All About that Bass

Charlie Harris can play the other side like a bass guitar

Published in 2018 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers — December 2018

Charlie Harris calls it controlled aggression

It’s a type of assertiveness, marked by short bursts of energy and inflection. Astute listeners, he says, can hear it inside his deposition room and in the notes of his music. 

Harris, with Seyferth Blumenthal & Harris, has earned his place as one of the region’s fiercest litigators and, for the last seven years or so, one of its funkiest bass guitarists. 

Since 2011, when he finally got serious about his longtime love for music, he’s rocked out with Grammy winners, toured clubs in Nashville and recorded two albums with his banjo jam band. 

“The most well-adjusted lawyers I know have things they are passionate about,” says Harris. “I love the profession. But I don’t know that there is anything on earth as rewarding as changing a mood in a room with your music.”

Though his firm is best known for its business and employment litigation chops, Harris and a team of SBH lawyers made headlines earlier this year when they represented Jackson County in an employment discrimination case that turned scandalous when it came to light that the plaintiff, administrative assistant Christine Lynde, was embroiled in a love triangle with then-Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp. 

Harris and his team sniffed out the scandal, and Harris led a series of depositions that exposed inappropriate behavior by the sheriff; and that Lynde, who was suing the county for sexual harassment, received unjustified benefits, including promotions and trips. The sheriff resigned and the case was dropped. 

In 2008, Harris made history as the Missouri Bar Association’s first African-American president. His advocacy around diversity issues in law earned him plaudits from the NAACP.

One day in 2011, things took an abrupt tone shift. Harris’ wife, Vickie, approached him. “She said she was sending me to the woods,” he remembers.

Rural Tennessee, in fact, where Vickie had arranged for Harris to spend the weekend at Wooten Woods—a “jam camp” musical retreat hosted by Grammy Award-winning bass player and composer Victor Wooten, bassist for Béla Fleck and the Flecktones since 1990. 

It was the perfect 20th anniversary gift for a lover of music who needed a “kick in the butt” to get to the next level. 

Harris wasn’t sure what he’d gotten into. Sure, he’d grown up listening to an eclectic mix of Motown, Hendrix and Zeppelin, but he had no formal musical training. He could tinker, though: His family gave him a bass for Christmas one year, and it turned out he had a hidden gift. 

“I started listening to commercials on TV, picked up the bass, and saw how long until I could replicate the jingle,” he says. “Just, here’s the melody, the harmony, and I’d kind of approximate it.” .

Wooten Woods, however, was a different story. “Frightening,” he says, “to see what real bass guitarists could do.” After a few days of lessons, he summoned the courage to play a song he wrote called “The Gift” for the other campers. 

“Lo and behold, five or six other people started playing with me,” he says, while Wooten observed. He later told Harris: “You can play. You just don’t know what you’re doing yet.”

Harris was floored. “After camp, I started into this funk thing. I went home, geeked a little bit, took some lessons and started composing.”

“This funk thing” turned into Chilliott, a band he formed with banjo player BJ Presnell and drummer Elliott Stevens, both from North Carolina. The group recorded two albums, and has performed around the Southeast U.S. and Kansas City. 

“Music is no more than a conversation,” Harris says. “If you’re a lawyer and you talk endlessly to hear your own voice, you’re probably not a good lawyer. The most successful lawyers are listeners. It’s the same with music. If you subjugate yourself to listening, you become instantly better.”

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