Harris in 1956.
|Birth name||Wonga Phillip Harris|
June 24, 1904|
Linton, Indiana, U.S.
|Died||August 11, 1995
Rancho Mirage, California, U.S.
|Show||The Jack Benny Program|
|Show||The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show|
|Style||Bandleader, Stand up comedian|
Wonga Phillip "Phil" Harris (June 24, 1904 – August 11, 1995) was an American singer, songwriter, jazz musician, actor, and comedian. He was born to Harry and Dollie Harris. His mother was of Irish descent. Though successful as an orchestra leader, Harris is remembered today for his recordings as a vocalist, his voice work in animation (probably most famous later in his career for his roles as bears, one being Baloo in Disney's The Jungle Book, and as Little John in Disney's Robin Hood). He also voiced Thomas O'Malley in Disney's The Aristocats. Harris was also a pioneer in radio situation comedy, first with Jack Benny, and then in a series in which he co-starred with his wife, singer-actress Alice Faye, for eight years.
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's first work as a drummer came when his father, as tent bandleader, hired him to play with the circus band. 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 the Henry Halstead Big Band Orchestra during the mid-1920s.
In 1931, Lofner-Harris recorded for Victor. After Harris recorded for Columbia in 1933, he recorded for Decca in 1935. 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 Ralstone in Sydney, Australia; they had met when he played a concert date. 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 with a feature-length film, 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. Phil also starred in "I Love a Bandleader" with Leslie Brooks in 1945. Here he played a housepainter who gets amnesia, then starts to lead a band. His nickname was 'Old Curly'. Additionally, he appeared in Thunder Across the Pacific (1951), alongside Forrest Tucker and Walter Brennan, during the same year, he made a cameo appearance in the Warner Bros. musical, Starlift, with Janice Rule and Dick Wesson, and was featured in The High and the Mighty with John Wayne in 1954. Phil was in a movie released in 1956 called Goodbye, My Lady co-starring with Walter Brennan.
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, with Mahlon Merrick writing much of the show's music. When he showed a knack for snappy one-liners, he joined the Benny ensemble portraying himself, but scripted as a hip-talking, hard-drinking, brash Southerner, whose good nature often overcame his ego. 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 could bypass—masked his band's evolution into a smooth, up-tempo big band. Many of Harris's vocal recordings were comic novelty "talking blues" numbers not unlike the talking numbers of African-American comedian Bert Williams, a style sometimes considered a precursor to modern rap music.
In time, Harris's comic persona made such an impression that he got a chance to step out on his own, though he remained loyal to Benny and a key member of the Benny cast for a few more years. In 1946, Harris and wife Alice Faye began co-hosting The Fitch Bandwagon, a comedy-variety program that followed the Benny show on Sunday nights. It was sponsored by hair products manufacturer F.W. Fitch Co. of Des Moines, Iowa.
Phil and Alice
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 fistfight at the Trocadero nightclub in 1938 with RKO studio mogul Bob Stevens; the cause was reported to be over Faye after Stevens and Faye had ended a romantic relationship. 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 – Phil Jr. (born 1935 and whom Harris had adopted while previously married), Alice (born 1942) and Phyllis (born 1944), The Fitch Bandwagon name disappeared when Rexall became the program's sponsor in 1948; 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," wrote radio historian John Dunning (in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio), "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, and Great Gildersleeve co-star Walter Tetley as obnoxious grocery boy Julius Abruzzio. Elliott Lewis – already a distinguished radio performer and producer/director – found himself in a comic role that would be long remembered, playing Frank Remley, a layabout guitarist whose mission in life seemed to be getting Harris into and out of trouble almost continuously; his "I know a guy . . ." – usually, referring to a shady character he'd enlist to help Harris out of a typical jam – became one of the show's catch-phrases.
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show ran until 1954, by which time radio had 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 the Benny 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.
After the show ended, Harris revived his music career. In 1956, he appeared in the film Good-bye, My Lady. He made numerous guest appearances on 1960s and 1970s TV shows, including the Kraft Music Hall, Burke's Law, with the most memorable being as a college-educated, jive-talking horn-player in "Who Killed Billy Jo", 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.
He worked as a vocalist and voice actor for animated films, lending his distinctive voice to the Disney animated features The Jungle Book (1967) as Baloo, The Aristocats (1970) as Thomas O'Malley and Robin Hood (1973) as Little John (another bear). The Jungle Book was his greatest success in the years at the end of his radio career. As Baloo the Sloth 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. He famously appears to sing the word 'founder' instead of 'fonder' (after the line 'wherever I wander') in this song although this is simply the Southern pronunciation of the word 'fonder' whimsically exaggerated and should not be construed as a mistake. The recording still survives in TV adverts today. Harris also joined 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. But after a few recording sessions he was replaced by Ed Gilbert. His last role was in 1991 film Rock-a-Doodle, directed by Don Bluth, as the friendly, laid-back Basset Hound Patou.
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 honor every year. Harris and Faye donated most of their show business memorabilia and papers to Linton's public library.
Death and legacy
Harris died of a heart attack at his Rancho Mirage home on August 11, 1995. Alice Faye died of stomach cancer three years later. Two years before his death, Harris was inducted into the Indiana Hall of Fame. Both 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. He was quoted as saying, "If it hadn't been for radio, 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. 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 old-time radio historians (such as Nachman and Dunning) 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 the two stars who executed it with impeccable timing.
- Note that different sources have two spellings. "Wanga" per his Los Angeles Times obituary and "Wonga" per the Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives.
- Staff and news services. "Phil Harris, comic, bandleader," The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, California), August 13, 1995, page B5.
- Voice actor decisions – Baloo and Kit Jymn Magon, co-creator of TaleSpin who initially cast Harris for the role of Baloo: "his age was a factor. He didn't have the slick, con man timing anymore. I loved working with Phil, so I was distraught to inform management that he just wasn't going to work out for 65 episodes. (Besides, we had to chauffeur him to and from Palm Springs for the recording sessions – a 4 hour round trip!!)"
- Henderson, Moya; Palm Springs Historical Society (2009). Images of America: Palm Springs. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing. p. 102. ISBN 978-0-7385-5982-7.
- Palm Springs Walk of Stars by date dedicated
- Benny Show’s Phil Harris Dies at 91, Obituary in the Los Angeles Times dated August 13, 1995 (retrieved June 30, 2012).
- Steen, Ivan D. (2001). "Harris, (Wanga) Phillip (“Phil”)." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. Charles Scribner's Sons. Retrieved January 9, 2013 from HighBeam Research
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