Eight kids, no drugs, but plenty of rock'n'roll
'Whispering' Bob Harris – 65 tomorrow and still DJ hip – talks to Matthew Bell
Sunday 10 April 2011
It's not just the swirly shirt and rose-tinted spectacles that tell you Bob Harris is still a hippy.
The veteran DJ turns 65 tomorrow and, as he looks back over a career that has seen him hired, fired and hired again from both TV and radio, BBC and commercial, the same word keeps popping up – "karma".
Whispering Bob is a legend of the airwaves, as famous for that treacle-rich voice as his ability to spot talent. In 1993, he was drawing 19 million listeners to Radio 1 when a young Turk called Matthew Bannister took over the channel and axed him. Bannister hadn't even listened to the show, says Harris. Even so, Bob has never harboured any resentment.
"I could see that he was trying to make Radio 1 younger," he says. "But I asked him to listen to the show. Ten days later he called me to say he had, and liked it, and wanted to help me back to work. And he did, he helped me move to Radio 2."
In the event, it was probably the right move – today he enjoys a devoted following to his late-night weekend sessions, as well as his weekly Country show. He chooses the tracks from his collection of 30,000 records at his Oxfordshire home, and takes them with him twice a week to Broadcasting House.
We meet near the House of Lords, where he is attending a lunch in aid of a bowel cancer charity. Harris fought off the disease in 2007, and has become active in fund-raising and awareness. He has also become a fitness fanatic, working out every day. Not that he led a particularly unhealthy lifestyle before, although he did spend much of his time among musicians. In fact, Bob Harris is one of the few people who can remember the 1960s. He says he never took drugs and was only a moderate smoker and drinker. His voice is not the product of years of hard living: "I'm just fortunate to have been born with a voice that the microphone likes."
His sole experience of LSD happened by mistake at a Bob Marley concert at the Lyceum in 1975. "I put my drink down for a second, and after I picked it up again I entered a vortex in which, for the next two hours, I had no idea what was happening. It was horrendous. I remember looking out of the sunroof of a Mini and all the buildings were bending over and coming into the car. None of us knew what was happening. We ended up calling a doctor."
Even today, there's a naivety about Harris. He says he's never been ambitious and hated becoming famous in the 1970s, when he presented The Old Grey Whistle Test on television. This was the hugely successful album show which Harris took over in 1972, where he earned the nickname "Whispering Bob", for his shy presentation skills.
The show had a policy of only featuring bands which had released albums; this was, says Harris, the reason punk bands, which had burst on to the scene with punchy singles, never featured. This led to an infamous incident in a nightclub when Harris was attacked by Sid Vicious for never having the Sex Pistols on the show.
Again, there are no hard feelings, and Harris even agrees that rock music needed shaking up in the late Seventies. He even likes some punk music, but he was too closely associated with the sort of stadium rock that was going out of fashion, and he was taken off Whistle Test in 1978.
The only time Harris is less than mild-mannered is when he talks of the 1980s, a decade he loathed and which more or less passed him by. He spent those years working for Radio Oxford, LBC, BFBS and GWR, before returning to national radio in 1990.
Harris's home life has been no less eventful: born the only child of a Northampton policeman, today he has eight children by four partners, and six grandchildren. "I wasn't making active decisions about it as I went along," he laughs, "but it's wonderful."
He met his first wife, Sue, at a protest march; when he brought her home, she realised his father had arrested her. That marriage fell apart because of the fame he gained from Whistle Test, he says, and he fell apart a bit himself during that time. This year marks the 20th anniversary of his marriage to Trudie, who is also his manager, and the mother of his three youngest children.
Harris admits that his work has always been his priority, though he now feels that the balance has changed. His father obliged him to spend two years training as a policeman, but later supported his move into music journalism, even accompanying him to his early studio sessions. John Peel was a mentor, and he has fond memories of living in a hippy commune in Hampstead. "I still hold on to some of the values that we felt were important at the time," he says, reaffirming his hippy credentials. And he's never been happier than he is today, surrounded by his family, in his own home-made commune. "I don't want to slow down," he says. "But there's more of a balance in my view, and my family are now just as important."
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