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Bob Harris - Interview

  by Nick Dent-Robinson

published: 15 / 5 / 2016

Bob Harris - Interview


Radio 2 DJ and 'Old Grey Whistle Test' presenter Bob Harris talks to Nick Dent-Robinson about his lengthy career and forthcoming ''Festivals in a Day' series of one-day festivals

'Whispering' Bob Harris is a British broadcasting legend. Ever since he presented the iconic live BBC TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test four decades ago, Oxfordshire-based Bob's deep knowledge of music and his huge passion for spotting and championing emerging talent have ensured he's stayed a household name. His two present-day programmes on BBC Radio 2 are massively influential and, as Britain's most popular advocate of Roots and Americana music, Bob has won a series of top international awards from the Nashville-based Country Music Association as well as the Americana Music Association's prestigious Trailblazer Award. Over the years, Bob has achieved so many things. He's spent time with the greatest music legends - from John Lennon, Robert Plant and Robin Gibb to Queen, Bruce Springsteen, Marc Bolan, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones plus Emmylou Harris and an array of Nashville's most celebrated country stars. Back in 1968, Bob also co-founded Time Out magazine. Indeed, as Bob himself observes, his career sometimes seems to have been a non-stop cavalcade of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Yet he remains refreshingly grounded. This may reflect the tougher times Bob has experienced, too. He's suffered some significant career lows and was declared bankrupt in 1996; Bob's private life has not always been tranquil, with three marriages and in recent years he has battled life-threatening prostate cancer. But Bob's infectious enthusiasm and energy has not waned. And now, as he approaches his 70th birthday, Bob is embarking on yet another bold new project....his own Under The Apple Tree Roots Festival to be held on a wooded site at Silverstone, Northamptonshire - Bob's original home county - over the Spring Bank holiday from 27th - 29th May. Yet Bob Harris remains refreshingly grounded. This may reflect the tougher times Bob has experienced, too. He's suffered some significant career lows and was declared bankrupt in 1996; Bob's private life has not always been tranquil with three marriages and in recent years he has battled life-threatening prostate cancer. But Bob's infectious enthusiasm and energy has not waned. And now, as he passes his 70th birthday, Bob is embarking on yet another bold new project....his own series of 'Festivals in a Day' to be held at London's Cadogan Hall starting on Saturday 10th September this year. As Bob tells me when we meet in the farmhouse-style kitchen at his country home near Abingdon, the line-up is yet to be confirmed but it should be impressive and may include several American headliners like Gretchen Peters, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Beth Nielsen Chapman plus many other home-grown performers who Bob has known well over the years. Originally Bob had hoped to hold an open-air festival in May in his original home county of Northamptonshire. Staging his own event of that kind was the ambition of a lifetime – but the enormity of the organisation against a very tight timescale just proved too much – and an alternative plan was agreed. The process of picking performers is critically important, but with the relationship Bob enjoys with so many top artists, things have rapidly fallen into place. “The inspiration for organising my own event, really, was all the great friendships I have made here and in Nashville,” Bob explained. “This combined with my wish to showcase some of the exciting new talent we see doing our Under The Apple Tree sessions in the small studio - which is actually under an apple tree - at the bottom of my garden. The roots/country/Americana music scene has grown massively here in the UK. There's a whole new generation coming in, listening to this music through their i-Phones. Plus there are some excellent new artists both here and in the USA which is very exciting. “People kept suggesting we stage a little event here in the garden at home. Buit I wanted to do something bigger than that. My son Miles posted the idea for the original outdoor event on Facebook and the reaction was instant and unbelievable.....over 100,000 positive responses virtually overnight. Then, when we started reaching out to artists, everybody who could possibly do so just said, 'Yes'. So we knew the wind was in our favour. Even though the original outdoor festival proved impractical, my desire to hold a major music event remains undimmed.” The process of picking performers is critically important but with the relationship Bob enjoys with so many top artists, things fell into place fast. Dur“Amongst the first people I called about the original outside festival were Martyn Joseph, Danny & The Champions and Thea Gilmore who is from Oxfordshire,” Bob told me. “And I really wanted The Dreaming Spires involved, too. They are Robin and Joe Bennett from the local village, Steventon, where they've run their own successful Truck music festival. Then we contacted Mary Chapin Carpenter who I met in the States 25 years ago and Gretchen Peters who was the first person I recorded on my initial visit to Nashville in 1999. I have always kept in close touch with the two of them. Both immediately agreed to appear as did the singer-songwriter Chris Difford and Americans Beth Nielson Chapman and Kimmie Rhodes.” It is disappointing for Bob that the May event won't now happen but he is hoping for an equally impressive line-up for his series of Festivals in a Day. Bob told me he had wanted the initial outdoor May event to build a solid foundation for future Under The Apple Tree festivals. And he hopes the Festivals in a Day will do the same. As Bob said, “You see, this year I turn 70 and I would like these festivals to be a lasting legacy from me. Something my wife Trudie and son Miles – who work with me in our Whispering Bob Broadcasting Company (WBBC) - can continue to run with in future years. With my eight children and growing numbers of grandchildren I do now think more about what I will leave behind. Though the most important thing for the festival is to create a wonderful atmosphere and generate a good vibe so people really feel comfortable and enjoy themselves.” ing such a long and remarkable career, Bob has seen many changes in music. He was living in 'Swinging London' throughout the Sixties hippy era of peace and love and has watched heavy metal, progressive rock, reggae, glam rock, punk, the new romantics, Brit pop and many other phases come and go. He's also seen the demise of some major record labels in the current age of downloading, internet radio and digital home recording. “Much of the change, I welcome,” Bob says. “Access to music is easier for more people and the younger generation are far less interested in lines of demarcation between different musical genres. Good music is just good music as far as they are concerned and they happily mix and match a range of styles - which is healthy in many ways. The growing interest here in Americana music has come from that and Nashville itself has never been more dynamic, more energised. It is now very, very cool. The Nashville TV series has been hugely influential but the city has become a major financial centre and a medical centre as well as a music city. The Nashville skyline has changed dramatically and there's growth and construction everywhere with lots of new restaurants and quality hotels. The music industry in Nashville is really booming, too. The resources there are amazing with superb studios, session musicians and top producers on tap in a relatively paparazzi-free environment where world class music performers can relax in the neighbourhood coffee bars, do their own grocery shopping or drive the daily school run. “Many of the highlights of my career have happened in Nashville,” Bob continued. “One of the best moments of my life was receiving the Trailblazer Award at the Americana Music awards in 2011. What made it mega triple special for me was that Robert Plant - who has been a good friend for many years – also won an award there that evening. We just hugged each other in delight saying, 'Who'd have dreamed back in 1972 when we were on Whistle Test...this long-haired hippy, rock presenter and the rock god lead singer of Zeppelin, then the biggest band in the world...that we'd find ourselves celebrated by the country and Americana community in Nashville?' So that was an incredible, wonderful moment - and I flew home from that and just two days later I was at Windsor Castle collecting my OBE! Then, the very next day after that, I was flying to spend time at Cynthia Lennon's home in Majorca where I wrote quite a bit of my autobiography, 'Still Whispering After All These Years'. That was a very special time.” One of Bob's most memorable Whistle Test-era interviews was his April 1975 New York discussion with John Lennon - which Elton John had helped arrange. The fee paid to Lennon by the BBC was just £15 worth of chocolate Bath Oliver biscuits, a Lennon favourite then unavailable in New York. “That was another peak moment for me,” Bob recalled. “John was very relaxed, very open about a whole range of issues. In fact Paul Gambaccini, who has done quite a study of John, still maintains that this was the best interview with John ever recorded. It was just one of those very fortunate times when you meet someone who you really click with. We got on very well and you can see in the film how comfortable we were together. It is an extraordinary thing that in the later years of Cynthia Lennon's life my wife Trudie and I became very close to her. She was a lovely, warm and charming person and never bitter or angry about the fact that life hadn't dealt her an especially ace-filled hand.” Bob has a wealth of wonderful tales about Marc Bolan, Robin Gibb, Joe Brown, George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, Brian Wilson and so many more – including the time in 1968 when he introduced a relatively unknown David Bowie to a crowd of London students at a raucous end-of-term East End celebratory dance night. “I'd been keeping the dance floor packed with Motown, Stax and heavy metal,” Bob recalled. “And then, half-way through, I introduced David who was a good friend. He ambled out with his new girlfriend Angie, switched on a small amplifier and started the acoustic guitar opening of Space Oddity. Compared to the decibels I'd been blasting out, David's sound was like a transistor radio. He hadn't even got to 'Major Tom to ground control...' when the booing started. Pints of beer were hurled at the stage, glasses smashed. It was just the wrong person on the wrong night with the wrong crowd. I was furious with them. I strode out on to the stage, red-faced with righteous indignation. 'You mark my words,' I shouted, 'you are going to remember the night you booed David Bowie off this stage, you morons. This man is going to be a big star, mark my words.' I really did say that! And then I made my own hasty exit, grabbing my record box en route.” This was the year when, with Tony Elliott, Bob had co-founded Time Out magazine – another big achievement in a remarkable life. “We published the first edition on my kitchen table using Letraset,” Bob remembered. “Then we delivered copies by hand around London clubs. The early days were great fun but as the magazine started to grow, it required more time indoors 9 to 5 at a desk with increasing office politics and pressure. So I agreed to sign over my interest to Tony. My ambition was to join BBC Radio One. I'd met John Peel by then and he was a great inspiration to me...he acted as a mentor. So I did join Radio One and I've absolutely no regrets about anything. Mind you, I don't have £32million in the bank like I'm told Tony Elliott does now - but there have been so many other compensations. I do feel I've been very lucky with my life.” For more about Bob's series of 'Festivals in a Day', visit www.undertheappletreefestival.com

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