At Rock Hall of Fame, a Phila. voice at top

Guitar of Clash's Joe Strummer. Harris acquired his love of music and music history listening to WMMR and WYSP.
Guitar of Clash's Joe Strummer. Harris acquired his love of music and music history listening to WMMR and WYSP.
Posted: January 21, 2013

CLEVELAND - Greg Harris has been in his new job only since Jan. 1, so forgive him if his office is still a work in progress.

Chuck Berry's "Carol" - a 45 he bought as a teenager, growing up in Bucks County - is pinned to a bulletin board, next to a picture of the late Phillies relief pitcher Tug McGraw.

An image of Joe Strummer of the Clash in silhouette lies flat on his desk. Leaning against the wall is a poster for Rock Around the Clock, the 1956 movie staring Bill Haley & the Comets that promises to tell "The Whole Story of Rock and Roll!"

That story is now in the hands of Harris, the onetime Temple University dropout who in 1984 cofounded the still-standing Queen Village music store Philadelphia Record Exchange. In December, he was named president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

"From where I'm sitting now and looking back, it all fits together," says Harris, 47, from behind his desk in the office warren underneath I.M. Pei's steel-and-glass pyramid on the shores of Lake Erie. "But as it was happening, some of it was just plain opportunity and luck that fell my way."

He's talking about the serpentine career path that led from passing out fliers so he could get in free to see bands like Husker Du and the Circle Jerks at the long-defunct punk-rock venue Love Hall at Broad and South, to working as a tour manager for Camden County rocker Ben Vaughn, to serving a 14-year rotation of jobs at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

"The story is really about loving music," he says. "It started with first opening up the store, and then being involved in the Philly music scene, not just as a fan, but behind the scenes."

Harris, who is married and has two children, acquired his love of music - and music history - growing up in Morrisville and listening to the Philadelphia rock stations WMMR and WYSP as well as such oldies outlets as WFIL.

"Growing up in that area, you still had The Geator, Hy Lit, and those guys playing music on your AM radio. And you also listened to the rock stations. I don't know if it was that way in other regions," says Harris, who keeps up with Philly radio these days by streaming WXPN-FM on his iPhone. "But all that stuff was alive, and it felt kind of local in the Delaware Valley."

As head of the Rock Hall, which has a Grateful Dead exhibit up until March 23, as well as one on Dick Clark and American Bandstand, Harris is charged with making music history come alive.

"You have to believe there's a power in the original object," says Harris, who wears a Rock Hall 45 spindle-adaptor pin on his lapel. "When you hold Lou Gehrig's glove, you feel that energy.

"It's the same with us. But that's the debris, the thing that's left over. . . . We're a history museum that has all those things. But we're also an art museum, and the art is the music."

Nobody who has encountered Harris along the way from Morrisville to the Rock Hall, where he came in 2008 to work as vice president in charge of fund-raising, seems surprised by his rise.

When Harris was named CEO last month, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, drummer of the Roots, said: "As a musician and a historian, I'm thrilled. . . . His store, the Philadelphia Record Exchange, was my home away from home, and most of my 70,000-plus vinyl records came from there."

Harris founded the Record Exchange with Jacy Webster, who still runs it, after the two met when Webster was selling vinyl out of the back of the Book Trader at Fifth and South Streets.

Before he sold his share three years later, Harris met Vaughn, who needed a road manager who could drive - and fix - his beat-up van.

"It was almost like he knew he was going to be head of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," says Vaughn by phone from Los Angeles. "It was like he needed the experience of being on the road with a rock-and-roll band before he went back to college." (After dropping out in 1984, Harris returned to Temple for a degree in social history, then got a master's from the Cooperstown Graduate Program for History and Museum Studies.)

Vaughn says Harris was "like a trail boss" as road manager, always "gobbling up everything. He was organized yet wildly enthusiastic. You usually get one or the other."

After finishing school in Cooperstown, Harris landed a job at the Baseball Hall, organizing audiovisual archives. Dale Petroskey, then president of the hall, said Harris "has such ability to connect with people, we needed him in a more public role." Petroskey, a former assistant press secretary for Ronald Reagan, put Harris in charge of membership, and the number swelled from 4,000 to 32,000.

Harris has a special knack for bringing the past to life, Petroskey says. "I'm prouder of Greg than anybody I've ever worked with," Petroskey says.

"Greg is never short on enthusiasm or ideas," says Howard Kramer, the Rock Hall's curatorial director, a former Philadelphian who, strangely enough, managed Ben Vaughn. When Harris won the CEO job after a national search, Kramer says, "it made for a smooth transition. . . . The nerve-racking mystery of a stranger coming in wasn't an issue."

Walking the floor of the Rock Hall, Harris points out a boom box used by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and the lyric sheet to the Intruders' "Love Is Like a Baseball Game." He pauses on one of the Pei pyramid's escalators to listen to "Because the Night." "Patti Smith," he says, "another great South Jersey artist."

The Cleveland museum, which opened in 1995, attracts 450,000 visitors a year. "That number has been static," Harris says. "We need to move the needle." His to-do list includes growing museum membership and building the endowment, all the more important because, last year, the Rock Hall opened a $12 million Library and Archives building.

"We like to say that this is the history of the most powerful art form ever made," he says. "It told people you can think differently, look differently, and act differently. All those sorts of things are why rock-and-roll is important. Our potential is enormous."

The Rock Hall induction has traditionally been in New York. Since 2007, it has been held in Cleveland once every three years. This year's gala, in which Rush, Public Enemy, Randy Newman, Donna Summer, Albert King, Heart, Lou Adler, and Quincy Jones will be inducted, will be in Los Angeles.

To spread the gospel, Harris thinks it would be a good idea to take the Rock Hall show on the road. "It would be a neat model to hold the ceremony every three years in New York, Cleveland, and then some other city," he says, with a glint in his eye. "How about Philly?"


The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Greg Harris talks about Philly rock icons at www.philly.com/rockhall


Contact Dan DeLuca

at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix,"

at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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