By any measure, James Samuel "Cornbread" Harris had it rough early in life.
Both of his parents died before his 5th birthday. He bounced between foster homes. He was repeatedly hospitalized for disabilities in his legs and feet. And let's not forget he came of age in the Twin Cities as a Black man long before the civil rights movement.
Hearing Harris talk now, though, it sounds like he got the bad stuff out of the way early, and his life has mostly gotten better ever since.
Considering he just turned 95, that's a whole lot of better.
"God has made me an example of his bountiful blessings," Harris said last week with truly a twinkle in his eyes. "I believe that's why I'm still here and able to play piano and be in the public eye: To be his example."
He certainly can still play piano, as evidenced by a new weekly gig he holds down every Sunday afternoon at Palmer's Bar.
Maybe an even bigger blessing: He reconciled with his son, James Harris III, better known as Jimmy Jam.
The two Harris men were estranged for more than 45 years — going back to well before Jimmy and fellow ex-Time bandmate Terry Lewis became famous as hitmaking producers for Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Usher and many more.
They finally met again in person last year and now talk every couple of weeks via video chat. Another face-to-face meeting is being planned again this weekend for Cornbread's birthday bash Friday at the Hook & Ladder, the kickoff of the Minneapolis music haven's Under the Canopy outdoor series.
"He spilled his guts and told me everything he was holding against me all those years," Cornbread said of their initial reunion.
"He thought I was running away from my family, mistreating his mother. Now that he's a father, he understands what fathers go through. He became a better father than me."
Harris also met his grandson Max for the first time at last year's reunion, an introduction that Max's dad said must've left his head spinning.
"Cornbread started giving him advice, and I'm sure Max felt like déjà vu 'cause he had heard me say the same things," Jimmy Jam said. "I told him, 'Now you know where I got it from.'
"It feels good to reconnect with my dad," Jimmy added. "It was important to let him know I had no resentment or blame for the past. [There's] only gratefulness for the musical foundation he gave me and the life philosophy he instilled in me that has shaped the way I've raised my kids."
Cornbread remains grateful, too.
"Every time I talk to him now, he expresses his love for me," the senior Harris said. "It's one of many ways God is keeping me crying with happiness these days."
A story of healing
You could feel that happiness coming through the piano at Palmer's last week.
A stalwart on blues and jazz standards, Harris long has had a remarkable knack for making even the most down-and-out blues songs sound joyous. He gave happy hour a more literal meaning for decades, playing gigs at Loring Pasta Bar, Nikki's Café, Jazzmine's and a graveyard's worth of other supper clubs he has long outlived.
At Palmer's — one of the few watering holes in town older than he is — he sat at the piano in the oddly angled corner by the men's room for two hours, a small microphone slung around his neck and a glass of Mello Yello by his side, barely looking up from the keyboard as he barreled through the good stuff.
His five-piece band took turns soloing, Harris often holding up his hand to signal them. Aside from a couple of hiccups — he couldn't find his glasses to read the lyrics to "It Seems Like a Dream" — he remained upbeat and the consummate professional.
"He still lives for playing," his longtime bassist Scott Soule said. "I like to throw more deep-blues stuff at him and see where he goes with it, which is usually pretty interesting. But mostly he still calls all the shots."
During an interview at his well-kept home on the southern end of north Minneapolis — where he lives with his wife, Sabreen, and is checked on regularly by nurses, friends and daughter Jennifer — Harris couldn't seem to break from performer mode.
He remained seated at his old white piano just off the kitchen. Every few questions would be answered by him turning around on the bench to plunk out a song.
A question about Prince's piano-playing dad (whom he didn't really know) resulted in a mellow, jazzy and actually quite breathtaking rendition of "Purple Rain," done the way he believes John Nelson would've played it. Another query about how he's holding up week after week at Palmer's turned into two songs he likes to start with to get himself warmed up, "Blue Blue Blues" and "Deeper Blues."
Asked about his early days of performing under the moniker of Huckleberry Finn — a nickname he earned from carrying his clothes to school in a sack on a stick — he rolled into an old ragtime-style ditty.
Music journalist Andrea Swensson has been enjoying visits like these on a near-weekly basis while she writes a book about Harris (due next year from University of Minnesota Press).
She touched on his long career in her 2017 book about Minnesota's Black music scene before Prince, "Got to Be Something Here." Near the start of his musical career, Harris played on and helped create what's considered to be Minnesota's first rock 'n' roll hit, Augie Garcia's "Hi Yo Silver" (1955).
"There's nobody who's connected to so many different eras of Minnesota music," Swensson said, explaining her initial incentive for writing a book about Harris. That changed as she got to know the man and witnessed the reconciliation with his son.
Said Swensson, "It turned into a story about learning to love unconditionally and reconnecting with family. And healing."
Asked about all this newfound momentum and interest in him coming out of the COVID lockdown — which, let's face it, could've resulted in his unplanned retirement — Harris once again turned around and picked out a song for an answer. What else but "Amazing Grace"?
Star Tribune staff writer Jon Bream contributed to this article.