From Rags to Riches to Rags

Previous articles in this column confirm my great interest in the wild side of rock’n’roll. The stories of Hasil Adkins and Vince Taylor, which were just two of my articles in this genre, testify to some of the wilder and on the edge characters, in the history of our great culture. This month will continue this theme. The subject is another famous rebel, who came from the golden age of rock’n’roll. Plus he was British !

His name was Jet Harris. On 11th March this year we organised a tribute concert in Moscow to celebrate his music. We held it at the famous Duma Club in central Moscow. The band we booked was Old Time Rock’n’Roll, one of Russia’s greatest rock’n’roll groups. They put on a great show for us on11th. The group’s leader is their lead singer and keyboard player Katya Romanova. And those of you who have been regular readers of this column will very probably remember the name Natalya Terekhova, who contributed 3 articles for this column a while back. Natalya is the lead guitarist in the band and if you did read those 3 articles you will remember she has a great rock’n’roll guitar history. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the concert.

Let’s get to the story of Jet Harris. We’ll start from the beginning. He was born in Willesden, an area of London I personally know well from the years when I lived there. The nickname Jet came from his childhood; at the secondary school he attended he earned a reputation as a skilled sprinter in athletics. As he grew older, he played in various music groups in the late 1950s, over time specialising in playing the bass guitar. One key moment was joining Cliff Richard’s backing group in 1959. This was before they became famous. Later the same year, at a meeting in a pub, the band decided to change their name to the Shadows. The rest as they say is history.

Harris was part of the Shadows up to 1962. This was the period of the group’s greatest fame. Alongside Cliff Richard, they were undoubtedly the biggest names in British rock’n’roll at that time. And of all the Shadows, Jet was certainly the most photogenic on stage. 

For Harris this was also a chaotic time. He drank heavily and had lots of arguments with his fellow band members. These arguments led to him leaving the group in 1962. The consensus amongst the other Shadows was that his drunkenness was the primary cause of the arguments. There were lots of examples of this. In his book, “Jet Harris”, Dave Nicolson quotes a case when “the Shadows were performing at Liverpool’s famous Cavern Club doing their synchronised ‘walk’ when Jet fell into the audience. One of the other Shadows attempted to explain that their bass player wasn’t well, but people in the audience shouted back: ‘He’s pissed !’ ”. 

Plus there was another factor. Harris attributed the start of his depression and related alcohol addiction to discovering that Cliff Richard had had an affair with his wife Carol Costa (whom he had married in 1959). As to whether this did actually contribute significantly to Jet’s emotional and social problems is one for debate. But it does mean Cliff in the early 1960s for a period had a small streak of the rebel in him. As many know, this changed and Cliff became the “goody two shoes” of the pop industry, strongly influenced by his committed religious beliefs. Some of you will know in more recent times Cliff was accused of some very serious crimes: I am pleased to say he was found innocent of these accusations. 

In a 1993 South Bank Show documentary on TV (some of you may remember the “South Bank Show”, which Melvyn Bragg used to present), both Cliff and Carol opened up a bit about their affair. Cliff conceded that “She fell in love with me and I loved her. She reminded me of Brigitte Bardot , who I had a thing about.” Carol added that “When you’re together and there’s a strong physical attraction, it’s difficult not to make love. In the end we did. Cliff was a virgin.” Jet also occasionally made money from this story over the years, given Cliff’s huge celebrity and fame. For example, in 2008 the Daily Mail ran a big story based on interviews with Jet Harris. The headline read, “Cliff Richard stole my Wife.” It must be said, Jet treated Carol badly during the time they were married. For example, an ex-Shadows drummer Tony Meehan recalled an occasion when he had to drag Jet off Carol, as he had her pinned to the floor and was punching her. 

Harris’ departure from the Shadows, although ending his most famous and most lucrative period as a rock’n’roll star, did not mean the end of his career. He teamed up with Tony Meehan and they did achieve success. They had some big hit records. For example, their single “Diamonds” was number one in the charts in 1963.

But Harris’ demons were still with him. He appeared in court several times for drunken and violent behaviour. His partnership with Meehan ended after a serious car crash in late 1963, in which he was badly injured. This car crash was another seminal event in his career. It was also a period when he was regularly in the newspapers for the wrong reasons. Here are a few headlines from some of the national newspapers from that time: “Jet Harris in I’ll quit show business sensation” (Daily Mirror), linked to him walking out of TV studios where he was meant to perform. Another Daily Mirror headline, “Jet Harris quits – Nerve has snapped.” All this of course was linked to his alcoholism and wild life style. 

After all this he tried a comeback in 1966 with a newly formed “Jet Harris Band”, but it was not particularly successful. In any case, the musical tastes of the nation had certainly changed by that time, what with Beatlemania and all the other new styles in vogue. He then took on various jobs at different times. These included working as a labourerbricklayerporter in a hospital, bus conductor, and as a seller of cockles on the beach in Jersey.

Harris’ problems continued for some time. In 1988 he was declared bankrupt. The tabloid press periodically would run “riches-to-rags” stories about Harris, emphasising how he had descended from super stardom. More than one such story reported him to be working as a bus conductor in Gloucestershire (which was true). One tabloid story ran the headline, “Short of money, after earning thousands a week” (which again was correct). It took him 30 years of alcoholism to finally decide to acknowledge it and seek help. He quit drinking and thus began on the path to recovery, following lots of therapy and re-hab. Of course by then his best days in the music business were over, but he still played occasionally and in 2005 he achieved a long time ambition: He toured UK theatres with his own show, titled “Me and My Shadows”. The group the Rapiers performed as his “Shadows” on the tour. The show ran for 3 years and proved to be a success.

I don’t know what your view is on the King’s Honours List, Dear Readers. To me it smacks of cronyism and very often the wrong kinds of people getting a gong. Oops, there goes my last chance of getting a knighthood ! But it is pleasing to note that Jet Harris was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) for his services to the music industry, in the 2010 Queen’s New Year’s Honours List.

During his life he had various relationships, resulting in 5 sons and a daughter. His behaviour towards his partners was not exemplary. For example during his marriage to Carol Costa, she made clear that he was often violent towards her. Some other girlfriends he had over the years also testified to similar treatment.

A heavy smoker throughout his life, Harris died in 2011, two years after being diagnosed with cancer.

As can be seen from the above, Jet Harris was a far from perfect man and upset quite a few people in his rock’n’roll life. But his contribution to the history of British rock’n’roll was significant. He was there in the early days of the rock’n’roll explosion in the UK and was one of its super stars. Had it not been for his self-destructive life style, he would have been much bigger. 

An epic story – the Rise and Fall of Jet Harris.