Bob, “but I learn a phenomenal amount from him. The vibe of playing and connecting with the audience. Just have a good time; that’s Harry’s thing.”
See Harry perform: Mondays at Café Brasil 9 p.m. – 12 a.m. and Wednesdays at Masraff’s 6:30 – 10 p.m.