Sunday, 24 June 2012

Wonga is 104

Phil Harris would be 104 today and, if you think about it, he really had four careers. To some, he’s best-known for his work on the Jack Benny radio show which he parlayed into his own show co-starring second wife Alice Faye. But it’s not like Jack plucked him from obscurity. He had a dance band with a home base at several different Los Angeles night spots and was recording for Victor. He appeared in several films with Charlie Ruggles, including the comedy “Melody Cruise” (1933). So it was evident to Jack that Harris could act and fill a stooge role that his previous bandleaders had been handling. Harris had plenty of experience on the radio before he joined the Benny show as well. In fact, while Harris’ “two shows” was a running joke starting in the mid-‘40s, Harris was already hosting a musical show with his dance band on CBS when Jack hired him and continued to so while appearing with Benny.

No doubt Harris was happy to settle down with Benny and give up the grind of touring. The Galveston News wrote about a Harris stop in its June 15, 1933 edition; it was a big deal and the paper had a number of Harris stories over several weeks.

With all the brilliance, pomp and ceremony that goes with a Hollywood first-night and amid a scene of splendor and beauty, Hollywood Dinner Club opened its eighth summer season last night to a packed house, with hundreds being turned away.
It was the moat colorful and successful premier from every viewpoint in the history of the popular west end theater-restaurant. Newly decorated in rare good taste and with a new Frigidaire cooling system the smart, fashioned crowd was thrilled by the appointments and the entertainment of Manager Sam Maceo as they danced, dined and made merry within a veritable forest of flowers.
Phil Harris and his orchestra proved a sensational hit. Thin debonair young man from Hollywood is a great entertainer and his combination of musicians and vocalists provide divertisement comparable to the best seen at the club in recent years.
While Harris did not have any of the movie stars present in person, they were there in spirit. More than a hundred telegrams were displayed from big names in the picture industry who wished Phil luck in his first appearance away from California. Included in the lot were messages from Wallace Beery, Robert Montgomery, Ruth Chatterton, Maurice Chevalier, Gary Cooper, Kay Francis, Anson Weeks, Ginger Rogers, James Cagney, Edwin G. Robinson, Richard Bathelmess and scores of others. Baby Leroy, the tot in Maurice Chevalier’s “A Bedtime Story,” sent this message: “ ‘Ga Ga Goo Club,’ which means ‘Whatever Mr. Chevalier says goes for me, too.’ ”
To single out any particular number that Phil Harris did best would be difficult indeed. The-first night crowd apparently liked everything he offered and cried for more. “Tea for Two,” done with Leah Ray; “Love Tales,” a number that West coast radio critics chose three times in a row as the outstanding number of the week, “It Happened to Me,” theme song from "So This is Harris,” and “Isn’t This a Night for Love,” the theme song from the picture “Melody Cruise,” in which Harris is starred and which will come to the Martini Theater Saturday, were well received.
Harris has some fine arrangements of dance tunes and most of those played were new and taken from current New York musicals and motion picture hits.
Leah Ray, lovely in a black and white lace gown, scored an individual hit and undoubtedly will become as great a favorite here as she was in California. Though still in her teens, she is a finished artist and has a style that wins her audience without a struggle.
Phil Harris’ Ambassadors is another feature with the orchestra that clicked strongly. This trio make a nice appearance and harmonize perfectly.
If one may judge by his reception last night, Phil Harris is due for a highly successful month’s engagement here.
Harris and the band will broadcast four times weekly over KPRC, Houston, and the same outlet will be used when he begins his national network broadcasts June 23.

Ray was a Harris discovery—at least, he gave her her singing first job—and she later married MCA and New York Jets boss Sonny Werblin.

Harris debuted on the Benny show on October 4, 1936. It look a while for the writers to get his character in place; he was kind of a jerkish antagonist to Benny at first. It really sounds painful. Eventually, they had to realise “mean” didn’t work, and that any put-downs of Jack had to be humorous, if not deserved. Harris became the self-absorbed, carefree, alcohol-friendly, illiterate braggart, one of radio’s great characters.

There was little fanfare about Harris’ arrival, nor much speculation about who would replace Johnny Green as the show’s orchestra leader. The Wisconsin State Journal of October 8th sums up all I’ve been able to find in papers of the day:

Phil Harris won the band assignment for the Jack Benny program after a long series of eliminations. Benny was unable to make his mind up as to which of three band leaders he would take and was won over by hearing Harris play in Los Angeles. Benny is also to have another new stooge in the person of Patsy Flick, who was on the Mutual network last year as a dialectician.

Band leader was Harris’ first career, radio star was his second. His fourth was voice actor for Disney as a couple of casual characters. Harris as Baloo singing “The Bare Necessities” may be the highlight of “The Jungle Book.” In between was his third career, that of doting husband to Alice Faye, amateur golfer and someone who only worked when he wanted to, enjoying the good life in between. In a way, all his careers are interrelated, and all entertaining.

Here’s Wonga Philip Harris in his best animated role.


  1. I was p[laying me mp3 of a multitracked WOnga Harris from 1950 singing Berlin's "Play a Simple Melody", which Bing and Gary Crosby also sang. It came from Irving Berlin's early Broadway musical "Watch Your Step". Maybe there was a revival. That would explain the 1950-era revival.Steve

  2. Ah, Phil Harris. He was in Don Bluth's "Rock-a-doodle", which he narrorated over liberally.

  3. I always thought the highlight of 'The Jungle Book' was the whole I Wanna Be Like You song performed by Louis Prima and Harris. It really grinds my gears when in 'Robin Hood' Little John looks too much like Baloo; and even voiced by Harris too.

  4. Let's not forget his late 1950 / early 1951 smash hit, "The Thing."