JOHNNY HARRIS: THE MAN WHO TURNED DOWN ELVIS – TWICE
by Julie Pearce- Martin. FastPrint Publishing, 2012
–Review and Interview by L4LM contributing writer Bob Wilson
Live for Live Music obtained exclusive interviews with author Julie Pearce-Martin, and her dad Johnny Harris, the subject of THE MAN WHO TURNED DOWN ELVIS – TWICE. They both expounded on the career of Johnny, who crossed paths with The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, YES, Tom Jones, The Who, Sammy Davis Jr. and many other stars who shone brightly in the evening sky of popular music from the early 1960′s to present day. This was a great opportunity for L4LM to delve deep into the rock tomes, and we jumped at the chance to interview a man who has been part of such a rich musical history, and a daughter that understands the importance of it all.
Johnny Harris received a big break by working for Top Six Records in England,
who were producing “sound-alike” recordings of soon to be hit songs. By releasing the tunes 3-to-a-side on extended play singles, fans could purchase six chart toppers in one place. Of course they most did not realize that the songs they bought were recorded by studio musicians, and not the original artists. Yet the label took off when they released covers of songs of a new group form Liverpool named the Beatles.
The recordings featured Jimmie Nicol (check out Bob Wilson’s recent L4LM feature The Beatle Who Vanished) on drums, and his fate would be etched into rock music history due to this studio work. The Top Six release actually broke into the top 40 selling records, although the “sound-alike” ruse led to the label’s demise months later when fans caught on that these were cover records.
Ringo Starr would suffer tonsillitis on the eve of the Beatles first world tour starting in Australia , and be scratched from the lineup for the first 13 days. A drummer familiar with the band’s music had to be found immediately. The talented and handsome Nicol looked the part, and knew the songs from his Top Six work. For just short of two weeks, he would experience the new furor that was “Beatlemania”, actually wearing Ringo Starr’s very suit. The rest of Nicol’s life would never be the same, or match being treated as royalty while Starr recovered.
Johnny Harris would be in Nicol’s post-Beatles band The Shubdubs, when Nicol returned from his fill-in on the tour. Johnny Harris would join in, as Nicol’s own star now seemed destined for greatness. Harris had survived bombing raids in WWII as a child, and been born with polio. It seemed for a time, he would ride as a passenger with Nicol whose future was headed due north. The two men were friends, but Nicol seemed to have lady luck shining on him. After all, he had been anointed as a temporary Beatle, enjoying the fruits of wine, women, and song briefly with possibly the greatest band in rock history before or since.
Johnny Harris would go on to work as a conductor, arranger, songwriter, and still be working to this date earning a successful living in show business. Jimmie Nicol would wind up a recluse, hiding from family, friends and a music industry that he felt had shunned and used him. Nicol felt betrayed and blacklisted by Beatle manager Brian Epstein, and the bitterness seems to have dried up aspects of his life ranging from music to family, and much in between.
Julie Pearce-Martin explains that Nicol had been “a good friend and a regular visitor to our house in Beckenham.” When the Harris family did home remodeling, Nicol “knocked a hole the wall of our house there to create an archway.” Johnny Harris expounds on Nicol’s time with the Beatles, as such: “He called me right after (The Beatles hired Nicol) to give me the big news, he was so excited, and I was happy for him. I told him all those Beatles songs we’d covered on the Top Six label had paid off big time.”
Harris laments that Nicol returned “seeming so different, his demeanor, his body language and the way he talked.” Further, “as time went on this new Nicol became his own worst enemy, it’s kinda sad really.” Their time in The Shubdubs was short-lived, although they played on a bill with The Beatles. Results fell well under what expectations were for them given the circumstances under which they had begun.
Johnny Harris was the one soon in high demand, and he would work successfully with Tom Jones, earning a reputation as a highly mobile conductor, arranger, and bandleader. Despite his early bout with polio, Harris was nearly signed by Chelsea to be the soccer team’s goaltender. His conducting style can be described as frenetic, and even acrobatic. On occasion, he would steal thunder form headliners with his unique style. Successful stints followed with no less than Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey, Nancy Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Englebert Humperdink, Lulu, Paul Anka, and Lynda Carter filling a resume that earned respect from show business legends and insiders, throughout the music industry. Johnny would become well known as a “musician’s musician”, wearing many different hats with equal skill, and aplomb.
After moving from England to America, Elvis Presley spotted Johnny, and twice offered to hire him to lead his ensemble. Johnny had been working with Tom Jones at the Flamingo Hotel, and later with the fiery-tempered Paul Anka, and was not lured to work with the head “Hound Dog”. Johnny felt Tom Jones was a better singer than Elvis, and found Jones’ nervousness at Elvis attendance of his show to be silly. Respectfully, Harris comments that Elvis “was a very nice guy and a great performer, but as you (L4LM author, recounting an earlier quote) pointed out he was no Tom Jones.”
Later, about a year prior to Presley’s death, he had approached Harris a second time, with an offer of employment. Harris explains that at the second offer, Elvis “had put on a lot of weight and his face looked a little puffy“. Presley “was still fun to be around, (and) kind of childlike“. Harris explains he felt “this was just not the right move for me at the time, and sadly it turned out I was right.” The reference being to the music dying, losing Elvis at only 42 years old, on August 16th, 1977. It is not many who can state they walked away from offers from such a legend, and came to carry no burden of regret over the decisions.
Harris had worked with no less than Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones prior to their “daze” in Led Zeppelin, when they were studio musicians. Jon Anderson of the group YES sang on Johnny’s piece “All To Bring You Morning” (check out video below). It was there that he found drummer Alan White, who would go on to join him in his notable band. Harris’ release Movements was “the” album to listen to in 1970, and was highly regarded among his peers. Pearce-Martin explains that Harris “could easily have followed up “Movements”, but his eyes were already over the Atlantic looking to work in America“. Others copied the style Harris had originated, and had done quite well with their efforts.
The Plaza Theater would be the scene for a huge success, as Johnny would be the keyboardist and arranger for the Palm Springs Follies. The music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin would prove to be the backbone to the revamping of the update of the original “Follies” of the 1920′s. No less than Howard Keel, Donald O’Connor, and Peter Marshall would headline the show to packed houses. It is still running today, largely to the talent and efforts of Harris. Harris says that “music is my life“, and it is difficult to think of an argument to his point.
Perhaps surpassing all of the aforementioned accomplishments is that for Harris’ 70th birthday party, all three of his wives were in attendance. His daughter has given us a tome worthy of perusal, and calls the work “a labor of love“. She added, “I wanted to record Daddy’s stories so that they will never be forgotten, and could be enjoyed for generations to come“. This is “just a daughter writing with love and affection about a truly wonderful man.” It is indeed an interesting story of his music, and the music of the stars who he helped to shine even more brightly in such an entertaining sky.
To purchase Johnny Harris: The Man Who Turned Down Elvis – Twice, go to Amazon.com
Check out this Johnny Harris track w/ YES, titled “All To Bring You Morning”:
The Rolling Stones first performed “Gimme Shelter” on 12/31/69 the UK TV special Pop Go The Sixties, which Harris was musical director of: