The legendary DJ, affectionately known as Whispering Bob, has more musical anecdotes than you can count in his autobiography
Still Whispering After All These Years by Bob Harris
Bob Harris, perhaps rather improbably, grew up as the son of a Northampton policeman—the same policeman who arrested P J Proby for splitting his trousers on stage. Then in 1966, aged 20, he moved to London where his new-found hippiedom soon saw him writing for underground magazines about such impeccable Sixties subjects as “a mixed media group called The Exploding Galaxy, led by a kinetic sculptor called David Medalla”.
But the real turning point came when he heard John Peel on pirate radio and decided he wanted to do the same thing: “turning people on to the most amazing music I could find”. Within a few years he had his own Radio 1 show and was presenting The Old Grey Whistle Test on TV. Yet if his rise was almost effortlessly smooth, the rest of his career has been anything but. The arrival of punk in the late 1970s saw him written off as “the Ken Barlow of rock”, and by the early Eighties, his idea of a big break was replacing Timmy Mallett as the presenter of Drive Time on Radio Oxford. (And he was even sacked from that.)
His autobiography records the ups and downs of both his personal and professional life with an impressive lack of bitterness and a touching sense of puzzled pride at the national-treasure status he finally seems to have acquired. But it also brings us lots of great stories about the rock stars he’s met—and he’s met most of them. Nonetheless, whether hanging out with Led Zeppelin in their pomp (not a job for the faint-hearted) or visiting John Lennon in New York, he never loses the excitement of a true music fan.
We join him here in LA in 1974, where he and his producer Jeff Griffin are making a Radio 1 documentary about the Beach Boys. Much to their surprise, the band’s main man Brian Wilson—by then an increasingly eccentric recluse—has suddenly granted an interview…
“We checked in at the security post on the perimeter of the exclusive Bel-Air estate as the guard phoned ahead to get clearance from the Wilson family to open up the electronic gates and let us through. Brian’s wife, Marilyn, was waiting for us at the house and took us through a thick, oak doorway, down a short staircase and into a long, high-ceilinged, wood-panelled room, empty except for two leather sofas, a mahogany coffee table and a white piano. As Jeff set up the recording equipment we could hear what sounded like electronic music, thumps and wailing noises coming from somewhere in the building. Marilyn seemed unconcerned. She and I had met before, and she was friendly, relaxed and happy to talk. We’d been recording for ten or 15 minutes when suddenly the door burst open and there at the top of the stairs, hands in pockets, stood Brian Wilson. He looked dishevelled and uncertain, transferring his considerable weight uncomfortably from one foot to another, staring at the polished wood floor.
Marilyn explained why we were there and, after standing for a while making up his mind what to do, he slowly came down into the room towards us, staring intently at the stereo microphones Jeff had placed in stands on the table. ‘What is that?’ was the tentative, straight-faced enquiry, as he circled the table to look at the microphones more closely. ‘Is that a submarine?’ Jeff and I looked at one another, not really knowing what to say. This was a serious question. Brian stood for a minute or so in the silence, examining the microphones. Finally, he looked up and around the room, then walked over to the piano. ‘I tell you what, you guys, I’ll play you a song.’
This was an incredible moment, more than we’d ever hoped for. Here we were, in Brian Wilson’s piano room, about to hear an exclusive preview of a brand new song. The feeling was electric. Jeff clicked the tape machine into record mode as Brian lifted the piano lid and prepared to play. He paused for a moment, then wrung his hands and looked across at Marilyn. ‘Er...honey, what’s wrong with the piano?’
‘Oh, Brian, don’t you remember?’ she smiled sympathetically. ‘It’s being fixed. You know...they’ve taken some of the keys with them.’
My heart sank as I saw the gap under that piano lid, looking like a huge open mouth without any teeth. Brian sat for a moment, thinking. Then, without another word, he slowly got to his feet, stuffed his hands back into his pockets, and ambled reflectively out of the room. A few moments later, the electronic music started again.”
Published by Michael O’Mara Books at £20. Readers can order it for the special price of £15 with free p&p while stocks last by calling 01903 828 503 and quoting BH/RD (UK mainland only).