At 75, having faced down more than his share of angry bulls, no one would blame Lecile Harris if he retired. But the rodeo clown legend keeps on going, doing what he has done for the more than 57 years -- bringing smiles to faces at rodeo events around the world.
"I still love it," said Harris, who in recent years has scaled back, albeit slightly, from about 140 appearances a year to about 100.
"I just work the ones that I really enjoy working," he said. "I don't have to go to the ones that I don't like. If I don't have fun at them anymore, I don't bother with them."
Though he has stamped such exotic locales as Hawaii and South Africa into his passport, his annual participation in the Rodeo of the Mid-South in Southaven remains a highlight of his calendar. The stop is his only local appearance of the year, and it comes around this weekend with a two-night stand at Southaven's Landers Center.
"Being my hometown rodeo, I'm a little partial to it," said Harris, who was born in Lake Cormorant, Miss., and raised in Collierville, where he still lives.
"Southaven is probably one of the neatest little venues for a rodeo because you're right on top of the action. There's no bad seats there. It's not like going to Cheyenne or Pendleton, where you're 100 yards away from the action. There (Southaven), you're close enough you're liable to get something slung on ya."
Harris literally fell into the rodeo life as a teenager. On a lark, the 18-year-old went to a rodeo where he paid $5 to ride a bull. He was bucked but instantly hooked.
At one of his first events, Harris was asked to fill in for a no-show rodeo clown. Clowns are a traditional part of the rodeo, serving the important function of bullfighter -- the person who jumps into a ring to draw an animal away from a fallen rider. Some clowns also fill the role of providing comedic relief between competitions.
"It didn't take me long to figure that you got paid for doing comedy, and you got paid for riding bulls," Harris said. "Well, if you're going to be there anyway, you might as well do both jobs and get both checks."
Something of a renaissance man, Harris continued working as a rodeo clown throughout college at the University of Tennessee at Martin, where he had a football scholarship. At the same time, he was building a career as a drummer with musical groups like the Capris and hanging out with Sam Philips at Sun Studio and Willie Mitchell at Royal Studios.
After graduation, however, Harris faced a tough life choice.
"I had an animal husbandry degree and music or I could go with rodeo," he remembers. "Instead of choosing a legitimate occupation, I decided to go rodeo because at the time, I was getting a little bit tired of clubs and juke joints."
While it may have been the thrill of the bull chase that drew Harris to the rodeo, it's been his love for comedy that has sustained him. Modeling himself on rodeo clown pioneer Emmett Kelly -- with a little bit of Red Skelton and the animated version of the Pink Panther thrown in -- Harris developed a unique character that has kept generations of rodeo fans in stitches ever since.
He has been named Clown of the Year by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association multiple times, and five years ago he was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, one of only a handful of clowns to receive that honor.
"Fighting bulls is so much easier than comedy," he said. "I learned to fight bulls well enough in five years to work in a finals. And here I am working in comedy 57 years, and I'm still learning. I tell ya, I'd rather get hooked by a bull than a piece of comedy go sour."
RODEO OF THE MID-SOUTH
WHEN: 7:30 tonight and Saturday
WHERE: Landers Center, 4560 Venture Drive, Southaven
TICKETS: $28, $18 and $12 in advance; ticket prices increase $2 day of show. Tickets available at the box office and through Ticketmaster.
Information: Call (662) 470-2131 or visit landerscenter.com or rodeoofthemidsouth.com.