Sources returnpage

Harris, Bob

Category: Performer

 
 

Robert Brinley Joseph "Bob" Harris, OBE (born 11 April 1946), known as "'Whispering Bob Harris", is an English music presenter on both the radio and TV, and a co-founder of the magazine Time-Out.  He also has his own production company WBBC - the Whispering Bob Broadcasting Company.  Harris has been broadcasting on the BBC for over 40 years and has been recognised with the Americana Music Association of America Trailblazer Award, a UK Heritage Award, and a MOJO Medal, as well as his OBE for services to broadcasting.

Melody Maker – Michael Watts [1972]
DJs are, essentially, extensions of their own private selves, or at least how they would like themselves to appear. And that's what makes Bob Harris so intriguing. Not only is he successful … but his reason for being successful exactly reflects his own nature. To be a little banal, he’s a thoroughly nice person, and he must be the foremost living proof within the pop world, that you can make it on those terms.
Bob Harris is strictly a product of the English media. There's no fast American spiel; his voice is soft and intimate, his conversational approach low-key and aimed at the second-person pronoun. He's not an entertainer ….. His popularity, which is becoming considerable for his type of format, is based on the respect of his listeners for his musical taste: they know he’s going to play what they will like.

And he has had a near-death-experience.

Career

 

Bob was born in Northampton, England.  Music was the backdrop to his entire childhood.  In 1946, the TV was unknown in the UK and most families – Bob’s included - would sit round a very large radiogram, “the biggest piece of furniture in the living room” and listen to that.  As someone once said, ‘I like radio better than TV because the pictures are so much better’.  Bob had scarlet fever when he was seven and as a consequence listened to far more than most children, being isolated in the house for 2 months.  He liked the Goons, started listening to the Light programme and then discovered Radio Luxembourg.  He was an avid collector of records.  And from there he never really looked back. 

Bob has had a long and fruitful career on both the radio and TV.  He has broadcast on Radio 1, Radio 2, BBC Radio Oxford, London's LBC Radio Station, GWR, Norwich's Radio Broadland, Hereward FM in Peterborough, BFBS, the UK Independent Local Radio sustaining service, Radio Luxembourg , and BBC Greater London Radio. In 2002 Harris became an original presenter on the newly launched digital station BBC 6 Music.

 

His knowledge of music is very extensive and his tastes in music are all encompassing.  He has compiled both TV and radio shows with pop, rock, folk and country music – the latter in a show called Bob Harris Country.  He still very carefully crafts his shows, from his own CD and record collection as well as music libraries, in contrast to many radio shows whose music list is generated by computer.  Bob, in fact, despairs of the use of computers, not because he is against technology but because it denies him and all other DJs of their main role – to bring new and interesting or inspired music to the public’s attention and to help the artists who produced it.

Harris has also presented and compered at festivals, for example, the C2C: Country to Country festival live from the O2 in London and his own Under the Apple Tree festival.  He is perhaps best known for the very long running BBC2 television music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Bob Harris – Still Whispering after all these years
The 50s and early 60s had been the halcyon days for the great songwriting factories, the Brill Building in New York being the most famous.  Situated on Broadway it contained an amazing array of solid gold talent. From their tiny cubicles, young writers such as Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman, Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill, Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Leiber and Stoller were pumping out songs on a 9 to 5 conveyor belt of Top 10 hits.  Some of the greatest records of all time come from that magical era of Tin Pan Alley. Mainstream Nashville still works in the same way.
The Brill Building had its own designated doormen, cleaners ancillary workers, known as the Old Greys. At the end of the working week, all were invited into a playback room to listen to a selection of the new songs (a process now known as auditorium testing.)  The mantra was the 'hook'. If the Old Greys could hum or whistle along to the chorus of a song having heard it only once, it proved the song was catchy, had a good hook and was likely to be a hit. In other words, it passed the 'Old Grey Whistle Test'. That's how the programme got its name.

 

About the only music Bob has not played, but even then there are exceptions, is that from the era of punk. 

Poor Bob was the archetype of everything the punks despised – softly spoken, mild-mannered, gentle, long haired, a hippie, a policeman’s son, middle class, and a BBC presenter. 

Bob Harris – Still Whispering after all these years
Fame, shallow, fickle, confusing.  My success had been toasted, now I was being roasted.  Michael Watts had described me as being ‘very much a child of the 60s’.  ‘Now 32’, he had said ‘Harris has never lost his belief in good vibes and mellow sounds’.  For 11 years I’d been surfing the crest of a wave.

He became a target for unparalleled vitriol from punks.  He was insulted and sworn at in the streets, he was spat on and actually physically attacked ‘I was confronted by about half a dozen Mohican cut drunks, faces spitting hatred, their fists clutching broken glass; I was feeling as scared as at any time in my life’.  Thankfully punk did not last long and he eventually managed to bounce back – with slightly shorter hair! 

Life

Bob, Trudie, Miles, Dylan and Flo

Music is Bob Harris’s life.  He lives sleeps and dreams music.  He calls himself a workaholic, this is something of an understatement. We have an observation for his near death experience, but rather than change his life it appears to have reinforced his view that his destiny was music.  He said not long after “Treat each day as if it’s your last and know that the more you put in the more you get back”.  It thrills him and fulfils him.  His autobiography is full of names and lists, a sort of encyclopaedia of music makers.  He is nice about all the people he mentions – genuinely nice, he admires them, wants to help them, is still very excited when he meets them.  Goes thousands of miles to interview them.  His is a hobby not a career.  Occasionally with pay, sometimes not.  He appears to be generally hopeless with money, because it isn't important to him.

He has managed to go through 3 marriages and one relationship, because in the end he was married to music.  He has seven granddaughters and eight children, two girls [Miri and Emily] by his first wife Sue; a daughter [Charlotte/Charlie] by a partner Jackie, two boys [Jamie and Ben] by his second wife Val, and a girl [Flo] and two boys [Miles and Dylan] by his third wife Trudie.  All were effectively single Mums bringing up the children, although Bob loves them all.  And they love him, and they are proud of him, but they all wish he had been around more.  And they care enough about him to worry about this obsession:

My son Ben was staying with us for a few days during the lead-up to that first show and couldn’t believe the pressure I was putting myself under.  ‘I’ve never seen you so stressed’ he observed ‘Why can’t you chill about it?’
If I was out on Saturday to play at Wembley’ I explained, ‘you wouldn’t expect me to just jog out on the pitch.  You’d surely expect me to prepare, get myself into the right state of mind.  Saturday is my Cup Final.  I honestly believe it’s the most important radio show I’ve ever done’.

Taylor Swift with Bob, Trudie & Miles Harris (R)
Nashville Bridgestone Concert Sept 2013

But then they all were – important.

At one stage he was married but living alternately between home, his wife Sue and two children and his partner Jackie.  He himself admits that ‘the resulting devastation on my home life was total and I began to do damage.  One day I was staying with Sue, the next I’d be with Jackie.  Miri [his daughter] was hysterical with fear, throwing herself on the floor and gripping my ankle with all her might, in an attempt to stop me walking out the door’.  Sue forgave him and is still a friend after all these years.

Trudie has been a rock, taking him through bankruptcy and prostate cancer.  The cancer was very serious, there was a real chance that he would die.  But Trudie used her contacts to find him one of the best specialists in his type of cancer and they saved him.

Bob Harris – Still Whispering after all these years
For as long as I can remember I’ve always loved music, a passion that has largely defined my life. I'm extremely fortunate to be able to express that passion through my work. I've visited many of the major music centres in Europe and America, seen some of the great concerts and spent time with some of the biggest stars in the world.

I've interviewed John Lennon in New York, Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen in Los Angeles, The Rolling Stones in Munich, the Bee Gees in Miami, the top country stars in Nashville and found myself in situations most could only dream of. I've toured with T. Rex, David Bowie and Queen, compered at most of the major festivals. I've met royalty and an American president, produced records and presented on television and radio in what has sometimes seemed to be a cavalcade of once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

But it hasn't all been good. My personal life has been through crisis, I've been so ill I nearly died. I've been threatened and derided. I've had to completely rebuild my career no less than four times. I've been a bankrupt.

 

 

Although his cancer is said to be ‘under control’, he has to take medication and knows he will have to for the rest of his life, he says the side effects can sometimes be ‘debilitating and depressing’, but he carries on working even though he is now seventy. 

The near death experience had no real effect in this respect, and he is probably one of the few people whose near death experience did have no effect, other than to make him more sure of his purpose on this planet and to make him even more useless at managing money. As he says ‘I am still driven by my work’. 

Still whispering after all these years.

Robert Plant
THE ROCK AND ROLL DOCTOR OF SEVENTIES MUSIC TV MOVES THROUGH the years with style and grace. His own excitement and love of music and his infectious enthusiasm to bring his audience the rhyme, reason and sounds of a new world is a work of heart.  He champions the unknown, the obscure and the legendary with equal zest and detail. He has stayed the distance - the good times and the others – with character and resilience, always digging deep and deeper.

 

References

All the information for this section came from Bob's book Bob Harris: Still whispering after all these years

 

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.