OK! I know this review is a little late, after all Still Whispering After All These Years was published in 2015, but I’ve only recently found the time to finally give this a read – and what a read it was, I couldn’t put it down. In the words of Lionel Richie: “Once I get started I can’t slow down … ” (or something like that!).
Whispering Bob is, of course, a legend of the airwaves, as famous for that treacle-rich voice as his passion for music. From The Old Grey Whistle Test to his current shows on BBC Radio 2, Harris has spent his life at the heart of the British music industry. In this book we find out about the young music fan who moved to London, co-founding Time Out while seeking his big break and ended up being presented with an OBE for his services to music broadcasting.
In his varied career Harris produced a number of albums, performed backing vocals for Bowie, saw Arthur Brown set his hair alight performing ‘Fire’, met young hopeful Elton John, was mobbed with Marc Bolan and T Rex, got spiked with LSD watching Bob Marley, spent time with Brian Wilson during his reclusive years, partied with Led Zeppelin and toured America with Queen. The story of how Robert Plant and Alison Krauss came to record together, made me want to listen to their album ‘Raising Sand’ as I continued to read!
Harris has caroused with Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper, been serenaded by the Bee Gees with ‘Tragedy’ before its release, jammed with Blondie, interviewed everyone from Lennon to Lou Reed and been punched by a punk. It felt like a trip down my own musical memory lane as Bob’s career, and my formative, and not so formative, years crossed in so many different ways.
If that wasn’t enough, Harris is now bringing country music to an appreciative British audience, collecting awards at home and abroad along the way, as well as championing great musicians across the spectrum. In fact, his ability to spot talent is legendary – better even, perhaps, than the other legend of the airwaves, John Peel – if only because of his longevity. However, I can always say that I talent spotted Robert Vincent first – remember he played at my 2014 Gig in the Garden (as well as an excellent Live at St Mary’s in 2016) long before he was given the prestigious Bob Harris emerging artist award at the 2016 UK Americana awards.
Along the way, Harris has married three times (it was interesting to learn that Peel stopped speaking to Harris because of his having an extra-marital affair), fathered eight children (he currently has seven grandchildren – all girls) gone bankrupt, fought cancer and Legionnaires’ disease, weathered a public spat with a fellow DJ (Bruno Brookes) that went through the courts, and has had to revamp his career several times. Clearly being a laid back sort of guy has helped him through the decades, but so has his sincere love of music and the care and attention he puts in to compiling his playlists.
Throughout all these years, however, his love of music and talent for broadcasting has endured and won him generations of new fans. I’ve lost count of the many artists I was switched onto because of Bob playing them on one of his shows. Walter Trout was one of them in 1992 and, in more recent years, hearing Dierks Bentley for the first time in 2014 on the Bob Harris Country show. In fact, Bob even mentioned the first single I ever bought: ‘Snowbird’ by Anne Murray. It was 1970, I was eight years old and I vividly remember buying this from the music counter from the Co-Op in the village where I grew up. I can’t remember how much it was in old money, something like three shillings, I think!
If you enjoy whispering Bob’s shows, this is definitely for you. His story provides a fascinating synopsis of the progress of popular music since the 1950s/60s and he writes warmly of many of the names he has encountered. The autobiography is peppered with anecdotes about the characters in the music industry. This could be seen to be one of the weaknesses of this book, especially in the second half, as we have several long lists of people Harris has played on his radio shows and on the OGWT, has seen in concert, has met, has worked with, is friends with, or is related to. But, as a ‘who’s who’ of the music industry, it worked for me.
Still Whispering After All These Years is the vibrant and inspiring tale of a broadcasting legend. It certainly works as a human story of a character who has battled adversity and change with courage and humour and it should appeal to anybody who loves the music which he has championed over the years. I thoroughly enjoyed it.