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Rolf Harris, CBE, AM (born 30 March 1930) is an Australian musician, singer-songwriter, composer, painter and television personality.
Born in Perth, Western Australia, Harris was a champion swimmer before studying art. He moved to England in 1952, where he started to appear on television programmes on which he drew the characters. He also began a musical career initially with the piano accordion. He wrote the famous song "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport", and when performing in Canada he introduced his popular routine Jake the Peg. He often uses unusual instruments in his performances: he plays the didgeridoo, has been credited with the invention of the wobble board, a rhythmic percussion instrument, and was associated with the Stylophone, a small electronic keyboard instrument.
From the 1960s he has become a popular television personality, presenting shows including Rolf's Cartoon Club, Animal Hospital and various programmes about serious art. In late 2005 he painted an official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, which was the subject of a special episode of Rolf on Art.
Named after Rolf Boldrewood, an Australian writer his mother admired, he was born in Bassendean, a suburb of Perth, Western 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). As a child he owned a dog called Buster Fleabags. A book of the same name was written for Quick Reads in 2010.
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.
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 programmes and films as Harry in The Vise and as Pte 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 comedic 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 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 longtime 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 also appeared regularly at Clement Freud's "Royal Court Theatre Club" in Sloane Square, where he sat at the piano and entertained debutantes and their escorts.
Harris was headhunted 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. While painting on stage, one of his catchphrases was, "Can you tell what it is yet?"
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 George Martin, who re-recorded all Harris's songs including "Sun Arise", an Aboriginal-type song Harris 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 compèred their Christmas show in Finsbury Park Empire in 1963.
He and his wife have lived permanently in the United Kingdom since 1962, and he 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 1960s 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 homemade 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 television studio. The song was sent to record company EMI in Sydney and it was soon released as a record. Harris offered four unknown backing musicians 10% of the royalties for the song, but they decided to take a recording fee of ?7 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.
Some listeners, because of the lyrics of the fourth verse, considered the original 1960 single release recording of the song issued in Australia controversial. 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, four decades after the song's release, Harris expressed his regret about that original lyric. Harris also performed this song in 2000 with Australia's children's super group 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).
As well as his trademark beat boxing, similar to eefing, 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 (for which he also lent his name and likeness for advertising). 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 American Civil War song "Two Little Boys", written in 1902. It was only recently that Harris discovered a personal poignancy to the song because the story bears such a resemblance to the World War I experiences of his father Crom and Crom's 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. Two Little Boys was the Christmas Number One song in the UK charts for six weeks in 1969. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.
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 Kilmarnock's appearance in the Scottish League Cup final after the fans adopted the song 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, Harris was following a family tradition — Harris's grandfather painted a portrait of the Queen's grandfather, King George V (in which the King was inspecting the troops). The portrait was exhibited in the Australian National Portrait Gallery in Canberra for six months, after Harris gave the prestigious annual lecture there in 2008.
In 2005, Harris 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 1980s he was touring in Australia and was asked to sing his own comedy version of "Stairway to Heaven" on a television programme "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 among "Led Zeppelin" fans, and great enjoyment for 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.
In September 2010 Harris appeared at the Bestival Festival on the Isle of Wight, and played on the pyramid stage at Glastonbury Festival on Friday 25 June 2010, during the festival's 40th birthday.
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 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 videotape recording of the Opening Ceremony being released, the music for the Opening Ceremony was released as an album and an audiotape, with Harris as one of the featured artists.
Harris's 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's 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's 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's 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.
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, 2009 and 2010.
Harris has also recorded an Australian Christmas song called Six White Boomers, about a joey Kangaroo trying to find his mother during Christmastime, and how Santa Claus used six large male kangaroos (Boomers), instead of reindeer "because they can't stand the terrible heat" 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's 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.
A sampling of Harris saying, "You've just heard one of the most remarkable applications in modern electronics", grabbed from a Stylophone instruction disc, appears at the end of the Pulp hit "Countdown".
Harris is known for Channel 7 Perth's jingle "Children's Channel 7".
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 was broadcast from 1967-1974 on BBC1. 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 31 December 1976, Harris performed his hit song Two Little Boys on BBC1's A Jubilee Of Music, celebrating British pop music for Queen Elizabeth II's impending Silver Jubilee.
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 television 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. The latter programme witnessed another Harris catchphrase; "See you on Ro-o-o-o-o-o-lf's Cartoon Club, next week!" He also hosted a successful variety television 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. Harris then adopted a greyhound that had been abandoned at the vet's, named Rocky. Harris 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. In an Australian Times article, journalist Kris Griffiths wrote of Animal Hospital: “One scene of Rolf’s tearful breakdown as a dog is euthanised became forever ingrained in fans’ memories, a spontaneous display that boosted the next episode’s ratings to a zenith of 10m.” When referring to a dead or dying animal on the programme, one of his catchphrases was, "The Poor Little Blighter".
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 television history when it gained the highest television 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 vast 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's list of the top 40 most eccentric television presenters of all time in July 2004.
The story of Harris's 80th birthday portrait painting of Queen Elizabeth II featured as a special edition of Rolf on Art, broadcast on BBC One on 1 January 2006. Readers of the Radio Times voted Harris’s portrait of The Queen 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's 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's 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. He also 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 15 May 2009.
Harris is narrator of the 2010 Australian documentary series Penguin Island, a 6-part natural history documentary about the life of the Little Penguin and he appeared as himself on the Christmas special of My Family aired on 24 December 2010. In 2011 Harris made a guest appearance on BBC 1 show The Magicians hosted by Lenny Henry.
He also took part in the 2011 series Jamie's Dream School.