Tony 'Doctah X' Harrington: 1948-2020

Andy Downing
adowning@columbusalive.com

For musician Tony Harrington, who died of natural causes on Dec. 24 at the age of 72, the recording studio served as a place of sanctuary. 

Nicknamed the House of Dub and located in a Linden split-level that had previously been home to a beauty shop, Harrington’s studio was appointed with all types of musical gear (computers, mixing consoles and myriad instruments collected through the decades) that remained in a constant state of readiness, ensuring the musician could walk in and begin creating at any time of day.

In the studio, according to four people interviewed, everything had its place, which wasn’t always the case elsewhere in the home. “The studio was very well organized,” said Harrington’s former wife, Alison Poirer, who met the musician during one of his early 1990s gigs at what is now the Boat House at Confluence Park. “It was ‘drop off’ everywhere else: drop off on the kitchen counter, drop off on the stairs, drop off anywhere but the studio.”

Far from antiseptic, though, the studio reflected Harrington’s wild creativity, with purple walls, a large poster of Jimi Hendrix and scattered lava lamps and lightning globes. The space was also frequently visited by the snakes Harrington raised, and which had their own room in the house. (A longtime animal lover, the musician always had a canine companion, as well.)

At times, Harrington, who in more recent years created dub music under the name Doctah X, would lose himself so fully in the studio that he could overlook outside responsibilities. Karen Bell, who worked with Harrington at the Columbus Metropolitan Library beginning in 2009 and later became his friend and partner, said there would be occasional arguments stemming from her push to get him to leave his musical cocoon and better engage his surroundings.

“He would disappear into that world, and there were things that had to be done,” said Bell, pointing to a missed Medicare payment that turned into a yearlong odyssey to get benefits restored. “It was kind of like a kid would do, where he’d want to go into the studio and play with his equipment, and you would almost have to reel him back in and make him deal with life.”

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According to everyone interviewed, Harrington’s existence had always centered on music. Bell described him as “a natural born musician” who always seemed to be in touch with the various vibrations emitted by the universe. As a result, Harrington had an innate ability to uncover rhythms in the various sounds he encountered throughout his day. 

“Tony found music in anything and everything,” said Poirer, who recalled making annual treks with Harrington to watch the NASCAR race at Michigan International Speedway, which generally involved him lugging a tape recorder so that he could capture the whoosh of the passing cars for use in future songs. “He could hear music in a spoon. I could be eating, and he’d be like, ‘Oh, my god. That’s a beat. Can you do that again?’”

“His ear was always open to any and everything. Things I would think was terrible, man, Tony could take that and make it sound good. ‘What the hell is that, Tone?’ ‘Oh, I dubbed that.’ ‘Really? You can make something bad sound good, brother,'” said Bonghi of Ras Bonghi, a band Harrington joined as guitarist following a stint where he lived in Europe and toured as a guitarist with former Cream drummer Ginger Baker. “Being a musician myself, when you’re born to do something, it’s like there’s this light. And he was a light. Music was just natural to him.”

Harrington was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on Aug. 17, 1948, and grew up in Bracktown, a Black settlement on the northwest side of the city, raised alongside twin sisters by a school teacher mother and a father who worked for the U.S. Postal Service. 

After graduating fromBryan Station High School in Lexington, Harrington spent time at Eastern Kentucky University and Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina, before dropping out to pursue music full-time. Early on, according to two people interviewed, Harrington focused his efforts on the blues. He once sat in with Bo Diddley and later performed with Albert Collins and John Lee Hooker, though his musical interests were wide-ranging, with artists such as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix repeatedly mentioned as favorites. 

“He listened to everybody. He was always on a quest for new sounds,” said Lavondo Thomas, a New York-based musician who worked alongside Harrington at the Downtown library in the late ’90s. “I was shocked one time a few years back when he told me he was working on a mix for Happy Chichester … and I didn’t know he and Happy got down like that. But people learn from Tony, and he learned from everyone else.”

Harrington’s first major break arrived in the 1980s when he responded to an advertisement that Ginger Baker placed seeking a guitarist for his band, which led to a yearlong gig touring with the pugnacious former Cream drummer in Italy and other parts of Europe. According to Bell, Harrington and his then-girlfriend initially shared an apartment with Baker and his girlfriend, whom Baker frequently lambasted for being unable to prepare a proper cup of tea. 

Oftentimes, Bell said, Harrington and Baker would return to the apartment late after a gig and encounter an owl perched in the tree immediately outside the window, which both took as an omen, though Harrington never revealed what he believed it to foretell. On tour, Baker maintained a habit of rating the drummers for opening bands based on their ability to keep proper time, which is a tradition Harrington continued later in life. “We went to this Willie Nelson concert and all of a sudden Tony swings over and goes, ‘This … drummer might as well have stayed home,’” Bell said, and laughed. “And I was like, ‘Tony, I don’t think country music is really known for its drumming.’”

Poirer said that Harrington returned to the United States from Europe in the early 1990s following the death of one of his sisters, eventually settling in Columbus due to the strength of the local reggae scene, which centered on Roots Records and Skankland (now Skully’s), which at the time was the sole dedicated reggae venue between New York and Chicago. With his bandScarob, Harrington played alongside the likes of Lee "Scratch" Perry, Dr. Israel and Subatomic Sound System, cutting a strong onstage figure with his lanky frame, beard, broad smile and trademark dreadlocks, along with his penchant for appearing perpetually swept up in the moment.

“When he was playing music … he had a bounce about him,” Poirer said.

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In interviews, Harrington was repeatedly described as soft-spoken but assured, traits that tended to bleed into his recordings. “His music was usually more low tempo and slower tempo, and it was kind of about building a real atmosphere,” said New York musician and Columbus expat Zachery Allan Starkey, who first crossed paths with Harrington at age 12 during one of the regular library visits he made with his grandfather (Starkey would later work there alongside Harrington). “And that was definitely, I think, part of his personality, because … he was very calm and measured, and he was very reflective and thoughtful, and I think all those things manifested in his music.”

Frequently, Harrington’s songs emerged directly from his daily existence. Poirer said the song “Limb By Limb” extended from the musician’s approach to tackling negative energy, hacking it away bit by bit, while “Yuccas Die in July” took inspiration from the Yucca trees in the couple’s backyard that would die at the height of each summer.

Both as Doctah X and with earlier bands such as Scarob, Harrington never locked himself tightly into a genre, incorporating elements of world music, blues, rock, reggae and more into his dub creations. “He didn’t follow the trends. He kind of did his own thing, whatever sounded good,” saidMosiyah Tafari, a musician and recording engineer who moved to Columbus shortly after graduating college in 2015 and quickly struck up a working relationship with Harrington. “If he was making a reggae track, he might add an Indian instrument. … He wasn’t bound by the traditional barriers of music. He was willing to follow his creativity wherever it led.”

“He was always getting new equipment, new downloads for his computer, new instruments, new this, new that," Poirer said "He was always, always expanding."

“We had some customers from the Middle East who showed him how to play the oud and the tabla,” said Chip Patzer, Harrington’s first boss at the library. “He always wanted to add different things to his music, whether it was an Indian instrument, or a Middle Eastern instrument, or someone singing in a different language.”

Several traced Harrington’s musical explorations to a curiosity that appeared to inspire him on a perpetual quest for knowledge, which is part of what attracted him to work at the library, where he was employed from 1998 through his retirement in 2013.

“We’d be together at the library and Tony would be like, ‘Oh, I just did a couple of tracks with Dr. Israel,’ who I knew was a famous reggae guy, and I’d just look at him and be like, ‘What? What are you doing working here at the library?’” Starkey said. “But if you were an artist or musician, the library was a great place to work. … And Tony loved working at the library. He loved helping patrons out and talking to people about film and music.”

“One of the reasons I hired him was that he was so comfortable with people, and he could talk so easily with people he’d never met before,” said Patzer. “He was a mellow guy, but he wasn’t a pushover. And he had perspective. He’d been around and seen a million different things in his travels and all of his concerts.”

Over time, Harrington helped develop and grow musical programs within the library system geared toward children, with whom he always had a clear, immediate bond, owing to the fact that he himself maintained a sense of childlike wonder.

“He started doing programs for even younger kids, around 5 years old, and he would bring in noisemakers and drums and things for them to bang on. He loved to hear kids expressing themselves, and he had endless patience with them, and would have them dance and parade around the activity room,” Bell said. “He was a big kid, so he could still relate to them on their level. In some ways he was a very innocent person. I mean, he could be cynical, but he never showed that side to kids.”

Harrington, who also had three children of his ownKeith Dewalt of Louisville, Kentucky, Jaysumma Old of San Diego, California, and Hannah Dexter of Portland, Maine  always had an instinctual connection with the younger generations, a bond to which some credited his seemingly ageless appearance.

Starkey, for one, was surprised to learn Harrington’s true age following his death, since until more recent years the elder musician appeared to be almost completely untouched by time. “He always looked the same, with the dreadlocks and a beard that was sometimes tinted red,” Starkey said. “From the time I met him until his passing, I had no idea how old he was. … It was like he never aged. He was sort of old and wise and infinitely young at the same time.”

Harrington’s curious nature extended to the people with whom he crossed paths. 

“He was just genuinely a kind soul, caring, empathetic and really interested in what other people were doing,” said musician Andy Shaw, who first crossed paths with Harrington within the reggae scene a decade ago, eventually becoming a musical collaborator. “And he wanted to listen. He was curious about people.”

Lavondo Thomas recalled how Harrington would earnestly pepper him with questions, and how he appeared genuinely interested to hear the responses. “Like he was learning from you,” he said. “And it would throw me for a loop. Here’s this guy who’s 20 years older than you. Who’s your elder. And he’s gathering knowledge from you. And that was one of the beautiful things about Tony: There was no ego. He’d accept that knowledge from anywhere.”

Tafari described a similar relationship with Harrington, presenting the elder as a mentor who was every bit as eager to pick up new sonic tricks from his protege. “He was always willing to learn from me, too,” Tafari said. “He was so humble in that way, realizing there’s never an end to your ability to improve yourself.”

Indeed, it appears as if not even death has ended this push for Harrington. Shaw said he has about 10 tracks on which he and Harrington collaborated remotely that could see the light of day, in addition to untold hours of music contained on the laptops that Poirer said were likely to be inherited by Tafari, who has been tasked with carrying on Harrington’s musical legacy in the coming months and years.

“[Harrington] sort of reached out to me last year … as we were starting to work together and said, ‘Just in case of anything, I want you to know these things should be finished,’” Tafari said. “For artists, there’s not a true end to their creativity. That’s why you have people like Bob Marley and Tupac and the Beatles, where 40 years later the record company is still releasing new music. There’s always something more. And Tony always told me, if anything happens, finish these things and make sure they’re out there.”

In that spirit, while friends and family are currently mourning Harrington’s death, few spoke of it as an end, whether it was talk of keeping alive his memory, continuing to introduce the world to his music, or, in the case of former bandmate Bonghi, a belief that his energy had merely been called away to assist elsewhere.

“Tony was a ball of light, man, and I want to be sad, and I am sad, and I’m going to miss him,” Bonghi said. “But at the same time I know they need him somewhere else right now. ... They needed him somewhere else so that he could go and pick them up.”

Tony Harrington

 

Tony Harrington, who often recorded and performed as "Doctah X."