OBITUARY: Phil Harris

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The Independent Online
"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.