Phil Harris (born Wonga Philip Harris) (June 24, 1904 ? August 11, 1995) was an American singer, songwriter, jazz musician and comedian. Though successful as an orchestra leader, Harris is remembered today for his recordings as a vocalist, his voice work in animation and the radio situation comedy in which he co-starred with his second wife, singer-actress Alice Faye, for eight years. Although he was born in Linton, Indiana, Harris actually spent much of his childhood in Nashville, Tennessee, which accounted for both his trace of a Southern accent and...
Although he was born in Linton, Indiana, Harris actually spent much of his childhood in Nashville, Tennessee, which accounted for both his trace of a Southern accent and, in later years, the self-deprecating Southern jokes of his radio character. Harris began his music career as a drummer in San Francisco, forming an orchestra with Carol Lofner in the latter 1920s and starting a long engagement at the St. Francis Hotel. The partnership ended by 1932, and Harris led and sang with his own band, now based in Los Angeles. On September 2, 1927, he was married to actress Marcia Ralston in Sydney, Australia. The couple adopted a son, Phil Harris, Jr. (b. 1935). They were divorced in September, 1940.
In 1936, Harris became musical director of The Jell-O Show Starring Jack Benny (later renamed The Jack Benny Program), singing and leading his band and---when his knack for snappy one-liners became apparent---joining the Benny ensemble playing Phil Harris, scripted as a hipster-talking, hard-drinking, brash Southerner whose good nature overcame his ego. His trademark was his jive-talk nicknaming of the others in the Benny orbit. Benny was "Jackson," for example; Harris's usual entry was a cheerful "Hiya, Jackson!". His signature song, ironic considering his actual Hoosier roots, was "That's What I Like About the South."
Harris married Alice Faye in 1941; it was a second marriage for both (Faye had been married briefly to singer-actor Tony Martin). The Faye-Harris marriage lasted 54 years, until Harris's death. In 1942, Harris and his entire band enlisted in the U.S. Navy and they served for the duration of World War II. By 1946 Faye had all but ended her film career. She drove off the 20th Century Fox lot after studio czar Darryl F. Zanuck reputedly edited her scenes out of Fallen Angel (1945) to pump up his protege Linda Darnell.
Harris and Faye were invited to join a radio program, The Fitch Bandwagon. Originally a vehicle for big bands, including Harris's own, the show became something else entirely when Harris and Faye became popular personalities. Coinciding with the couple's desire to settle in southern California and raise their children without touring, Bandwagon evolved into the popular situation comedy, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. With Harris as the vain, language-challenged bandleading husband and Faye as his acid but loving wife, abetted by actresses playing their two young daughters, the series also featured Gale Gordon as their sponsor's representative, Elliott Lewis as layabout guitarist Frank Remley and Great Gildersleeve co-star Walter Tetley as obnoxious grocery boy Julius. The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show had an eight-year run on NBC until radio succumbed to television.
After the show ended, Harris revived his music career. He made numerous guest appearances on 1960s and 1970s TV shows, including the Kraft Music Hall, The Dean Martin Show, Hollywood Palace and other musical variety programs. He worked as a vocalist and voice actor for animated films, with performances in the Disney animated features The Aristocats as Thomas O'Malley, Robin Hood playing Little John and The Jungle Book as Baloo the Bear.
The Jungle Book was his greatest success in the years following his radio heyday. He voiced the character and sang one of the film's showstoppers, "The Bare Necessities," a performance that introduced Harris to a new generation of young fans who had no idea he was once a popular radio star. Harris also joins Louis Prima in "I Wanna Be Like You", delivering a memorable scat-singing performance. In 1989, Harris briefly returned to Disney to once again voice Baloo, this time for the cartoon series TaleSpin which was in production at the time. Unfortunately, he had aged enough by then that he could no longer do the voice successfully. He was replaced later by actor Ed Gilbert. His last animated film project was in the 1991 film Rock-A-Doodle directed by Don Bluth, in which he played the friendly, laid back farm dog Patou.
Song hits by Harris included the early 1950s novelty record, "The Thing." The song describes the hapless finder of a box with a mysterious secret and his efforts to rid himself of it. Harris also spent time in the 1970s and early 1980s leading a band that appeared often in Las Vegas, often on the same bill with swing era legend Harry James.
Harris was also a close friend and associate of Bing Crosby; in fact, after Crosby died, Harris sat in for his old friend doing color commentary for the telecast of the annual Bing Crosby Pro-Am Golf Tournament. An old episode of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show began with Harris telling the story of how he once won the tournament.
Harris was a longtime resident and benefactor of Palm Springs, California, where Crosby also made his home. Harris was also a benefactor of his birthplace of Linton, Indiana, establishing scholarships in his honor for promising high school students, performing at the high school, and hosting a celebrity golf tournament in his honour every year. In due course, Harris and Faye donated most of their show business memorabilia and papers to Linton's public library.
Phil Harris died of a heart attack in Palm Springs 1995 at age 91. Alice Faye died of stomach cancer three years later. Two years before his death, Harris was inducted into the Indiana Hall of Fame. Both Harris and Faye are interred at Forest Lawn-Cathedral City in Riverside County, California. Phyllis Harris was last reported living in St. Louis (she had been with her mother at her father's bedside when he died), while Alice Harris Regan was reported living in New Orleans.
Harris remained grateful to radio for the difference it made in his professional and personal life, however. "If it hadn't been for radio," he was quoted as saying, "I would still be a traveling orchestra leader. For 17 years I played one-night stands, sleeping on buses. I never even voted, because I didn't have any residence."
The gratitude has probably been returned sevenfold: episodes of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show turn up frequently on compact-disc collections of old-time radio classics, both on their own sets and amid various comedy collections. Many consider the show at its best to have stood the test of time, thanks to the above-average writing and, especially, the two stars who executed it with impeccable comic taste and timing.