Rolf Harris

Rolf Harris

With the Australian performer Rolf Harris, fun is as contagious as cold germs in a day-care center. Take the time his accordion caught on fire because it was placed too close to the stage lights. Any other performer would add "take it please," not wanting to deal with such a hot situation at a live gig. Harris simply went on playing the instrument as soon as the flames were contained, inspiring the local press to make merry. "Rolf's Act is Red Hot" wrote the Sunday Express, while a rival paper came up with the title "Fry Me Accordion Brown, Sport." This of course is a variation on "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport," the madcap single Harris managed to place on hit-parade charts otherwise dominated by younger folk with longer hair. While this song helped bring Harris international fame in the '60s, it is also the reason many listeners think this performer is just a one-hit wonder. Such an opinion would require completely ignoring the man's long career as a recording artist, nightclub performer, author, and visual artist. It is quite apparent that the hit parade is one thing Harris doesn't need.

It is typical of Harris that one of the first biographical details he likes to mention is that, at age four, he got scarlet fever and was quarantined for months, a period that enemies of silly music no doubt wished had been stretched ad infinitum. At first it seemed Harris might be bound for glory in the water only, placing in 1946 as the Australian junior backstroke champion. Three years later, talents began to be recognized outside swimming pools when he won an amateur talent competition on one of the national radio stations. In the early '50s, Harris headed for London to study art. In 1956, he had his first exhibit of paintings at the Royal Academy of Art in London, the year before he wrote "Tie Me Kangaroo Down" and began building an audience of homesick Australians and other loony birds at the Down Under Club. At the end of the decade, he went back to Australia and began working in children's television. This venture was the first of many well-received television series including Hey Presto, It's Rolf in 1966 and the more normally titled Rolf Harris Show the following year.

Besides his playing on regular instruments, Harris began making use of aboriginal Australian sound-making devices and in 1967 came up with one of the strangest musical devices ever, the stylophone. This axe looks a bit like a kiddie board game and is played with something akin to an electronic pencil. It has surfaced as a noise-maker at the hands of avant-garde musicians, but the definitive word on the stylophone is found on the Harris series of recordings, including one devoted to the swing music of bandleader Glenn Miller.

In 1969, Harris filmed Rolf's Walkabout a combination of scenery and absurdity that also came out in book form. He won an award in 1970 for best television personality from the Radio Industries Club, and in 1973 reached a career milestone with his first public performance at the grandiose Sydney Opera House. It was only a few years more before it was necessary to call him Sir Rolf Harris; he received the Order of the British Empire in 1977, a nice way to kick off a new television series entitled Rolf on Saturday -- OK?, which viewers thought was indeed okay enough to stay on the air three years. His career continued to develop in depth, including a film role in The Little Convict in 1979 and a series of pantomime performances in the '80s.

Rolf's Here -- OK? was the 1980 concept for a television show, followed by the extremely popular Cartoon Time which Harris hosted through 1987. The new wave era was not one in which Harris was at all forgotten, and there were instances where so-called "hip" new artists brought him into the studio for touches of authenticity. This includes some tasty didgeridoo playing on Kate Bush's sleepy entitled album Dreaming. Meanwhile, Rolf's Cartoon Club took over as his television outlet, continuing until 1993.

This was around the time he introduced his cover version of "Stairway to Heaven," which some critics suggested he re-title "Charway to Heaven" following the flaming accordion incident. Harris entered the new millennium with not as much as a nod or a wink, continuing a series of television travel specials, charity work for animals and the handicapped, and performances such as a pair of appearances at the British Glastonbury Festival. He released the 70/30 recording in 2000 and crowned himself King Rolf in 2001, at least on compact disc. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, All Music Guide


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