Harry Gibson

Harry "The Hipster" Gibson (June 27, 1915 – May 3, 1991), born Harry Raab, was a jazz pianist, singer, and songwriter.[1] Gibson played New York style stride piano and boogie woogie while singing in a wild, unrestrained style. His music career began in the late 1920s, when under his real name, he played stride piano in Dixieland jazz bands in Harlem. He continued to perform there throughout the 1930s, adding the barrelhouse boogie of the time to his repertoire.

Harry Gibson
Gibson in New York, c. 1948
Gibson in New York, c. 1948
Background information
Birth nameHarry Raab
Born(1915-06-27)June 27, 1915
New York, New York, U.S.
DiedMay 3, 1991(1991-05-03) (aged 75)
Brawley, California
Occupation(s)Musician, singer, songwriter
InstrumentsPiano, vocals
Years active1944–1980s
LabelsMusicraft, V-Disc

Gibson was fond of playing Fats Waller tunes, and when Waller heard Gibson in a club in Harlem in 1939, he hired him to be his relief pianist at club dates. Between 1939 and 1945, Gibson played at Manhattan jazz clubs on 52nd Street ("Swing Street"), most notably the Three Deuces, run by Irving Alexander,[2] and Leon and Eddie's run by Leon Enkin and Eddie Davis. Harry took the name "Gibson" from a brand of gin.


In the 1940s, Gibson was known for writing unusual songs, which are considered ahead of their time. He was also known for his unique, wild singing style, his energetic and unorthodox piano styles, and his intricate mixture of hardcore, gutbucket boogie rhythms with ragtime, stride and jazz piano styles. Gibson took the boogie woogie beat of his predecessors, but he made it frantic, similar to the rock and roll music of the 1950s.[3] Examples of his wild style are found in "Riot in Boogie" and "Barrelhouse Boogie". An example of his strange singing style is "The Baby and the Pup." Other songs that he recorded were "Handsome Harry, the Hipster", "I Stay Brown All Year 'Round", "Get Your Juices at the Deuces", and "Stop That Dancin' Up There."

Gibson recorded often, but there are very few visual examples of his work. In 1944 he filmed three songs in New York for the Soundies film jukeboxes, and he went to Hollywood in 1946 to appear as himself in the feature-length film musical Junior Prom. He preceded white rock-and-rollers by a decade: the Soundies he recorded are similar to Jerry Lee Lewis's raucous piano numbers of the 1950s.[4]

For all his wild-man theatrics, Gibson demonstrated remarkable discipline. While working on "Swing Street" at night, he was a fellow at the Juilliard Graduate School during the day.[5][6] At the time, Juilliard was strictly a classical music academy; Gibson excelled there.

Like Mezz Mezzrow, Gibson consciously abandoned his ethnicity to adopt black music and culture. Gibson grew up near Harlem in New York City, and his constant use of black jive talk was not an affectation; it was simply something he picked up from his fellow musicians. His song, "I Stay Brown All Year Round" is based on this.[7] In his autobiography, Gibson claims he coined the term hipster between 1939 and 1945 when he was performing on Swing Street, and he started using "Harry the Hipster" as his stage name.[2]

"Harry the Hipster" headlining at the Onyx on 52nd Street, May 1948. The photo also shows two of Gibson's other haunts, The Three Deuces and Leon and Eddie's.

He recorded "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine?", released in January 1946, and radio stations across America refused to play it, resulting in his being blacklisted in the music industry.[8] Although Gibson's mainstream movie appearance in Junior Prom was released that same year, it couldn't overcome the notoriety of the "Benzedrine" record. Gibson's own drug use led to his decline, and with the rising popularity of young rock-and-roll musicians among teenagers in the 1950s, older musicians were not in demand. He spent time in Miami during the 1950s, and before Christmas 1956 he appeared at the Ball & Chain on the same bill with Billie Holiday. In the 1960s, when Gibson saw the huge success of the Beatles, he switched to rock and roll. By the 1970s, he was playing hard rock, blues, bop, novelty songs and a few songs that mixed ragtime with rock and roll. His hipster act became a hippie act. His old records were revived on the Dr. Demento radio show, particularly "Benzedrine", which was included on the 1975 compilation album Dr. Demento's Delights.

His comeback resulted in three more albums: Harry the Hipster Digs Christmas, Everybody's Crazy but Me, (its title taken from the lyrics of "Stop That Dancin' Up There") (Progressive, 1986), and Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine (Delmark, 1989).[2] Those two include some jazz, blues, ragtime, and rock and roll songs about reefer, nude bathing, hippie communes, strip clubs, male chauvinists, "rocking the 88s", and Shirley MacLaine.

Gibson may have been the only jazz pianist of the 1930s and 1940s to go on to play in rock bands in the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike his 1940s contemporaries, most of whom continued to play the same music for decades, Gibson gradually shifted gears from the 1940s to the 1970s, switching from jazz to rock. The only constants were his tendency to play hard-rocking boogie woogie and his tongue-in-cheek references to drug use. In 1991, shortly before his death, Gibson's family filmed a biographical featurette on his life and music: Boogie in Blue, published as a VHS video that year.

At age 75 Harry Gibson, suffering from congestive heart failure and wanting to avoid further health complications, died from self-inflicted gunshot on May 3, 1991.[9]


  • Boogie Woogie in Blue (Musicraft, 1984; compilation of 1940s recordings)
  • Harry the Hipster Digs Christmas (Totem, 1976; amateur recordings)
  • Everybody's Crazy but Me (Progressive, 1986; new recordings)
  • Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine? (Delmark, 1996; recorded in 1989)
  • Rockin' Rhythm (Sutton; piano album includes three Harry Gibson 78s from the 1940s)

Audio samplesEdit


  1. ^ Harry Gibson, Flavin Feller (December 1995). Boogie in Blue (Videotape). Rhapsody Films.
  2. ^ a b c Gibson, Harry (1986). "Harry The Hipster Autobiography - from Los Angeles to NYC, Fans, Attorneys, and Musicians praise him". Hyzer Creek. Retrieved August 30, 2017.
  3. ^ Yanow, Scott (2003). Jazz on Record. San Francisco, California: Backbeat. p. 277. ISBN 978-0879307554.
  4. ^ Yanow, Scott (2004). Jazz on Film: The Complete Story of the Musicians & Music Onscreen. San Francisco, California: Backbheat Books. p. 28. ISBN 978-0879307837.
  5. ^ Boogie Woogie in Blue (Media notes). Harry Gibson. Musicraft Records. 1944.CS1 maint: others (link)
  6. ^ Cooper, Kim; Smay, David, eds. (2005). Lost in the Grooves: Scram's Capricious Guide to the Music You Missed. New York: Routledge. pp. 98–99. ISBN 0-415-96998-0.
  7. ^ Lopes, Paul (2002). The Rise of a Jazz Art World ([Online-Ausg.]. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 210. ISBN 978-0521000390.
  8. ^ Statement by drummer Tom Magee in movie Boogie in Blue
  9. ^ Wright, Morgan. "Blues and Rhythm in the Company of a Legend". Hyzer Creek. Retrieved August 17, 2017.

External linksEdit