Beloved rodeo entertainer, Collierville icon Lecile Harris passes away

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Lecile Harris, 83, passed away in his sleep on Feb. 12 after completing the Dixie Nationals Rodeo in Jackson, Miss.

Services for Harris will be from 1-3 p.m. on Feb. 23 in the Collierville High School Gymnasium. A Celebration of Life Service will follow from 3-4 p.m. 

The longtime Collierville resident was a well-known and respected professional rodeo clown and bullfighter. He was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2007.

Harris was born on Nov. 6, 1936 in Lake Cormorant, Miss.

Harris’ rodeo career spanned six decades. Many years he performed in more than 140 rodeo shows.

It wasn’t until 1988 that a 52-year-old Harris decided to hang it up as a bullfighter and focus exclusively on his now famous clown routine.

He began transforming arena dirt into his own comedic-but-perilous stage in 1955 at a rodeo in Arlington.

When one of the bullfighters didn’t show for the event, Harris, who was already interested in riding bulls, asked the rodeo operators for a chance to fill in.

“Well, I did a good enough job that they paid for my entry fee (to ride),” he said back in an interview with The Collierville Independent in 2013.

Harris, who had just graduated from Collierville High School and was already splitting time drumming for a local band and painting signs for businesses like the McGinnis Service Station and Dairy Freeze, quickly became a mainstay at rodeos throughout the Mid-South.

But the tall, athletic frame that had helped Harris net a football scholarship to the University of Tennessee at Martin didn’t provide him with a low center of gravity and eventually made it impractical for him to ride bulls.

“I was too tall to ride,” he said. “There is just so much whip on you that they just sling you off.”

So, Harris began to hone his skills as a bullfighter with a focus on rodeo entertainment.

On the rodeo circuit, Harris began to earn a reputation as an expert bullfighter who also understood the value of entertaining an audience.

“Back then,” he said, “you were a clown AND a bullfighter. They required it. You had to do comedy and pull the bull away if a rider got in trouble.”

Eventually, Harris gained enough exposure as an innovative entertainer that he was hired by country musician Loretta Lynn to perform in her rodeo company.

“Most rodeo clowns have three or four acts that they do,” he noted seven years ago. “I’ve created more than 20.”

Noting that fear never entered his mind when entering the arena, Harris said he never considered himself “bulletproof.”

“I just always thought that I was capable of not getting beat,” he said. “Every time I ever got caught, I felt like it was my fault and that I could correct it the next time.

“If a bull got me down a couple of times,” he continued, “I got to where I craved him.”

Harris, who appeared on the television show “Hee Haw” for five years, was also an avid musician. In his younger days, Harris was the drummer for local rock band The Echoes.

One winter, Harris found himself backing a group of musicians that included rockabilly pioneer Bill Black, saxophonist and Hi Records recording artist Ace Cannon, and Carl McVoy, who is often credited with teaching his younger cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis, how to play the piano.

“There really aren’t any rodeos in the winter,” Harris said. “So, I stayed busy pursuing my other passions. But as soon as I smelled onions, I was back on the rodeo trail again.”

Much like a drummer holds a song together by keeping a steady beat, Harris was adept at unifying a rodeo performance with improvised and comical banter, a talent he called “walking and talking.”

“The arena is full of cracks and crevices,” he explained. “The animals might be acting up or something else is going wrong. I consider myself the glue that holds the show together so people don’t know they are sitting through a breakdown.”

Until the end, Harris said he still enjoyed the response he received from crowds while performing his trademark character, “the Old Man.”

“I always wanted my character to be an old man,” he said. “I practiced walking like an old man and everything else. Well, I finally made it to where I don’t have to pretend.”