Died: March 20, 2020.
EDINBURGH-born Johnny Harris, who has died from lung cancer at the age of 87, was once described by Sir Tom Jones as “one of the greatest arrangers in the world”.
The son of musician Jack Harris and his wife Grace, he was born in 1932. Twelve months after his birth he developed polio. For the rest of his life he walked with a profound limp due to a shortened and weakened right leg. But it never got in the way of his music.
He studied music at the Guildhall in London, and after an early career as a dance-band trumpeter, working for Ken Mackintosh, Vic Lewis and Cyril Stapleton, he went on to become musical director to some of the biggest names in showbusiness, including Lulu, Michael Jackson, Dame Shirley Bassey, Sir Tom Jones, Petula Clark, Engelbert Humperdinck, Richard Harris, Paul Anka, Liza Minnelli, Nancy Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter. He also scored music for films and television.
On his first instrumental single for Mercury Records he even poked fun at his own disability. Entitled Here Comes The Boot, it was a witty musical description of his lopsided style of walking.
In the early days, Harris arranged and produced cover versions of hit records for several budget labels, including an album, Beatlemania, for Top Six Records, carefully reconstructing the work of the Fab Four. For the LP, which sold for 14s 11d, he used drummer Jimmy Nicol from his own short-lived group, The Shubdubs. Harris’s ersatz Beatles were so good that the real Beatles employed Nicol as a temporary replacement in 1964 for Ringo Starr, who had fallen ill while on a worldwide tour.
Harris joined Pye Records in London in 1965 as an arranger-conductor, working with producer Tony Hatch on range of hit records, and he regularly conducted the Hatch orchestra while the producer observed from the recording booth above the studio.
During this period he became known for his colourful and inventive arranging, and recorded the first album with his own orchestra, The Heart of Bart, a series of arrangements of Lionel Bart’s music with amusing sleeve-notes by the composer himself.
Harris toured and recorded with Tom Jones, booking Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones as session musicians for the Welsh-born singer’s recording sessions in the days before they became one-half of Led Zeppelin.
He became a familiar sight on television thanks to his and effervescent behaviour while conducting: he dressed in bright colourful clothes, leaping around to the music, arms flailing, on the BBC-1 Lulu series that he appeared on every week.
He went to Madrid to conduct the orchestra when Lulu came joint first in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1969 with Boom Bang-a-Bang. This brought him to the attention of Warner Brothers Records, who astutely put him under contract. For them he produced one of the most influential pop orchestral albums of all time, Movements, recorded in the spring of 1970 with some of Britain’s best session musicians. It was subsequently performed live in the Royal Albert Hall, and remains in the Warner Brothers catalogue to this day.
In the same year, he arranged and produced Shirley Bassey’s hit version of George Harrison’s classic, Something, which revived her flagging career as a recording artist.
For the follow-up to Movements he invited Jon Anderson, Alan White and Steve Howe, of the progressive band, Yes, to nip through from the next-door studio where they were working, and join his orchestra for his composition, All To Bring You Morning. They were happy to oblige.
The charismatic Harris’s life was never less than colourful. He travelled to Chicago with Sammy Davis Jr on Hugh Hefner’s Bunny Jet; he was once marooned on a Caribbean island with singer Paul Anka; he dined with Betty Grable in Las Vegas; he also extinguished a fire at actor Richard Harris’ house in London. He twice performed in front of the Queen, once as a Guildhall student in tights on a Thames barge for the 1953 Coronation, once for a Royal Command Performance; he also appeared in events honouring US President Ronald Reagan and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines.
He twice turned down the chance to work with Elvis Presley, but in 1972 he relocated to the USA, where he recorded and conducted his orchestra in Las Vegas with Paul Anka, an association that continued until 1977 when he not only became musical director to Lynda Carter but also scored the third season of her hit TV series, Wonder Woman. He later scored for the TV show, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
His work as arranger-producer on Engelbert Humperdinck’s 2017 album, The Man I Want To Be, was nominated for four Grammy awards. His wife, Laura, recalls: “ One day he was in the studio to oversee and conduct the recording of the string sections on a few of the songs, and upon completing the recording, the entire string section spontaneously applauded him, for what seemed an eternity.”
At the time of his death Harris was working on an original album for the St Jude’s charity in Memphis, a treatment and research centre for treating catastrophic childhood illnesses including leukaemia and cancer. He is survived by his third wife, Laura, his children Julie (who penned his biography), Richard, Kate, Alexander, Vincent, Emerson and Adam, and seven grandchildren, aged between six months and 38 years.