A British Original

Hi, Folks. My story for you this month is written as usual from Russia, but the subject is very British. First, an introduction to the performer in question:

In the first wave of rock’n’roll in the 1950s, it is fair to say that in Britain we generally came up with, let’s say, Elvis imitations or old crooners masquerading as pop singers. This is a generalisation of course: The likes of Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard deserve a better description than that. But it was on the whole a fair description of the British scene at that time compared to the USA; this is not demeaning this scene at all of course. It was life changing and socially revolutionary for those involved in it. The observation above is just comparing it to the birthplace of rock’n’roll i.e. America, in terms of the American vis-à-vis the British performers. And we’re not focusing this month about who were our greatest British 1950s rock’n’roll performers, but who had the most in originality. One of the huge exceptions to the rule of British “imitations” was Wee Willie Harris.

On 9th December we organised a tribute concert at the Duma Club in Moscow, to celebrate this British rock’n’roll innovator. I booked the Great Pretenders to perform for us at this concert on 02/12/23. Regular readers of my column will remember them. They are a brilliant and legendary Russian rockabilly band with a great history. This whole pre-Christmas concert was a huge success and you can see some of the photos taken at the event.

Introductions over, now to the story of Wee Willie Harris:

Well, let’s say he was err, a bit different from his fellow rock’n’roll performers at that time. For example, he dyed his hair all manner of colours and wore larger-than-life stage jackets that looked like the coat hanger was still inside, tight drainpipe trousers and a huge polka-dot bow tie. He’d been a regular act at the legendary 2is (as in “Two Eyes”) coffee house in Soho (an iconic venue in the history of British rock’n’roll). He loved hard American rock’n’roll and had the ability to perform it with unrelenting energy, from the mid-1950s onwards. His stage show was humorous and dynamic. The pinnacle of his rock’n’roll career was in the late 1950s when he was one of Britain’s hottest homegrown performers in a still-evolving rock ‘n’ roll scene.

He was born to a working class family in Bermondsey and left school at the age of 14 (yes folks, you were allowed to do that back then !). He quit his job at a Peek Freans bakery in London in order to have a go at making a career in music. Those of you of a certain age may not know that Peek Freans, the famous world wide brand of food makers, actually began as just one biscuit making company in Bermondsey. But I digress ! Prior to starting out on a music career, Willie served his standard two years in the army on national service. I guess more or less all of us reading this now were too young to be conscripted into national service in the UK (albeit speaking personally I myself did serve as a volunteer reservist, long after national service was ended). National service was ended in 1960. Willie’s two years were served in Aldershot in the early 1950s. He and his fellow squaddies considered themselves lucky that they didn’t have to go and fight in the Korean Civil War, which Britain was involved in at that time. In his book “I Go Ape”, a biography of Harris, Rob Finnis describes that Willie took this service in his stride, apart from some minor incidents: “He was ‘banged up’ in the guardhouse on three occasions, once for thumping the staff barber ‘because he hurt my ear’ and a couple of times for going AWOL with some buddies down in the town.”

Willie’s first major gigs were at the 2is coffee bar in Soho, London, where he was the resident piano player, performing with Tommy SteeleAdam FaithScreaming Lord Sutch and others. The legendary music producer Jack Good described his first impression of Willie, when he saw him in action at the 2is in early 1957:

“When the band had to take a break, a frighteningly pale young man would sit down to the piano with a microphone and bash the daylights out of a string of rock’n’roll favourites. At other times, he would appear with a pick-up skiffle group. Nobody took much notice of him. Some time later this boy was destined to dye his hair red and become the No. 1 topic of conversation: Wee Willie Harris.” 

The nickname “Wee Willie” (his full real name was Charles William Harris) was an obvious one – his full height was 5′ 2″. A big break came in November 1957, when Jack Good chose him to appear in the BBC show “Six-Five Special”. For those that don’t know, Six Five Special was a truly iconic 1950s rock’n’roll TV show, similar in status to the BBC’s later “Top of the Pops” from the 1960s onwards. Great to report that his appearances on the show led to concerns being expressed in the media at that time about the BBC’s role in “promoting teenage decadence” – wonderful ! His debut single, his own composition “Rockin’ At the 2 i’s”, was released on the Decca label in December 1957 and was followed by several others.

He became a popular performer on TV shows and in live performances. His trademarks were his unrelenting energy, multi-coloured dyed hair (often green, orange or pink) and his clothes which were very outlandlish for that time. Here’s a quote from a music critic at that time, “He gyrates like an exploding Catherine wheel, emitting growls, squeals and what sounds like severe hiccupping”. One small sign of his popularity was the fact that Paul McCartney and John Lennon reportedly queued for his autograph when he played in Liverpool in 1958. According to Harris, the idea of dyeing his hair pink originally came from his manager, professional wrestler and wrestling promoter Paul Lincoln, who was inspired by American wrestler Gorgeous George. Again Dear Readers, if you are not of a mature age, the name Gorgeous George probably means nothing to you. For those of us who are old enough to have seen him in action, we remember he was a very entertaining professional wrestler on the UK circuit. I personally remember extremely funny and lively bouts he had against another wrestling icon of the period, Les Kellett. Like the WWF and Impact Wrestling of today, these were pure entertainment and not to be taken seriously !

In May 1960, Willie joined a UK tour featuring Conway TwittyFreddy Cannon and Johnny Preston. He continued to record in the 1960s, for HMVPolydor and Parlophone, and continued to perform in the UK as well as in Israel, Spain and elsewhere and on cruise ships. Of course by then his big hey days back in the late 1950s were over. But his career continued. For example, in the late 1970s he toured with a “nostalgia” act. In 2002 he released an album “Rag Moppin”, using the band the Alabama Slammers as his backing group.

I have a personal memory in particular I remember about him in his later years. In the late 1990s he put on a show at the 100 Club in London. Since I had been much too young to see him in his heyday, it was going to be interesting for me to see him in action. While I was watching a support band and leaning against the wall of the club, a short stocky man of mature years came and stood next to me, also to watch the band performing. Since my only visual image of Willie up to that time were photos of him from the 1950s, I didn’t recognise him. Anyway I started up a bit of a conversation, about the support band on stage and it developed briefly into talking about music generally (as I remember). It was not a long conversation at all, but I remember my surprise after I asked him something about if he was a regular at the club (I think it was something like that) and he explained he was Wee Willie Harris, about the come on stage next ! He ended our conversation when it was time for him to walk up on stage to start his act. A small episode perhaps, but it showed me there were no “airs and graces” about Willie; basically a nice, down-to-earth chap.

Here’s another example highlighting the dichotomy between his on and off stage character:

At the height of his fame, he got huge coverage in the national tabloid newspapers. For example, in a piece the Sunday Mirror did on him, Willie told the reporter, “I ain’t big-headed or anything like that but it’s a great thing to be appreciated by the kids. Does something for you, I mean.” The reporter then wrote as follows, “It is correct that Mr Harris is no big-head. In fact off the stage his manner suggests that of a nervous waiter about to be interviewed about a mistake in his figures. This makes the contrast, when you see him in action, practically unbelievable. For Mr Harris is what is known in the business as a screamer, which is a way of saying he is the most completely uninhibited rocker of the lot.”

He was married to Sheila Harris in 1982 and they were together until his death in April 2023. He died peacefully at his home at the age of 90. An interesting life and for sure he made a significant contribution to the history of UK rock’n’roll. Stay tuned Dear Readers, for another rock’n’roll story next month !