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Bob Harris

Bob Harris (b. 1946) is the only one of the DJs from the early days of Radio One's Sounds Of The Seventies series (which began in 1970) who is still broadcasting regularly on national BBC radio. A respected figure who has been honoured by both the Radio Academy and the Country Music Association of America, he celebrated 40 years of radio work in August 2010.

His friendship with Peel led to Harris being introduced to Radio 1 producers: a pilot show resulted in his first shows for Radio One in 1970, as holiday cover for Peel, and in the early stage of his career Peel was, as he acknowledged, an important influence: "John was my mentor. He guided me through the early days of my career and shepherded me into Radio 1....He believed in me, he was prepared to step forward and help me." [1] Later Peel and Harris became estranged, both musically and personally, but their relationship became friendlier during Peel's final years.

Harris grew up in Northampton and, like Peel, was inspired by Radio Luxembourg to pursue a DJ career, but after leaving school followed his father's advice and trained as a police cadet (he was also a talented rugby player) before moving to London in 1966. His enthusiasm was fired by Peel's Perfumed Garden programme on Radio London, which he still maintains was the most important influence on his own DJing style, describing it as having "a sense of community" that touched him "in a massive way":

"I met up with John Peel at the end of 1967 and I recorded an interview with him. At the end of our meeting and conversation together, he already by this time had started calling me 'young Bob', and he said, 'Before you go, young Bob, I want to give you an album which I think you'll like,' and he gave me a copy of Forever Changes by Love." [2]
He interviewed Peel for the student magazine Unit in early 1968 and later that year was co-founder, with Tony Elliott, of the listings magazine Time Out. He soon left, claiming that he lacked Elliott's dynamism and ambition, and contributed articles and record reviews to underground papers such as Oz and Friends. It was as a journalist, researching a feature on Radio One for Friends, that he was able (with Peel's help) to meet producer Jeff Griffin, for whom he auditioned before being given the chance to do four shows while Peel was on holiday in August 1970.

His stand-in work was successful enough for him to obtain a regular Monday evening programme of his own in the Sounds of the Seventies series on Radio One, after its host, DJ David Symonds, resigned from the BBC. Supported by producers and engineers who had also worked with Peel (such as Jeff Griffin and John Muir), Harris was the most successful of the new "progressive" DJs. His initial playlists were not very different from Peel's but soon his shows developed an identity of their own, with more emphasis on singer-songwriters, a major trend of the early 1970s with which "Whispering Bob" became closely associated.

In a 1972 column for the magazine Zigzag, he wrote:

For the first time since summer, I'm in the country - in Suffolk, to be exact. Using the very typing machine which brings you John Peel's column in Disc each week....
...I didn't thank you last time because I didn't know, but thank you for the poll result. John was rightly number one. Without him, my radio programme, this magazine, and many more like it, would most likely not be possible. To be second to him in you thoughts has made me very happy. He has done a very great deal for all of us. (Zigzag 24, 1972, page not numbered)

Peel and Harris were good friends at this time, both of them well-established DJs with a loyal audience. This situation lasted until 1975, when Harris lost his radio programme in the BBC cost-cutting exercise which led to the Sounds of the Seventies shows being scrapped. By then, however, Harris had become known to the television audience as the presenter of BBC2's The Old Grey Whistle Test, a programme which concentrated on artists who had made LPs, in contrast to the BBC's other pop TV show, the chart-based Top Of The Pops. Like Peel, he sometimes seemed shy and uncomfortable in front of a TV camera but did not share his older colleague's unwillingness to appear on television. As Peel later recounted, for example in Margrave of the Marshes (pp.34-35), he was sometimes mistaken for Bob Harris by members of the public who had seen his younger colleague on TV.

Growing apart in changing times

However, the mid-1970s was when Peel and Harris began to grow apart. On a personal level, Peel was annoyed that Harris was living the life of a man-about-town and cheating on his wife Sue. As Harris descibes it in his autobiography, Peel snubbed him in the corridors of the BBC, Harris took Peel's arm, dragged him into an office and asked what was wrong - but Peel remained silent; the silence between them lasted twenty years.

Musically, their generation had drawn much inspiration from California and its hippy culture, which Peel had experienced at first hand before his return to Britain. The American influence continued into the 1970s, with the magazine Rolling Stone challenging the dominance of the British pop weeklies and Los Angeles (rather than hippy San Francisco) becoming an increasingly important music business centre. With Hollywood in relative decline, pop musicians began to enjoy the celebrity status previously granted to film stars. Rock concerts were often staged in sports arenas, to extract the maximum possible revenue; formerly independent record companies like Elektra and Atlantic were swallowed up by large conglomerates. The commercialism of these developments drew strong criticism, especially from the UK music press; the stereotype 1970s rock superstar was seen as living in self-indulgent luxury in Laurel Canyon, far removed from the everyday concerns of his or her audience. Back-to-basics musical trends, like British pub-rock, were a reaction to this.

Yet Harris was intrigued by the American scene, having many American artists as guests on the Whistle Test and visitng the U.S. to conduct interviews. Peel, by contrast, became increasingly sceptical of the "adult-oriented rock" of the 1970s, as epitomised by Bob Harris favourites such as the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Fleetwood Mac. Although genres such as pub rock and reggae were also featured on The Old Grey Whistle Test, it was clear that the music industry was becoming more divided; the cheerfully brash and vulgar teenage chart music of the 1970s was intensely disliked by "progressive" listeners, and progressive rock itself was coming under fire from influential music press critics for its gigantism and for the snobbery of some of its followers.

The eruption of punk brought these conflicts to a head and Harris and Peel found themselves on opposite sides in the "punk wars". Peel welcomed punk for its mixture of youthful rebellion and humour, as well as its do-it-yourself ethos and its independence from the A & R departments of the big record companies. As he often pointed out in subsequent years, his inclusion of punk records in his shows won him a new, much younger audience. Bob Harris, in contrast, was less enthusiastic about what he called in his autobiography the "new wave of negative thinking", saying that from an American perspective it seemed "unattractive, parochial, whining" (The Whispering Years, BBC Worldwide, 2001, p.101). He also deplored the "gratuitous air of violence" associated with punk gigs (p.102).

Because of his TV show and his gentle, hippyish manner, Harris was regarded by some punks as a personification of "the enemy", and he describes in his autobiography how the constant, often vindictive criticism, both in the press and in everyday encounters, began to wear him down. (Ironically, he had no great love for the progressive rock chosen by the producers of the Whistle Test - his radio playlists were closer to his personal tastes.) He also recounts an incident at London's Speakeasy club in which he was threatened by a punk crowd gathered around the Sex Pistols, who were "celebrating" their new contract with A & M Records and approached him with menace to demand why the Sex Pistols weren't on the OGWT. This was one time when the punk wars got physical and Bob Harris recalled being symbolically protected by the Procol Harum roadies.  Harris escaped shaken but unhurt, but his drinking companion was seriously injured by a broken bottle wielded by Sid Vicious. (As a consequence, the Pistols' contract with A & M was cancelled.)

While Peel continued in his Radio One slot, Harris, wearied by incidents such as the one described above, left The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978, to be replaced by Annie Nightingale, the only other DJ of Peel's generation who not only embraced the new wave, but continued evolving musically into the 21st Century; she still remains on Radio One (as of 2015). Andy Kershaw, together with colleagues David Hepworth and Mark Ellen (both of whom went on to successful careers in print journalism, although Ellen did deputise for a holidaying Peel in 1982 and 1984) later became the young face of OGWT. Indeed, like Bob Harris, Kershaw developed a deeper love of early American music and country.

The "John Peel of country music"

In spite of a series of financial and health problems and a sometimes turbulent personal life, Harris managed to continue his career on both BBC local radio and commercial stations, including a long spell on BFBS, where he appeared to present the show before Peel's in the late 1980s. This was much to John's chagrin, as he objected to a particular part of Harris' personal grooming:

"We almost didn't get this programme started, I should tell you, because when I came into the studio, there were earphones, but Bob Harris had been using them. Nothing wrong with that: Bob, a fine chap. lived in my house for a number of years, well for about half a year at one stage when he was kind of out of work and I wasn't. Anyway, he uses I'm afraid a rather awful aftershave: I'm not quite sure what it is, and I'm not very good at identifying these things, but I would take odds on it being some kind of by-product of Airwick. It's most disagreeable, and I thought to meself, if I use these earphones, I'm going to smell like this for the rest of the day. I'm not the kind of chap who usually makes a fuss, but on this occasion I put my foot down. I think you'd have been impressed with me if you'd seen me." [1]

"What I categorised as polar bear repellent turns out to be Bob Harris' aftershave. What he does with the stuff, I simply can't imagine. Smells most disagreeable when left on the equipment: I think he must have himself lowered into a vat of it or something first thing in the morning, because it's nasty in the extreme." [2]

Apparently Harris was oblivious to Peel's remonstrating, as can be seen the following year:

"Almost missed this programme actually, trying to find a pair of headphones which don't reek of Bob Harris' combination aftershave and silver polish, but we've come up with some....'I'm sorry to go on about aftershaves and so forth, but young Bob does seem to kind of soak the headphones in the product that he has chosen for himself, which isn't one that I would have chosen for anybody, actually. I mean I don't really like the smells of perfumes of any sort, but this one, it kind of lingers with you, even if you use the headphones for like a few minutes - the smell is with you for a couple of days, and when I go home the children cry, and the dogs sink their yellowing fangs into my firm young thighs and so forth. It's really most unpleasant." [3]

Harris showed his versatility by hosting sports programmes and listeners' phone-ins as well as music shows. At the end of the 1980s he returned to Radio One, presenting weekend and late-night shows until being removed from the station in 1993 as part of controller Matthew Bannister's "cull" of experienced DJs. (Keen listeners to his late-night shows petitioned Bannister to change his mind, but to no avail.) A further spell at GLR was followed by a return to BBC national radio in 1997 - this time, on Radio Two. Once again Bob Harris was given a late-night show, on Saturday evenings, which he is still presenting in 2015, although now in the early hours of Sunday morning.

In April 1999 he took over Radio Two's country music programme and reshaped it so successfully that he was described as the ‘John Peel of country music'; in 2004 the show, Bob Harris Country, won him the Country Music Association's International Broadcaster of the Year award. The comparison with Peel was appropriate, because Harris stopped playing the favourite artists of an aging and conservative British country audience - the show had previously long been presented by former Skiffle musician Wally Whyton, and after his retirement by former TV announcer David Allan who tended to favour the schmaltzier side of the genre - and introduced a much wider playlist of "New Country" in all its forms, including artists admired by Peel (like the singer Laura Cantrell) and his country-loving colleague Andy Kershaw, new Nashville stars, and country-rock, which Peel and Harris had both played in the 1970s. Listener protests followed, but, like Peel's switch to punk, the new format gained a fresh audience for the show.

His Whispering Bob Broadcasting Company has produced a number of documentaries for Radio Two, dealing with topics ranging from the origin of the Beatles (The Day John Met Paul) to the history of "album-oriented rock" (The A-Z of AOR).

From the course of his post-1980 career, it is clear that Bob Harris is far more comfortable in the mainstream music industry than Peel could ever be. Since emerging from Peel's shadow he has found his own identity as an expert on Americana and country music, genres which have become a little more fashionable and now enjoy a large and loyal audience, not least through the support in the 2000s of Uncut magazine. Like Peel, he gained self-confidence and assurance as he grew older; as a result he is a far more convincing broadcaster in his sixties than he was in the early days of the nervous "Whispering Bob". After their long silence they became reconciled, and Peel, who had enjoyed country music since his years in Texas, wrote appreciatively of Bob Harris Country in his Radio Times column. Bob Harris was one of the BBC figures who attended Peel's funeral [4]. In his tribute to Peel (on his website - see below), Harris describes how he enjoyed a friendly encounter with Peel at the BBC shortly before the latter's death and indicates how much respect he still had for his early mentor - "the Peel seal of approval", he says, was still important to him.

Links

Footnotes
  1. (Desert Island Discs), ibid.
  2. Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 2014-02-03.
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