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.

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

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year