OBITUARY: Phil Harris

"Bill Jackson was poor old dub/ Who joined the Darktown Poker Club/ But cursed the day he told them he would join . . ."

Before the curtain rises every night on Patrick Marber's acclaimed Dealer's Choice, at the Vaudeville Theatre, in the West End, the play's poker-playing theme is firmly set by the distinctive voice of Phil Harris talk-singing his 1940s record hit. "The Darktown Poker Club" was just one of Harris's popular 78s, which included "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)", "Woodman, Spare That Tree", "The Preacher and the Bear", "That's What I Like About the South", and his 1950 million-seller "The Thing" ("You'll never get ridda the [BOOM-BOOM-BOOM] No matter what you do!"). In 1967, after some time out of the limelight, he bounced back triumphantly with another hit, the Oscar-nominated Jungle Book song "The Bare Necessities".

At an early age, Harris was taught to play various instruments by his musician father, but it was drumming he liked best. When the family moved to Nashville, he played drums with Francis Craig's orchestra. Later he formed his own band, the Dixie Syncopators, which played one-nighters all around the South before being booked for a year-long engagement in Honolulu. In the late 1920s, he became co-leader of the West Coast-based Lofner-Harris band. When Carol Lofner departed, Harris abandoned drumming and fronted the band. His novelty vocals and clowning attracted the attention of RKO Radio Pictures, for whom he starred in So This is Harris (1933), a three-reel musical, directed by Mark Sandrich. Experimental in its use of rhymed dialogue and multiple-exposure camera trickery, it won the first ever Best Short Subject Academy Award. The studio rewarded Harris and Sandrich by assigning them to Melody Cruise (1933), a full-length feature and a high-grossing one.

In 1936 Harris joined Jack Benny's radio show, doing double duty as bandleader and character comedian. His radio persona, a brash, hard-drinking, dame- chasing illiterate, was an immediate hit, and he also worked with Benny in films, television and variety.

In 1941 Harris married Hollywood's popular Alice Faye. Both had been married before, but this time they got it right; the marriage lasted 54 years and produced two children. Faye retired from the screen in 1945 to concentrate on family life, but co-starred with her husband on radio from 1946 to 1954.

Harris appeared in over a dozen films, notably Wabash Avenue (1950), with Betty Grable, The High and the Mighty (1954), with John Wayne, and Anything Goes (1956), with his great friend Bing Crosby.

"I don't do voices", Harris said when the Disney studios asked him to test for their animated version of the Jungle Book (1967). The animators encouraged him to improvise around the script, and the result brought the underwritten character of Baloo the Bear delightfully to life. The ex-Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston wrote in their book The Illusion of Life: "When Walt heard Phil's test track he loved it, even to the point of starting to act out how the bear would come dancing into Mowgli's scene . . . When you think of Phil Harris, you think of rhythm and finger-snapping and moving to the beat, and that's the kind of thing we were looking for."

Although Disney died just before The Jungle Book was released, his studio used Harris again in The Aristocats (1970), as the voice of Abraham de Lacy Giuseppe Casey Thomas O'Malley, a feline version of Baloo. His third assignment for the studio was Pure Undisguised Baloo; for the all-animal animated feature Robin Hood (1973), he provided the voice of Little John. A bear, of course.

Dick Vosburgh

Phil Harris, bandleader, singer, comedian, actor: born Linton, Indiana 16 January 1904; twice married (two daughters); died Rancho Mirage, California 11 August 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links