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Gathering to honor "one of the best around'

A party this weekend will celebrate 90-year-old Manzy Harris, band leader, musician, mentor and beloved father figure.

In the '50s and '60s, audiences crowded into local lounges and clubs to dance to popular tunes provided by the Manzy Harris Orchestra. This weekend, an audience of friends and musicians will gather again to honor Harris, who turned 90 on Tuesday.

Last week, former members of Harris' band met to plan a party for the band leader, because they want to show their appreciation for the lessons and the protection he gave them when they performed with him. They remember him as a father figure who treated them with care and fairness.

Lead singer Elsie Davis-McGarrah remembers how Harris made sure all the band members respected one another. She said he made sure they had what they needed and encouraged them to talk about their problems.

"He was most concerned about how we treated each other," Davis-McGarrah said. "If there was a problem, we had to have a meeting to talk it out."

Harris, who lives in Tampa, was born in Georgia in 1909. His father exposed him to music by taking him to see local musicians play. He would go back home and repeat the performance for neighborhood children with his instrument _ a comb and a piece of paper.

"That was my music," Harris said. "I (didn't) have instruments. I would do the whole show from introduction to finale and charged a piece of candy or a penny."

In his teens, Harris taught himself to play guitar and then learned the drums. He played for house parties, because most parents didn't allow their children to go to dances.

"I started getting a group together," he said. "I had to make money to take care of my family."

He started a four-piece band in the mid-1940s in Tampa. The quartet performed at local hotels and clubs. Harris played the piano and drums. By 1960, the quartet had grown into a nine-piece orchestra with a female vocalist. They traveled around Florida and South Carolina to play for college homecomings and dances and high school proms and opened for other popular musicians such as the Fiestas, Fats Domino and B.B. King.

"We got better jobs and more money," Harris said.

Davis-McGarrah joined the band when she was 18, soon after her high school graduation. She said she had to learn new songs every week to keep up with the radio playlists. The band played for both black and white audiences and had a repertoire that included ballads, tangos, polkas, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n' roll.

"We had to give the people what they wanted to hear," Davis-McGarrah said. "I sang Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Al Green. I even sang Elvis Presley's Blue Suede Shoes."

The band had to keep up with the popular style of dress as well. When they performed at the Manhattan Casino each Tuesday night, Davis-McGarrah wore a new gown, and the musicians wore matching suits, shirts, ties and shoes. People paid 50 cents to 75 cents just to see what the band was wearing.

"We were nattily dressed," said trumpet player Alvin Burns of St. Petersburg. "People took a little more pride in how they looked. You never saw a musician in jeans."

Harris' band had a strong influence in both the local and national music scene. In 1946, a 16-year-old blind piano player named Ray Charles Robinson joined the band. Harris hired him when no one else would. Charles _ who eventually dropped his last name _ left the band a year later to start his solo career in Seattle. Other band members went on to play for other musicians or became music directors or professors after Harris retired in the late '60s.

"(Ray) helped my band out," Harris said. "I let him do all the singing and arranging. All the young people who hung out in Tampa dug him."

Leroy Fleming was a student of Davis-McGarrah's late husband, Reynold Davis. Davis, who was the band's arranger, became band director at Gibbs High School. At 15, Fleming went to clubs with Davis to watch Harris' band perform and learn how to play the saxophone. "They were one of the best and most popular bands around," Fleming said. "No one could get any work, because they played all over."

Fleming later became the band's saxophone player. When Harris retired, Fleming performed with James Brown and Otis Redding. He said he was grateful to Davis and Harris because they gave him a start in music.

"They didn't charge for lessons, and it was on-the-bandstand learning," he said. "You had to learn and play at the same time. They were my mentors."

Harris' party will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday at Ike's Lounge, 1205 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. S. It is free and open to the public. Musicians are invited to bring their instruments.

"Please come help us make it a happy day," Davis-McGarrah said.