John Harrelson was a Chaffey High freshman when the Beatles hit the airwaves. Like a lot of young men, he was inspired to learn to play guitar and join a band.
Harrelson, however, never put the guitar down to grow up and move on. He spent the rest of his life earning a living from his craft: writing songs, performing, touring and recording.
Harrelson, who was beset with health problems in recent years, died Wednesday at an Upland rehabilitation center. The Ontario resident was 62.
"John was a musical genius. I don't say that lightly," said John Neiuber, his best friend, producer and onetime manager.
Harrelson could play 20 different instruments, notably guitar, bass, pedal steel, piano, violin and saxophone. He had a doctorate in ethnomusicology from Claremont Graduate University and taught music and music history at numerous colleges. And he wrote more than 4,500 songs.
At Chaffey he was in a garage band named The Southe with classmates Roger Tessier, Michael Monteleone and Ron Turnbow. After high school Harrelson led Hard Luck Boy, a blues-based rock band that opened concerts throughout the Southwest for such acts as Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and John Mayall.
He was approached by Dot Records about a solo contract. Harrelson stayed loyal to his band, which proved to be a career mistake.
"This won't be my only shot," Harrelson later said of his thinking at the time. Unfortunately, it was.
But he persevered, performing gigs for four decades throughout the United States and Europe, which he called home for a time. A favorite venue locally was the Press in Claremont, where he hosted a weekly jam for more than three years and performed solo or with bands on many other occasions.
He recorded seven CDs in the past decade thanks to Neiuber, who bankrolled and produced them. They ranged from jazz and barrelhouse piano to rock, blues and country and represented an attempt to preserve some of Harrelson's songs in the hopes they might outlast him.
"I just thought, this is someone people need to hear," Neiuber explained.
That became more urgent as Harrelson's health began failing. A heart attack at 37, a quadruple bypass at 39 and diabetes in his 40s was only the beginning for a man whose father died at 49.
In 2006, he collapsed at home. In the emergency room, his heart stopped twice but he was revived, emerging from a coma a week later. Later that year he had a stroke that cost him most of the sight in his left eye. He began wearing an eyepatch. Earlier this year, his kidneys failed and his left leg was amputated below the knee due to gangrene.
A documentary, "Dead Man Rockin'," made by two of his former Chaffey bandmates, debuted earlier this year and has played at film festivals in Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Chicago.
Survivors include his mother, Doris, of Ontario; his sister, Susan Culbertson; and relatives in his native Alabama, where he will be buried.
A viewing and visitation will take place from 2 to 5 p.m. today at Draper Mortuary, 8111 N. Mountain Ave. in Ontario.
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.
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