Harris was born and grew up in Chicago. His father was originally from Cuba, and his mother from New Orleans. Like other successful Chicago musicians, including Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Clifford Jordan, Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, Julian Priester, and Bo Diddley (among others), young Eddie Harris studied music under Walter Dyett at DuSable High School. He later studied music at Roosevelt University, by which time he was proficient on piano, vibraphone, and tenor saxophone. While in college, he performed professionally with Gene Ammons.
After college, Harris was drafted into the United States Army and while serving in Europe, he was accepted into the 7th Army Band, which also included Don Ellis, Leo Wright, and Cedar Walton.
Leaving military service, he worked in New York City before returning to Chicago where he signed a contract with Vee Jay Records. His first album for Vee Jay, Exodus to Jazz, included his own jazz arrangement of Ernest Gold's theme from the movie Exodus. A shortened version of this track, which featured his masterful playing in the upper register of the tenor saxophone, was heavily played on radio and became the first jazz record ever to be certified gold.
The single climbed into the US Billboard Hot 100 and reached No. 16 in the U.S. R&B chart. Some jazz critics, however, regarded commercial success as a sign that a jazz artist had sold out and Harris soon stopped playing "Exodus" in concert. He moved to Columbia Records in 1964 and then to Atlantic Records the following year where he re-established himself. In 1965, Atlantic released The In Sound, a bop album that won back many of his detractors.
Over the next few years, he began to perform on electric piano and the electric Varitone saxophone, and to perform a mixture of jazz and funk that sold well in both the jazz and rhythm and blues markets. In 1967, his album, The Electrifying Eddie Harris reached second place on the R&B charts. The album's lead track, "Listen Here", was issued as a single, climbing to No. 11 R&B and No. 45 on the Hot 100. Harris released several different versions of his composition over the years, including both studio and live concert recordings. The first appeared on an early Atlantic album, "Mean Greens", featuring him on electric piano. He was to re-work the track two years later, stretching it out to over seven minutes in length, for his iconic sax solo version. The whole track appeared on both sides of the Atlantic hit single, edited into two parts.
In 1969, he performed with pianist and vocalist Les McCann at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Although the musicians had been unable to rehearse, their session was so impressive that a recording of it was released by Atlantic as Swiss Movement. This became one of the best-selling jazz albums ever, also reaching second place on the R&B charts.
Harris also came up with the idea of the reed trumpet, playing one for the first time at the Newport Jazz Festival of 1970 to mostly negative critical feedback. From 1970 to 1975, he experimented with new instruments of his own invention (the reed trumpet was a trumpet with a saxophone mouthpiece, the saxobone was a saxophone with a trombone mouthpiece, and the guitorgan was a combination of guitar and organ), with singing the blues, with jazz-rock (he recorded an album with Steve Winwood, Jeff Beck, Albert Lee, Ric Grech, Zoot Money, Ian Paice and other rockers). He also started singing comic R&B/blues songs, such as "That is Why You're Overweight" and "Eddie Who?".
In 1975, however, he alienated much of his audience with his album The Reason Why I'm Talking S--t, which consisted mainly of comedy. Interest in subsequent albums declined and he left Atlantic after his final album for the label in 1977, after a stay of over 12 years. He then signed for RCA Records, but his two albums there in the late 1970s were his last for a major label.
He was a member of Horace Silver's Quintet in the early 1980s and continued to record regularly well into the 1990s, sometimes in Europe where he enjoyed a loyal following, but his experimentation ended and he mainly recorded hard bop. He had moved from Chicago to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, and was responsible for much of the music on the hit television series, The Bill Cosby Show.
Harris died of congestive heart failure in Los Angeles, at the age of 62.1961: Exodus to Jazz (Vee-Jay)
1961: Mighty Like a Rose (Vee-Jay)
1961: Jazz for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (Vee-Jay)
1962: A Study in Jazz (Vee-Jay)
1962: Eddie Harris Goes to the Movies (Vee-Jay)
1963: Bossa Nova (Vee-Jay)
1963: Half and Half (Vee-Jay)
1964: For Bird and Bags (Exodus) – also released as Sculpture (Buddah)
1964: Cool Sax, Warm Heart (Columbia)
1964: Here Comes the Judge (Columbia)
1965: Cool Sax from Hollywood to Broadway (Columbia)
1965: The In Sound ((Atlantic))
1966: Mean Greens (Atlantic)
1967: The Tender Storm (Atlantic)
1968: The Electrifying Eddie Harris (Atlantic)
1968: Plug Me In (Atlantic)
1968: Pourquoi L'Amérique – soundtrack (AZ)
1968: Silver Cycles (Atlantic)
1969: High Voltage (Atlantic)
1969: Swiss Movement (Atlantic) – with Les McCann
1969: Free Speech (Atlantic)
1970: Come on Down! (Atlantic)
1970: Live at Newport (Atlantic)
1970: Smokin' (Janus, 1970)
1971: Second Movement (Atlantic) with Les McCann
1971: Instant Death (Atlantic)
1972: Eddie Harris Sings the Blues (Atlantic)
1973: Excursions (Atlantic)
1974: E.H. in the U.K. (Atlantic)
1974: Is It In (Atlantic)
1974: I Need Some Money (Atlantic)
1975: Bad Luck Is All I Have (Atlantic)
1975: That Is Why You're Overweight (Atlantic)
1975: The Reason Why I'm Talking S--t 1976 (Atlantic)
1976: How Can You Live Like That? (Atlantic)
1978: I'm Tired of Driving (RCA)
1979: Playin' with Myself (RCA)
1981: Sounds Incredible (Angeleco)
1981: Steps Up (SteepleChase)
1982: The Real Electrifying Eddie Harris (Mutt & Jeff)
1983: Exploration (Chiaroscuro)
1986: Eddie Who? (Timeless)
1987: People Get Funny (Timeless)
1989: Live in Berlin (Timeless)
1990: Live at the Moonwalker Moonwalker (Suisa)
1991: A Tale of Two Cities Virgin Japan
1991: There Was a Time – Echo of Harlem (Enja)
1993: For You, For Me, For Evermore (SteepleChase)
1993: Yeah You Right (Lakeside)
1993: Listen Here (Enja)
1994: Freedom Jazz Dance (Musicmasters); w/ Jacky Terrasson, George Mraz and Billy Hart
1994: Vexatious Progressions Flying Heart
1994: The Battle of the Tenors with Wendell Harrison
1995: Dancing by a Rainbow (Enja)
1996: All The Way-Live (Recorded 1981) Milestone with Jimmy Smith
1997: The Last Concert ; with WDR Big Band
2005: Exodus: The Best of the Vee-Jay Years Charly
With Buddy MontgomeryTies of Love (Landmark, 1986)
With Bernard PurdieBernard Purdie's Soul to Jazz (ACT, 1996)
With Cedar WaltonBeyond Mobius (RCA, 1976)
With Ellis Marsalis, Jr.Homecoming (Spindletop, 1985)
With Horace ParlanGlad I Found You (Steeplechase, 1986)
With Horace SilverSpiritualizing the Senses (Silveto, 1983)
There's No Need to Struggle (Silveto, 1983)