Harris, (Wanga) Phillip (“Phil”)

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Harris, (Wanga) Phillip (“Phil”)

(b. 24 June 1904 near Linton, Indiana; d. 11 August 1995 in Rancho Mirage, California), bandleader, singer, comedian, and actor, best known for his work in radio and for his recordings of popular novelty songs.

Harris was born in a mining camp outside Linton, Indiana. The date of his birth often is listed as 16 January 1904. His father, Harry Harris, was a circus bandleader and vaudeville musician, and because his mother, Dollie Wright, and Harry frequently traveled, Harris lived with his grandmother during his early childhood. He did not have any siblings. When he was five or six years old, his father relocated the family to Nashville, Tennessee. By the time he was twelve, Harris was playing drums in his father’s band. He attended a military academy in Nashville, where he became active in the school’s orchestra.

From 1924 to 1927 he played with the Henry Halstead Orchestra. In 1928 he formed a band with Carol Lofner, and they played for three years at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. That same year, while working in Sydney, Australia, he met Marcia Ralston, an Australian actress, whom he married. They later adopted a boy named Tookie. At the conclusion of the St. Francis Hotel engagement, Lofner departed, and Harris gave up playing the drums in favor of leading his own band, playing for a year in 1932 at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles and then going on tour. His work with the band attracted the attention of RKO Pictures, who starred him in a three-reel musical directed by Mark Sandrich, entitled So This Is Harris (1933). The film, which employed several experimental techniques, won an Academy Award for best short subject. Pleased with the success of this film, the studio signed Harris and Sandrich to do a full-length feature, Melody Cruise (1933). Meanwhile, a new band that Harris had formed in 1932 became very popular and was performing on a radio show called Let’s Listen to Harris (1934).

It was through this radio show that Harris came to the attention of the popular radio comedian Jack Benny. Benny’s show, which had premiered on 2 May 1932, featured a new orchestra each year, beginning with George Olsen and then with Ted Weems, Frank Black, and Don Bestor. However, none of these satisfied Benny, who, among other things, was looking for a bandleader who could be featured in the cast. Phil Harris provided what Benny sought, and he joined the show on 4 October 1936. Harris’s band satisfied the national craze for swing music, but particularly important was the character Benny’s writers created for Harris. He was portrayed as a happy-go-lucky, bourbon-drinking, gambling, wisecracking bandleader with a southern drawl. He was a likeable character and a perfect foil for Benny. Harris was now a major celebrity. “If it hadn’t been for radio,” Harris said later, “I would still be a traveling orchestra leader. For seventeen years I played one-night stands, sleeping on buses. I never even voted because I never had a residence.” Harris continued to appear on the jack Benny Show until 1952.

In 1940, Harris and Marcia Ralston were divorced, and he renewed an acquaintance with the singer and motion-picture star Alice Faye, whom he had first met in 1933. Faye had been married to the singer Tony Martin, but they, too, had been divorced in 1940. Harris and Faye were married by a judge in Tijuana, Mexico, on 12 May 1941. Later that year they were remarried in a church in Galveston, Texas. Phil Harris and Alice Faye had two daughters, Alice (1942) and Phyllis (1944).

On 29 September 1946, Harris and Faye began to perform together on the Fitch Bandwagon, which was aired immediately following the Jack Benny Show. The Phil Harris/Alice Faye Show, which developed from Bandwagon, premiered on NBC on 3 October 1948. Even though Benny had moved to CBS by then, their show continued to follow his, and Harris’s portrayal remained the same as it had been with Benny. The Phil Harris/Alice Faye Show was very popular, and it was broadcast until 1954.

Throughout these years, Harris recorded popular songs. His specialty was novelty songs, which he delivered in a staccato, talking manner. His most famous releases were “That’s What I Like About the South” (1944), “Woodman, Spare That Tree” (release date unknown), “The Preacher and the Bear” (1947), and especially, “The Thing,” which was a major hit in 1950, rising to number one on the charts and selling a million copies. He also made television appearances from the 1950s through the 1970s on such shows us Ben Casey (1961), The Andy Williams Show (1962), Here’s Lucy (1968), and Fantasy Island (1978).

Harris had roles in nearly two dozen motion pictures, but his most celebrated role came in 1967, when he was more or less retired and no longer a major celebrity. In that year, Walt Disney picked him to provide the voice of Baloo the Bear for an animated film based on Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Harris’s interpretation of the role was so engaging that the entire film script was rewritten to go along with it. Harris was once again catapulted to fame.

Harris’s principal recreational interest was golfing; he described himself as a “golfing bum.” As his career in comedy faded, he became an increasingly popular figure on the professional-amateur golf circuit, and after the death of his good friend Bing Crosby, he replaced him in doing television commentary for the annual Bing Crosby Pro-Am Pebble Beach Golf Tournament. He particularly enjoyed his home at the Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California, where he died of heart failure on 11 August 1995. He is interred at the Palm Springs Mausoleum in Palm Springs, California, along with Alice Faye, who died in 1998.

Harris had a long and successful career as a musician and radio personality. He is best remembered as the brash character on Jack Benny’s radio program, a personality that he enjoyed playing even when he was not on the air. In reality, the hard drinking was an exaggeration, but it was a characteristic that Harris never made any effort to dispel. In his real life, Harris had a reputation for being rather soft-spoken and polite—totally the opposite of his fictional persona.

There are no biographies of Phil Harris. Biographical material, focusing particularly on his radio career, appears in John Dunning, Tune in Yesterday: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, 1925–1976 (1976). Other useful observations may be found in Jack and Joan Benny, Sunday Nights at Seven: The Jack Benny Story (1990), and in Gerald Nachman, Raised on Radio (1998). A list of Phil Harris’s recordings appears in Roger D. Kinkle, The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz, 1900–1950 (1974), and his motion-picture and television appearances are listed in volume 24 of Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television (2000). The most useful obituaries are in the New Orleans Times-Picayune (13 Aug. 1995), Los Angeles Times (13 Aug. 1995), and New York Times 04 Aug, 1995).

Ivan D. Steen

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