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Phil Harris

Philharris22.jpg

Birth name Wonga Philip Harris
Born June 24, 1904(1904-06-24)
Linton, Indiana, USA
Died August 11, 1995 (aged 91)
Palm Springs, California, USA
Show The Jack Benny Program
Station(s) NBC, CBS
Show The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show
Station(s) NBC
Style Band Leader, Comedian
Country United States

Phil Harris (born Wonga Philip Harris[1]; June 24, 1904 – August 11, 1995) was an American singer, songwriter, jazz musician, actor and comedian. Though successful as an orchestra leader, Harris is remembered today for his recordings as a vocalist, his voice work in animation and as a pioneer in radio situation comedy, first with Jack Benny, and then in a series in which he co-starred with his second wife, singer-actress Alice Faye, for eight years.

Contents

Bandleader

Harris was born in Linton, Indiana but grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and identified himself as a Southerner (his hallmark song was "That's What I Like About the South"). His upbringing accounted for both his trace of a Southern accent and, in later years, the self-deprecating Southern jokes of his radio character. The son of two circus performers, Harris' first work as a drummer came when his father, as tent bandleader, hired him to play with the circus band.[2] Harris began his music career as a drummer in San Francisco, forming an orchestra with Carol Lofner in the latter 1920s and starting a long engagement at the St. Francis Hotel. The partnership ended by 1932, and Harris led and sang with his own band, now based in Los Angeles. Phil Harris also played drums in Henry Halstead Big Band Orchestra in the mid 1920s.

In 1931, Lofner-Harris recorded a couple of records for Victor, then he recorded a couple of records for Columbia in 1933. In 1935, he recorded a couple of records for Decca. From December, 1936, through March, 1937, he recorded 16 sides for Vocalion. Most were hot swing tunes that used a very interesting gimmick; they faded up and faded out with a piano solo. These were probably arranged by pianist Skippy Anderson.

On September 2, 1927, he married actress Marcia Ralston in Sydney, Australia; they had met when he played a concert date.[2] The couple adopted a son, Phil Harris, Jr. (b. 1935), but they divorced in September, 1940.

In 1933, he made a short film for RKO called So This Is Harris!, which won an Academy Award for best live action short subject. He followed it up with a feature-length film called Melody Cruise. Both films were created by the same team that next produced Flying Down to Rio, which started the successful careers of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Additionally, he appeared in The High and the Mighty with John Wayne in 1954.[2]

Radio

Wonga Philip Harris
June 24, 1904(1904-06-24) – August 11, 1995 (aged 91)
Place of birth Linton, Indiana
Place of death Palm Springs, California
Place of burial Forest Lawn Memorial Park
Glendale, California
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch United States Merchant Marines
Years of service 1942-1943
Battles/wars World War II
Other work Bandleader, radio and television personality

In 1936, Harris became musical director of The Jell-O Show Starring Jack Benny (later renamed The Jack Benny Program), singing and leading his band and – when his knack for snappy one-liners became apparent – joining the Benny ensemble playing Phil Harris, scripted as a hipster-talking, hard-drinking, brash Southerner whose good nature overcame his ego---sometimes. His first trademark was his jive-talk nicknaming of the others in the Benny orbit. Benny was "Jackson," for example; Harris's usual entry was a cheerful "Hiya, Jackson!". He usually referred to Mary Livingstone as "Livvy". His signature song, belying his actual Hoosier birthplace, was "That's What I Like About the South." His comic persona—that of a musical idiot who never met a bottle he didn't like or a mirror he couldn't bypass—masked the fact that the Harris band evolved into a smooth, up-tempo big band with outstanding arrangements.

In time, Harris's comic persona took on enough life of its own that it was inevitable for him to get a chance to strike on his own. Though he remained loyal to Benny--and a key member of the Benny cast for several years to come---Harris got his chance when he and wife Alice Faye were offered the job of co-hosting the variety show that followed the Benny show on Sunday nights, The Fitch Bandwagon sponsored hair products manufacturer F.W. Fitch Co. of Des Moines, Iowa.

Phil and Alice

External audio
The Fitch Bandwagon, Phil Harris-Alice Faye audition program, 10 July 1946
Best of Jack Benny Spotlight Podcast! October 4th, 1936 - Phil Harris' First Show
The Fitch Bandwagon/The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, 102 episodes
Big Band Serenade: Phil Harris
Phil Harris: "You're Blasé"

Harris and Faye married in 1941; it was a second marriage for both (Faye had been married briefly to singer-actor Tony Martin) and lasted 54 years, until Harris's death. Harris engaged in a legendary fist fight at the Trocadero nightclub in 1938 with RKO studio mogul Bob Stevens over Faye, after Stevens ended a romantic relationship with her in favour of Sharon Gunn. In 1942, Harris and his entire band enlisted in the U.S. Navy and they served until the end of World War II. By 1946 Faye had all but ended her film career. She drove off the 20th Century Fox lot after studio czar Darryl F. Zanuck reputedly edited her scenes out of Fallen Angel (1945) to pump up his protege Linda Darnell.

Originally a vehicle for big bands, including Harris' own, The Fitch Bandwagon became something else entirely when Harris and Faye's family skits made them the show's breakout stars. Coinciding with their desire to settle in southern California and raise their children (Alice Jr., born 1942, and Phyllis, born 1944) without touring heavily, the Bandwagon name disappeared when Fitch yielded to Rexall as sponsor in 1948, and the show was renamed The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. By that time, it had become a full-fledged situation comedy featuring one music spot each for Harris and Faye.

Harris was the vain, language-challenged, stumbling husband, and Faye was his acid but loving wife on the air. Off the air, as radio historian Gerald S. Nachman has recorded, Harris was actually a soft-spoken, modest man. "But it was the 'Phil Harris' character," radio historian John Dunning (in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio) has written, "that carried [the show]: his timing was exceeded by none, including [Jack] Benny himself. Like Benny, Harris played a character who in real life would be intolerable. That both men projected themselves through this charade and made their characters treasures of the air was a notable feat."

Young actresses Jeanine Roos and Anne Whitfield played the Harris' two young daughters on the air; unlike Ozzie and Harriet Nelson's two young sons, the Harris's real-life children did not seem to have any inclination to join their famed parents on the air. The series also featured Gale Gordon as Mr. Scott, their sponsor's harried representative, Great Gildersleeve co-star Walter Tetley as obnoxious grocery boy Julius Abruzzio, and--especially---Elliott Lewis (radio), in his greatest comic role of a long and distinguished radio career, as layabout guitarist Frank Remley, whose mission in life seemed to be getting Harris into the fire and then helping him put that fire out with gasoline.

The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show ran until 1954, by which time radio had all but succumbed to television. (Harris continued to appear on Jack Benny's show, along with his own, from 1948 to 1952.) Because the Harris show aired immediately after Benny's on a different network (Harris and Faye were still on NBC, whereas Benny jumped his show to CBS in 1949), Harris would only appear during the first half of Jack's show; he would then leave the CBS studio and walk approximately one block to his own studio down the street, arriving just in time for the start of his own program. He was succeeded as Benny's orchestra leader in the fall of 1952 by Bob Crosby. Harris had once become so significant a comedy presence on the Benny show that the actual band conductor was arranger Mahlon Merrick.

After radio

After the show ended, Harris revived his music career. He made numerous guest appearances on 1960s and 1970s TV shows, including the Kraft Music Hall, The Dean Martin Show, F Troop, The Hollywood Palace and other musical variety programs. He appeared on ABC's The American Sportsman hosted by Grits Gresham, and later sports announcer Curt Gowdy, which took celebrities on hunting, fishing or shooting trips around the world.

Song hits by Harris included the early 1950s novelty song, "The Thing." The song describes the hapless finder of a box with a mysterious secret and his efforts to rid himself of it. Harris also spent time in the 1970s and early 1980s leading a band that appeared often in Las Vegas, often on the same bill with swing era legend Harry James.

Harris was also a close friend and associate of Bing Crosby and appeared in an episode of ABC's short-lived The Bing Crosby Show sitcom. After Crosby died in 1977, Harris sat in for his old friend doing color commentary for the telecast of the annual Bing Crosby Pro-Am Golf Tournament. Harris said of Crosby's death, "I have grown up to learn that God doesn't make mistakes. Today, I'm beginning to doubt that." An old episode of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show began with Harris telling the story of how he once won the tournament.

Animation

He worked as a vocalist and voice actor for animated films, with performances in the Disney animated features The Jungle Book (1967) as Baloo, The Aristocats (1970) as Thomas O'Malley, and Robin Hood (1973) as Little John (who is similar to Baloo).

The Jungle Book was his greatest success in the years following the end of his radio career. As Baloo the Bear, he sings one of the film's showstoppers, "The Bare Necessities," a performance that introduced Harris to a new generation of young fans who had no awareness of his radio fame. Harris also joins Louis Prima in "I Wanna Be Like You," delivering a memorable scat singing performance.

The Aristocats features Harris as alley cat Abraham de Lacey Giuseppe Casey Thomas O'Malley, who joins in the film's showstopper, "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat," with Scatman Crothers. In Robin Hood, Harris's Little John sings the popular anti-Prince John tune "The Phony King of England."

In 1989, Harris briefly returned to Disney to once again voice Baloo, this time for the cartoon series TaleSpin. He was later replaced by actor Ed Gilbert. His last animated film project was the 1991 film Rock-a-Doodle, directed by Don Bluth, in which he played the friendly, laid-back farm dog Patou.

Honoring his roots

Harris was a longtime resident and benefactor of Palm Springs, California, where Crosby also made his home. Harris was also a benefactor of his birthplace of Linton, Indiana, establishing scholarships in his honor for promising high school students, performing at the high school, and hosting a celebrity golf tournament in his honour every year. In due course, Harris and Faye donated most of their show business memorabilia and papers to Linton's public library.

Harris died of a heart attack in Palm Springs 1995 at age 91. Alice Faye died of stomach cancer three years later. Two years before his death, Harris was inducted into the Indiana Hall of Fame. Both Harris and Faye are interred at Forest Lawn-Cathedral City in Riverside County, California. Phyllis Harris was last reported living in St. Louis (she had been with her mother at her father's bedside when he died), while Alice Harris Regan was reported living in New Orleans.

Harris remained grateful to radio for the difference it made in his professional and personal life, however. "If it hadn't been for radio," he was quoted as saying, "I would still be a traveling orchestra leader. For 17 years I played one-night stands, sleeping on buses. I never even voted, because I didn't have any residence."

Episodes of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show turn up frequently on compact-disc collections of old-time radio classics, both on their own sets and amid various comedy collections. (A treat for collectors: at least half the surviving episodes of the show's final season include Harris's audience warmup routine, performed for ten minutes before the show was to begin recording.) Many consider the show at its best to have stood the test of time, thanks to above-average writing (mostly by the team of Ray Singer and Dick Chevillat) and especially, the two stars who executed it with impeccable taste and timing.

Notes

  1. ^ "Phil Harris (1904 - 1995) - Find A Grave Memorial". www.findagrave.com. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=2980. Retrieved 2010-02-22. 
  2. ^ a b c Staff and news services. "Phil Harris, comic, bandleader," The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, California), August 13, 1995, page B5.

External links

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