John Harrelson was born in 1950 in Alabama where his father was a steel mill worker. The Harrelson Family relocated to Fontana, California after his father got a job at the Kaiser Steel Mill. John graduated from Chaffey High School in Ontario in 1968 and went on to receive his bachelor’s degree from Pitzer College and his master’s and doctoral degrees in ethnomusicology from the Claremont Graduate University. Primarily a Claremont resident, Harrelson also lived and studied in London and Belgium and taught music and music history at numerous colleges.
An accomplished musician, songwriter, and teacher, John was a fixture in the Southern California music scene and band member in the The Southe. In the late 1960s, Harrelson’s band, Hard Luck Boy, opened for acts like Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Canned Heat, and John Mayall. Later, Harrelson was a member of the popular Southern California blues band, Blue Hwy.
John Harrelson was a guitar stylist and a major contributor to the guitar tradition. A prolific songwriter, with a catalogue of over 4,500 songs, Harrelson recorded and released nine albums, many on the Rubicon Recordings label. He played twenty instruments including bass, guitar, piano, harmonica, saxophone, accordion, steel guitar, and vibes, and played in numerous bands ranging in genres like rock, blues, country, zydeco, jazz, and big band. His illustrious musical career spanned over 45 years.
John also hosted a radio show at KSPC from 1991 to 1992 called “Frontiers Borders, Regions and Time”. His program description read, “This program presents eclecticism in the KSPC tradition with music from around the world taking the listener to different places in different times-different styles in the same places. It’s a world of music with your host John Bright.”
In 2012, a documentary, Dead Man Rockin' - John Harrelson's Life in Music, chronicling his career was released. The documentary feature was produced and filmed his former band mates in The Southe, Roger Tessier and Michael Monteleone. The film was entered into film festivals across the nation and was a selection of the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs, the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival, the Los Angeles Indie Fest, and the Southern California Film Festival, where it won "Best Documentary" in 2013.
John struggled with health problems most of his life. He had several heart attacks and severe diabetes, which effectively ended his live performance career in the late 1990’s. In 2008, doctors gave him only a few months to live, but he defied all odds and lived another five years. He also suffered a stroke that affected his ability to focus with both eyes; the reason he wore his distinctive eye patch. Sadly, John Harrelson passed away in 2013 at the age of 62.
Photograph from Dead Man Rockin’: John Harrelson’s Life in Music (2012)