Rolf Harris, CBE, AM (born 30 March 1930), is an Australian/British musician, singer, composer, painter, and television host and personality.
Named after Rolf Boldrewood, an Australian writer his mother admired, he was born in Bassendean, a suburb of Perth, Western Australia, Australia, to Cromwell ("Crom") Harris and Agnes Margaret Harris (née Robbins) who had both emigrated from Cardiff, Wales. He is the nephew of Australian artist Pixie O'Harris, (1903-1991), i.e. Rhona Olive Pratt, née Harris.
As an adolescent and young adult, Harris was a champion swimmer being the Australian Junior 110 yards Backstroke Champion in 1946 and Western Australian state champion over a variety of distances and strokes during the period 1948–1952. Harris attended Perth Modern School in Subiaco, and the University of Western Australia. He met his wife, the Welsh sculptress and jeweller Alwen Hughes, while they were both art students, and they married on 1 March 1958. They have one daughter, Bindi Harris (born 10 March 1964), who studied art at Bristol Polytechnic and is now a painter.
Music and art
Harris moved to England as an art student at City and Guilds Art School, Kennington, South London at the age of 22, getting into television with the BBC in 1953, doing a regular ten minute cartoon drawing section with a puppet called 'Fuzz', made and operated on the show by magician Robert Harbin. He illustrated Robert Harbin's Paper Magic (1956). He also had a few acting roles in British television programs and film as Harry in The Vise and as Pvt. Proudfoot in the 1955 Tommy Trinder film 'You Lucky People'. When Commercial television started in 1956, Harris was the only entertainer to work on both BBC and ITV, performing on BBC with his own creation, 'Willoughby', a specially made board on which he drew Willoughby, (voiced and operated by Peter Hawkins) . The character would then come to life and hold a comedy dialogue with Harris as he drew cartoons of Willoughby's antics. On Associated Rediffusion he invented a character called Oliver Polip the Octopus which he drew on the back of his his hand and animated, as well as illustrating Oliver's adventures with cartoons on huge sheets of card. He had drifted away from art school as a slightly disillusioned student and had luckily met his long time hero, Australian impressionist painter Hayward Veal, who took Harris under his wing and became his mentor, teaching him the rudiments of impressionism and showing him how it could help with his portrait painting. At the same time, Harris was entertaining with his piano accordion every Thursday night at a club called the Down Under, a haunt for homesick Australians and New Zealanders. Here, over the next several years, he honed his entertainment skills, eventually writing the song which was later to become his theme song, 'Tie me kangaroo down sport'. He was also to appear regularly at Clement Freud's 'Royal Court Theatre Club' in Sloane Square, where he sat at the piano and entertained débutantes and their escorts. Harris was head-hunted to return to Perth when television was introduced there in 1960. There he produced and starred in five half hour children's shows a week, as well as starring in his own weekly evening variety show. During that year he recorded in the TVW studios, the song he had written for the Down Under Club in London, 'Tie me kangaroo down sport'. It was released by EMI and became his first recording and his first number one. At the end of 1960 he toured Australia for Dulux paints, singing his hit song and doing huge paintings on stage with Dulux emulsion paint. He and his wife, Alwen went to Vancouver in Canada by mistake, and had a huge success there, working two shows a night at the Arctic Club, where he was held over for 31 weeks until the club accidentally burnt down on Christmas Eve, 1961. He was immediately transferred to the huge 'Cave' theatre restaurant to great critical acclaim. He returned to the United Kingdom early in 1962 and was introduced to the legendary George Martin, who re-recorded all Harris's songs including 'Sun Arise', an aboriginal type song Rolf had written with Perth naturalist Harry Butler. The song went to number 2 in the UK charts, losing the number 1 spot to Elvis Presley. He met and worked with the Beatles when they started recording with George Martin, and compéred their Christmas show in Finsbury Park Empire in 1963. He and his wife have lived permanently in the UK since 1962, and has regularly returned to Vancouver to entertain ever since. He has also regularly returned to Perth over the years for family visits and to the rest of Australia where he has spent as much as four months every year touring with his band. In 1973, Harris performed the very first concert in the concert hall of the newly completed Sydney Opera House to huge acclaim. Since the late sixties Harris had been performing top rated variety television shows on the BBC in London, shows which were also shown in Australia and New Zealand, creating great support for his many tours in both countries as well as in South Africa.
Harris has been credited with inventing a simple home-made instrument called the wobble board. This discovery was accidentally made in the course of his work when he attempted to dry a freshly painted hardboard with added heat, from hearing the sound made by the board as he shook it by the short edges to cool it off. He suggests the effect can best be obtained through faint bouncing of a tempered hardboard or a thinner MDF board between the palms of one's hands.
In 1960 he worked on TVW-7's first locally produced show Spotlight. During his time at TVW he recorded his hit "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport". The song was recorded on a single microphone placed above him in the TV studio. The song was sent to record company EMI in Sydney and it was soon released as a record. Rolf Harris offered four unknown backing musicians 10% of the royalties for the song, but they decided to take a recording fee of 7 pounds each because they thought the song would be a flop. The novelty song was originally titled "Kangalypso" and featured the distinctive sound of the "wobble board" which was played by bouncing it up and down. The original recording of the song issued in Australia was considered controversial by some listeners because of the lyrics: "Let me abos go loose, Lew[/ Let me abos go loose/ They're of no further use, Lew/ So let me abos go loose". The verse appears to refer to Aboriginal servitude and captivity in a whimsically approving manner. In addition, the word "abo" was beginning to be seen as a term of abuse at the time. Most of the rest of the song refers to pet Australian animals. The offending verse did not feature in later versions of the song. In 2006 Harris expressed his regret about that original lyric. Harris also performed this song in 2000 with Australia's children's supergroup The Wiggles.
Harris sang "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" (with The Beatles singing backing vocals) in the first edition of the From Us to You BBC radio shows, in December, 1963. Harris completely customized the original lyrics to a version that was especially written for The Beatles:
Cut yer hair once a year boys, (repeat), If it covers your ears you can't hear boys, so (repeat first line).
Don't ill-treat me pet dingo, Ringo, (repeat). He can't understand your lingo, Ringo, so (repeat first line).
George’s guitar's on the blink, I think, (repeat), It shouldn't go plinkety plink, no, (repeat first line).
Prop me up by the wall, Paul, (repeat), 'Cause if you don't I might fall, Paul, so (repeat first line).
Keep the hits coming on, John, (repeat), 'Til long long after I've gone, John, just (repeat first line).
Harris went on to use an array of unusual instruments in his music, including the didgeridoo (the sound of which was imitated on "Sun Arise" by four double basses), Jew's harp and, later, the stylophone. Harris has played the didgeridoo on two albums by English pop singer Kate Bush, 1982's The Dreaming and 2005's Aerial. Harris went on to create one of his most famous roles in the 1960s, Jake the Peg but his biggest hit was in 1969 with his rendering of the US Civil War song" Two Little Boys", written in 1902. It was only recently that Rolf discovered a personal poignancy to the song because the story bears such a resemblance to the WWI experiences of his father Crom and his beloved younger brother Carl, who died at the age of 19 after being wounded in battle in France, just two weeks before the armistice of November 1918.
In his appearance on the BBC's Desert Island Discs, on which guests are invited to choose eight pieces of music they would wish to have with them if stranded on a desert island, Harris famously chose eight of his own records.
In 2000, Harris, along with Steve Lima released a dance track called "Fine Day" which entered the top 30 in the UK charts at that time. A 'Killie-themed' version was recorded and scheduled for release in March 2007 to coincide with the Scottish football club's appearance in the Scottish League Cup final after the song was adopted by the fans in 2003. One of the lyrics referred to the hypothetical situation in which Kilmarnock could be 5-0 down, which ironically was similar to the final score of 5-1.
In November and December 2002, under Charles Saumarez Smith's direction, London's National Gallery exhibited a collection of Harris's art. He was also commissioned to paint a portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II for her 80th birthday, which was unveiled by Rolf Harris on 19 December 2005 at Buckingham Palace. In his words, it is an impressionistic rather than photographic depiction. Some commentators found it to be offensive and unbecoming of the Queen, but the Queen herself expressed her approval at the painting after her final sitting, particularly with the way in which Harris had painted her smile. The story of the painting featured as a special edition of Rolf on Art. The special, called The Queen by Rolf, was broadcast on BBC One on 1 January 2006. In his painting of the portrait of the Queen, Rolf Harris was following a family tradition — Harris' grandfather painted a portrait of the Queen's grandfather, King George V (in which King George V was inspecting the troops).
In 2005, Rolf played the didgeridoo on Kate Bush's album Aerial, contributing vocals to the songs "An Architect's Dream" and "The Painter's Link". In the late 80's he was touring in Australia and was asked to sing his own comedy version of 'Stairway to Heaven' on a TV program 'The Money or the Gun'. He did this with his own small group and had great success. Several years later it was released as a single in the UK and went to number 4 in the charts, causing a great furore with 'Led Zeppelin' fans, and great enjoyment with everyone else. As a result of this success he appeared at the Glastonbury Festival in 1994 and was later named the best entertainer EVER to have appeared at Glastonbury. He has since appeared four more times at subsequent Glastonbury festivals and most recently appeared there on 27 June 2009 on the Jazz World Stage to a packed crowd.
His TV successes include over 100 shows of 'Rolf's Cartoon Club' for HTV in Bristol, where he encouraged everyone to get into animation, and doing wonderful artwork and animation on a weekly basis. Then in 1994 he started a veterinary program called 'Animal Hospital' which regularly had over seven and a half million viewers. This show ran for ten wonderful years, and when that finished in 2004, he starred in ' Rolf on Art', a series in which he created works of art in the styles of Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Gaughin, Picasso, Dali and many others. This series regularly scored over seven million viewers weekly, culminating in Rolf painting a birthday portrait of Queen Elizabeth ll with her Majesty appearing on camera talking animatedly with Harris while he worked on the painting. The public were able to watch the painting develop from the blank white canvas. This portrait has just been exhibited in the Australian National Portrait Gallery in Canberra for six months, after Harris gave the prestigious annual lecture there in 2008.
1982 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
Matilda, the winking kangaroo was the mascot for the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. When Matilda arrived at the stadium, she 'winked' to the crowd as she went around the stadium track — then her 'pouch' opened and several young children (about 5 years old to 7 years old), dressed as joey kangaroos, rushed out (then ran to — and jumped on — a number of trampolines which had been set up especially for them).
Harris, who was standing, complete with wobble board, at the back of a small truck, then sang a special rendition of his hit song "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport", which included some lyrics especially written for the Opening Ceremony:
Let me welcome you to the Games, friends,
Welcome you to the Games
Look, I don't know all of your names, friends,
But let me welcome you to the Games.
Following his singing of "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport", Harris sang "Waltzing Matilda". As well as a video tape recording of the Opening Ceremony being released, the music for the Opening Ceremony was released as an album and an audio tape, with Harris as one of the featured artists.
"Stairway to Heaven"
Harris' career received a boost in 1993 when his cover version of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" became a hit, reaching number 7 of the UK singles chart. Harris originally performed the song, live, during an appearance on the television comedy show The Money or the Gun. Each episode of The Money or the Gun featured a rendition of Stairway to Heaven but in the idiosyncratic style of another performer. Harris' version of the song recreated the song in the style of "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport", complete with wobble board and didgeridoo solos. Although he had the sheet music, Harris claims that he had not heard the original version when he recorded his; as such, he disavows any claim that his version was intended to be irreverent or humorous. Harris' version was one of 28 versions of the song performed on the show — and his version is one of the 25 versions of the song which was released on the The Money or the Gun's Stairways to Heaven videotape and CD (Harris' single comes from the same recording of his version of the song). A wobble board Harris used to perform "Stairway to Heaven" on Top of the Pops is now part of the National Museum of Australia collection.
Recordings and appearances
Harris also recorded a version of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" around this time. He performed The Divinyls' "I Touch Myself" — accompanied only by his wobble board — for Andrew Denton's Musical Challenge on the MMM Breakfast Show (the recording was released on the first Musical Challenge compilation album in 2000). Later that year he made his first appearance at the Glastonbury Festival in what was seen as a novelty act. He played there again in 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2009.
Harris has also recorded an Australian Christmas song called "Six White Boomers", about a joey Kangaroo trying to find his mother during Christmas time, and how Santa Claus used six large-size male Kangaroos (Boomers), instead of Reindeer (to put an Australian spin on the traditional story) to pull his sleigh and help the little joey find his "Mummy".
In October 2008, Harris announced he would re-record his 1969 hit "Two Little Boys", backed by North Wales' Froncysyllte Male Voice Choir, to mark the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I. Proceeds from the new release went to The Poppy Appeal. Harris was inspired to make the recording after participating in My Family at War, a short series of programmes in the BBC's Remembrance season, which was broadcast in November 2008. He discovered that the experiences of his father and uncle during the Great War mirrored the lyrics of the song.
Harris has had a long career on British television, making his debut in 1953 on a five minute spot with a puppet called 'Fuzz' in a one hour children’s show called 'Jigsaw'. The following year he was a regular on a BBC Television programme called Whirligig, with a character called 'Willoughby', who sprang to life on a drawing board but was erased at the end of the show.
Although he chiefly appeared on the BBC, he was also on ITV with his 'Oliver Polip the Octopus' character on Small Time on Associated Rediffusion. He was the presenter of Hi There and Hey Presto it’s Rolf in 1964. Consequently he was already well-known face on television when The Rolf Harris Show first appeared in 1967. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s this series in various formats remained a popular light-entertainment staple, latterly being broadcast on Saturday evenings as Rolf on Saturday OK? Harris was also the commentator for the United Kingdom in the 1967 Eurovision Song Contest.
On many of his television appearances he painted pictures on large boards in an apparently slapdash manner, with the odd nonsense song thrown in, but with detailed results. This was often accompanied by the phrase "Can you tell what is it yet?" just before the painting became recognisable. These appearances led to a string of TV series based on his artistic ability, notably Rolf Harris's Cartoon Time on BBC1 in the 1980s and Rolf's Cartoon Club on ITV between 1989-1993. On the children's show he also gave out tips to children on how to draw and create easy animation techniques, like flickbooks. He also hosted a successful variety TV series in Canada, which was a second home to Harris during the 1960s.
From 1994-2004, he was the host of the reality television programme Animal Hospital, which chronicled the real-life activity of a British veterinary practice. Rolf then adopted a greyhound that had been abandoned at the vets, named Rocky. Rolf presented 19 series of Animal Hospital for BBC One. It was five times winner in the Most Popular Factual Entertainment Show category of The National TV Awards.
More recently, he presented Rolf on Art, which highlighted the work of some of his favourite artists, including van Gogh, Degas, Monet and Gauguin. Rolf on Art which made TV history when it gained the highest TV ratings ever for an Arts programme, is now in its sixth year. On 26 September 2004 Harris fronted a project to recreate John Constable's famous The Hay Wain painting on a massive scale, with 150 people contributing to a small section. Each individual canvas was assembled into the full picture live on the BBC, in the show Rolf on Art: The Big Event. He was named as one of the Radio Times list of the top 40 most eccentric TV presenters of all time in July 2004.
The story of Rolf Harris' portrait painting of Queen Elizabeth II featured as a special edition of Rolf on Art, broadcast on BBC One on 1 January 2006. Harris's portrait of The Queen was voted by readers of the Radio Times the third favourite portrait of Her Majesty. The royal portrait was exhibited at Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, and was exhibited on a tour of public galleries in the UK.
In September 2006 the Royal Australian Mint launched the first of the new 2007 Silver Kangaroo Collector's Coin series. Harris was commissioned to design the first coin in the series. For the third year running, Harris designed and painted the official Children In Need Christmas card. Harris has presented three series of the BBC art programme Star Portraits with Rolf Harris. In 2007, a documentary A Lifetime in Paint about Harris' work as an artist - from the early years in Australia to the present day - was screened on BBC One, followed by a Rolf On Art special titled Rolf on Lowry.
In November 2007 at exhibition of Harris' new paintings was held at Portland Gallery, London. In December 2007 a new DVD titled Rolf Live! was released through his website.
Rolf on Art: Beatrix Potter was screened on BBC One in December 2007.
Harris appeared with a wobble board in a Churchill Insurance advertisement in 2009, and hosted the satirical quiz show Have I Got News for You, aired on May 15, 2009.
"Can You Tell What It Is Yet?" (referring to an in-progress piece of artwork)
"The Poor Little Blighter" (referring to a dead or dying animal in Animal Hospital)
"Heh-hah-heh-hah" (breathing noises, usually accompanying a wobbleboard performance)
Harris was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) on 17 June 2006, having previously been created a Member (MBE) in 1968 and an Officer (OBE) in 1977.
On 26 January 1989, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM)
In 1975 he was appointed King of Moomba
On 1 July 2008, Harris was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, he was joined on-stage by The Seekers to perform "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" and his Jake the Peg routine