Sterling Harrison was a journeyman soul singer who cut his first record in 1955 and spent years on the road, playing clubs across the country and frequently opening for bigger names. Eventually, Harrison ended up in Los Angeles, where he sang at hole-in-the-wall bars and soul food joints on the city's south side through most of the '80s and '90s. Harrison cut a handful of records over the years for labels both big and small, most of which didn't indicate he was anything special, but a tiny handful of fans were of the opinion he was the greatest unknown soul singer on Earth, and in 2001 a few of them decided to help Harrison make the album they knew he was capable of. And it turns out those fans were right on the money; produced by Los Lobos saxman Steve Berlin and comedy writer and soul music maven Eddie Gorodetsky, South of the Snooty Fox is a revelation, a thrilling set of raw but accomplished old-school R&B that suggests at the dawn of the 21st century Harrison may have been the finest exponent of the music's classic style alive. While Harrison's voice is remarkable enough -- a strong baritone that could slide into a clear falsetto or a rumbling bass at will -- it was his sense of phrasing and showman's ability to fill a song with energy and sheer belief that really sets him apart, and hearing him strut through a set of lesser-known R&B classics such as "You Left the Water Running," "There's a Rat Loose in My House" and "I'll Take Care of You" with the swagger and spunk of a 20-year-old is enough to turn nearly anyone into a believer. (A moving cover of Tom Waits' "The House Where Nobody Lives" shows he was just as adept with newer material.) Nearly as remarkable is the accompaniment by Harrison's live band, the New Breed Band, who are dazzlingly tight and funky throughout. Given Harrison's failure to catch a break throughout his career, it's sad but appropriate that shortly after he finished work on South of the Snooty Fox, the singer was diagnosed with cancer, as was his excellent lead guitar player Larry Johnson, and both passed away in 2005 while the album sank into limbo. Thankfully, Hacktone Records has seen fit to give South of the Snooty Fox a long belated release, and anyone who has a taste for classic soul owes it to themselves to give it a spin -- it may have taken 45 years, but when he cut these sessions Harrison finally got to show the world what he was could do, and it's pretty wonderful stuff.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming