Johnny Harris

In Conversation with Johnny Harris

Johnny Harris is a composer, arranger, conductor and producer whose musical career spans more than 60 years. He trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, specialising in trumpet and piano, and spent his early career in the 1950s playing in dance bands. Towards the end of that decade, he had his first opportunities to arrange as part of Cyril Stapleton’s band. His time at Pye Records in the 1960s saw him work with Petula Clark, Lulu and Françoise Hardy as well as a host of less familiar acts whose recordings have since been rediscovered by fans of Northern Soul and British girl singers.

For two years at the end of the 1960s, Harris was Tom Jones’ musical director. The two men formed a dynamic partnership, with Harris himself attracting a lot of attention as a result of his energetic conducting style. In 1970, he helped turn around the career of Shirley Bassey, with whom he recorded ‘Something’ and an LP of the same name which went on to become Bassey’s biggest selling to that point. The two recorded a total of six albums together, with the singer telling the NME in 1971 that in Johnny Harris she had found her ‘husband in music’. Harris moved to the USA in 1972 where he began a long musical relationship with Paul Anka, as well as working with George Hamilton, Lynda Carter, Diana Ross and many others.

He has released solo work including Movements (1970) and All to Bring You Morning (1973), has scored for film and TV and is sometimes referred to as ‘The Man Who Turned Down Elvis Twice’, an epithet which provided Julie Pearce-Martin with the title of her 2012 biography of her father. His distinctive orchestral arrangements, often with the rhythm section to the fore, gives his work a contemporary sound which continues to find a new audience.

Now in his eighties, he is still working, and his music can currently be heard in the final season of the Palm Springs Follies, a dance and musical review show with a cast of members aged 55 and over, for which he has provided the music since its opening in 1990. It was from his home in Palm Springs that Johnny spoke to me when I interviewed him in October last year.

Graham Tomlinson: I’ve heard you refer to yourself in interviews as Welsh, although I know that you were actually born in Edinburgh. For the benefit of Wales Arts Review readers, could you clarify your Welsh background?

Johnny Harris: My mother was from Newcastle, and my father was Welsh. I was born in Edinburgh in 1932, and I was only there for about six months of my life because my father was a musician and he was working there. My mother got pregnant and had me there at the hospital. So I was born in Scotland and then went back to London where we actually lived. With that in mind, I thought OK, it’s Welsh heritage because my father’s Welsh, so I adopted that. My father also went to the same school as Tom Jones’ father, in Pontypridd.

I understand you also spent some time in Wales as an evacuee?

I was in Pontypridd and Rhydfelen. I had three cousins and I was an only child, so when I was evacuated there, it was a lot of fun. I mean it was better than the bombs dropping, which I’d experienced in London – the Battle of Britain was pretty hairy. So yes, I went out there and it was great – having no brothers and sisters, it was great to be able to play with my cousins and we did all sorts of fun stuff.

After your work in dance bands in the 1950s, it was Tony Hatch who gave you an important break. British TV viewers of a certain age know him as a presenter on New Faces, but of course he has an important body of work in his own right. How did your connection with him come about?

That changed my life. It came about because I decided to quit playing trumpet in bands and concentrate on arranging. I’d been doing that a lot for the bands I was actually playing trumpet in – I was doing most of the arrangements for those orchestras at that time. I was tired of touring and I had two small kids, and I decided I wanted to get off the road. I met an Australian guy, Bill Wellings, and he told me that he wanted to put out a record called Top Six: we were going to try and guess what the six top hits would be the following month. And of course the EP with six tracks on it was sold for the same price as a single, so he thought that would be a good business situation. To cut a long story short, he said, ‘Would you do the arrangements? I’ll pick the songs.’ As it happened at that time there were two or three people whose songs were in the chart parade all the time, so it was usually at least one or two Beatles songs on these Top Six records, and Dave Clark and all that stuff. He said, could you do what we call now ‘covers’? In other words I would copy the arrangement and I would get the singers into Pye studios. The drummer was Jimmie Nicol, who eventually became the fifth Beatle about a year later [he deputised for Ringo Starr when the drummer was ill with tonsillitis in the summer of 1964]. We put the first record out and it got into the charts at about number 30, and so we thought we were onto a winning thing. We proceeded to carry on for about another three or four months and then the sales started to drop off as kids started to realise that they weren’t the originals (laughs). It was towards the ending of the Top Six that I got a call from Tony Hatch and he said, ‘I’ve heard your work. I produce and arrange everything myself, but as the producer I need to be in the control room. I need someone to conduct the orchestra on the floor whilst I’m up there. Would you be interested?’ And of course I said yes and the rest is history.

A number of the artists you recorded and worked with at Pye didn’t have hits at the time, but were rediscovered later by fans of Northern Soul and British girl singers. Some of these performers, like Lorraine Silver (‘Lost Summer Love’) and Tammy St John (‘Dark Shadows and Empty Hallways’) were only about 13 or 14 when they did those sessions. What do you remember of them?

Tammy I remember. She was 14, and she had a powerful voice. I think her Mum was there at the recording studios when we did the tracks. She was very talented, very advanced for her age. That’s what impressed me and why I wanted to record her.

When did you realise – or when did someone tell you – that some of these songs were being picked up in Northern Soul clubs in the 1970s? 

I didn’t – in 1972 I’d moved to the States for Paul Anka, so I didn’t know much about that.

You worked with Tom Jones from about late 1966 to 1968/1969. What sort of relationship did you have with him, and what was his relationship like with the musicians?

I had a great time with Tom in that two-and-a-half years. That was my first trip to America, with Tom. That’s when I fell in love with the States and decided that I wanted to move here, which I eventually did. It was great because Tom was so hot at that time – he was probably the hottest thing on the planet. We went to Miami for a week, to run the new show in, because we just needed to make sure the arrangements were right and the right keys and everything, so we did that and everything worked. Then we went to New York and played the Copacabana – we followed Sammy Davis Jr there. That was fun, because it was run by the Mob, so that was my first relationship with the guys with the bent noses and ears – it was interesting, to say the least! (laughs). After that we went to Vegas to work there for a month at the Flamingo. That was amazing. I met so many people. Everyone came to see Tom. Gordon Mills, his manager, had a wonderful idea. He had these little candies in jars and they were called ‘Tom Jones Fever Pills’ and they were given out to the females who came to see him – if you’re feeling you’re going to faint, just take one of these! That was a marvellous idea. As I said, everyone came to see him, and that was the first time I met Elvis, when he came to see him.

Tom was an absolute gent to work with. I was very close to Tom, because I never stayed in a hotel room by myself – I always stayed in his suite. I always travelled with him when we did British tours, in his Rolls Royce, just me and him in the back and his driver in the front. And I always shared his dressing rooms, including in Vegas, and when everybody came back to see him, I was already in there. He loved his musicians. I think three of them were Welsh, except for [guitarist] Bill Parkinson, but Tom was great with his musicians. They were old buddies. They were called The Squires, the rhythm section, and Tom had worked with them, just with them, on many big tours after ‘It’s Not Unusual’ came out. It wasn’t until about a year, 18 months later that his manager decided that he wanted to have a big orchestra behind him on stage, and that’s when I was pulled in by Gordon Mills to do all the arrangements and eventually become his music director for those two-and-a-half years.

There’s a great album from that period, Live! At the Talk of the Town (1967). When the band goes into ‘Land of a Thousand Dances’ at the end, the atmosphere is absolutely electric. . .

The Talk of the Town was the first time I started to move around as a conductor, because Tom was moving around, and I started moving around, and the orchestra would all get excited. After the opening night I went back to the dressing room and all of the press were up there. And they all wanted to talk to me as well, and I thought, ‘What do they want to talk to me for?’ They said, ‘We’ve never seen anyone conduct an orchestra like that – you were jumping all over the stage like Tom!’ I didn’t know, I just got carried away. And ‘Thousand Dances’, when we closed with that every night it was just burning up – the crowds were nuts. And my father was in the orchestra there. We have pictures of Tom, myself and my father. He was a great violin player so I said I wanted him in my orchestra. And Tom said, ‘Let’s get him in then!’ In other words that album means a lot to me too because my father was also in the orchestra. And that’s the first time I conducted on stage live, ever. I was definitely nervous, but Tom put me at ease because he said, ‘We’ll be fine – let’s just go out and rock and roll. Just whip that band up, Johnny!’ And so I did. It was extremely exciting and as I say, the first time he’d worked with the big orchestra, and my first time. So it was like the birth of this new Tom Jones with the big orchestra and this lunatic conductor jumping about.

You worked with Shirley Bassey on the Something LP when her career at the end of the 1960s was a bit in the doldrums. How did you first meet her?

I was contacted to do an arrangement for one of her albums by Norman Newell, who was producing her at that time. So I did that, and we got chatting on the phone to work out the arrangement – the key and everything – and I said my father’s Welsh. And she said, ‘Oh, you have Welsh heritage?’ I said yes, and she started to talk in that accent (laughs). Tom and I used to sometimes talk like that, just for laughs. I did that arrangement and recorded the song and she really loved it. It sounded great. I moved on, doing my other arrangements, and eventually I got a call from Noel Rodgers at United Artists, and he said I want to do an album with Shirley and I’d like you to do the arrangements. I had a manager at that time who will remain nameless, who said I’ll set it up so you can be the producer as well. So Noel was the executive producer, but I was the producer and arranger.

You’re right, her career was a little in the doldrums, after ‘Goldfinger’ it went downhill a little bit, so we decided to do ‘Something’, the George Harrison song. At that time we’d started recording the rhythm section and then sweetening it later – do the tracks, the singers would sing to the rhythm section track, then I would take that all back home to my office and I would write the arrangement around the vocal and the rhythm section. I was probably one of the first out there doing that. So I decided to do that with Shirley’s first album.

Because of tax reasons in the UK, she was living in the Italian Alps, so we decided we’d do it in Milan. I’d worked all the keys out with her, we’d had our meetings and everything in London, and she went home and then I went home and I wrote the rhythm section arrangements for all of the songs on the album. I recorded them with the best guys in London – you know, great musicians. I ended up getting on a plane, going to Milan, with the 8 or 16-track master tape – the first 16-track tapes were just coming in then – and the copy and my luggage.

We set up the first recording session for her to come in and put her voice on these tracks. Everything was fine, and it was just the engineer there and her husband at that time, Sergio Novak – tall, six foot two, Italian. Very nice guy, but she was definitely the boss, you could tell that (laughs). I said, ‘Let’s do “Something”.  That’s the main track – let’s do that first’. And she went out into the studio and said, ‘Where’s the orchestra? Where’s all the musicians?’ I said ‘No, we’ve got the musicians on tape – you’re going to sing to tape.’ She said, ‘Is the whole band on there?’ ‘No, it’s just the rhythm section.’ She said, ‘I can’t record like that! I have to have my musicians.’ So I was stuck in Milan, United Artists paying for everything, I’m the one who’s got to figure this out somehow. Because of our friendship – and my Welsh heritage – I started going (puts on Valleys accent) a little bit like this. I said, ‘Shirley, we’ve got to do this. There’s no way around it. Do me a favour. Put your headsets on, let’s get a balance, and just listen to the track.’ So I got her to do that.  She listened and said, ‘Yeah, I can hear that.’ And I said, ‘Sing into the mkec just to make sure we can hear you.’ She hummed a few lines. And the engineer said we’re fine, we’re ready to go. So I said, ‘OK. Stop the tape. Let’s go for one.’ She said, ‘I really can’t, Johnny. I love you but I can’t.’ I said ‘What do you mean, you can’t?’ She said, ‘Well, I need all those strings, this is a big ballad.’ I said, ‘I’m going to put those on later,’ and she said, ‘But I need them now!’ ‘Well you can’t have them now!’ (laughs).

So I said to the engineer, ‘Please turn the lights down in the studio. Give me a nightclub atmosphere.’ So he got the lights dimmed nicely. I took a chair and I turned it around and straddled it right in front of her. She was standing by the mike, and I said to her, ‘Shirley, just imagine this is Carnegie Hall. And I’m one of the guys in the front – just perform to them.  They love you.’ And I just sat there and looked at her and was going, ‘Yeah, wow, great – great – great!’ And she delivered that take – the one we went with. It was a hole in one, she nailed it. I must have wiped a bunch of sweat beads off my forehead! And from there on she said, ‘I like doing this.’ Because she could take all the time she needed – she didn’t have to get the song done quickly because the guys are going to get paid and they’ve got to have a break and they go home and all that stuff. She eventually loved the whole idea of recording that way and I did another three albums with her, with United Artists, the same way. That was really a friendship that we built up – and we stay in touch. I love her dearly.

I know there’s a very important connection between your album Movements and some of the song choices on Something.

Yes, and the reason for that was that my album Movements preceded my work with Shirley as producer. She heard that, and when we got together at United Artists to start picking songs, she said, ‘I want to do what’s on your album.’ So there was ‘Something’. And then there was ‘Light My Fire’ – that whole lick at the beginning (sings the introduction), she just loved that and wanted to record that, so we did. Movements is still going. A friend of ours was in Tokyo and she saw Movements and they were asking $200 for it or something – the original vinyl. It’s amazing. There’s a wonderful story with Peter Sellers, telling me that he had just been listening to it, I think it had been out a few weeks. I went down to a club called Tramps in London – I don’t know if it’s still there, it was really a nice club, and all the heavyweights went down there. I was down there one night, and Peter Sellers was there. My dear friend Hank Mancini was with them – I think they’d probably just done the first Pink Panther movie. I saw Hank – we’d worked together with Tom – and he said, ‘This is Peter Sellers.’ And Peter said, ‘You’ve just got an album out, haven’t you? Movements, is that you? I just came back from Spike Milligan’s house, because he called me and said you’ve got to come over and listen to this album, and we wore the bloody thing out!’ This is not trying to sound [like] ‘Aren’t I great!’, but it was just a great thrill for me to hear someone like Peter Sellers say something like that about something I’d done. I was absolutely gobsmacked about the whole thing.

You worked with Richard Harris on the football film Bloomfield (1971), and went on to make the LP My Boy (1971) with him. Whenever I’ve read biographies of Richard Harris, his music tends to be rather overlooked. Obviously he had a very successful career as an actor, but what do you think his motivation was for making pop music?

I did two movies with him. We did Bloomfield and then Man in the Wilderness, which is still a classic movie, with John Huston. Richard was a sweetheart if you hadn’t had too much to drink. But underneath all that, he was a natural sweetheart to work with. I’m not quite sure how he decided he wanted to sing, but when Jimmy Webb approached him to sing ‘MacArthur Park’ – and I don’t know really why – he did, and that was a huge hit record. And he had that really pleasant voice, so that’s why he decided to continue, doing albums, and he actually did a lot of live shows with an orchestra, which I didn’t do because I didn’t want to go on the road with him. That was quite a career for him.

He’s a very committed vocal performer on his records – he doesn’t hold back on the emotion or the high notes. But his reputation suggests he perhaps wasn’t the easiest person to work with?

There is a story from when we were recording the My Boy album, I think – I did two or three with him. Again of course, it was all put your voice on after the orchestra’s done and all that, there was no problem with him for that anyway. I was recording one of the songs with him, and he would get to a spot and he would screw up. And he said, ‘You know what’s wrong? It’s these headsets. I don’t like the headsets!’ So I said, ‘OK.’ And this is where my being a producer and a psychologist and a shrink all at the same time comes in – you know, that’s what you have to do. So I said, ‘Oh dear,’ and I went into the engineer. The engineer took some out and put another pair on. ‘OK, roll the tape. Here we go!’ And we got to the same place, and he said, ‘No. These headsets are no good either.’ I knew it wasn’t the headsets, that was his excuse, and I knew I’d got to really play this carefully.

There were about eight pairs of headsets around the studio for the musicians there, so we tried them all, and the same place – he screwed up. He said, ‘I can’t do this, I’m going to go home.’ And I thought the next thing he’s going to do is go out, get drunk, come back and punch everybody. So I thought, ‘What the hell am I going to do?’ My engineer, Eddy Offord – who eventually worked with the group Yes, and now lives in Atlanta I think, a brilliant engineer – he said, ‘I’ve got my headsets.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ ‘Richard?’ ‘Yeah?’ – on the talkback. ‘Eddy’s got his own private pair that he only uses when he records Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.’ ‘Ohhh!  Well could I try those?’ ‘Well, you know these are his. What do you think, Eddy? Is it alright?’ ‘Oh yeah, that’s alright. He can have them.’ He said, ‘Well let me have them then!’ So I said, ‘You’ve got to be really careful with these, Richard, because they’re Eddy’s, you know? And I mean you don’t want to screw up with Yes and ELP.’ And he said, ‘OK, let me try them on. Roll the tape!’ He got to the spot and we all crossed our fingers and he sailed beautifully across it, sang all the way through the song. And he said, ‘I told you it was the headsets, didn’t I?’ The thing about the story is, the headsets were exactly the same as the other ones he’d been using. They were no different – they weren’t any better or any worse.

I can understand what you mean when you say you’re not just the producer – you’ve got to work out the best way to get someone to sing, whether it’s turning the lights down or playing a little joke.

And with other people I’ve worked with, you know, they can be great singers, or they can be new kids coming up – you’ve got to have a relationship, you’ve got to get to know them like family. Because it’s a very personal thing, to produce somebody’s record. If it doesn’t go, their career’s over, and if it does – the stars are the limit. You need to be able to take them by the hand and get them through. And of course you have to change paths in the style you do that, because the artists are all different. Some people wouldn’t like to be guided by the hand – they want to be told. You’ve got to really feel that one out. The bottom line is that you’ve got to answer to the record company, as the producer, and you’re in charge of all the money – they’re paying for the studio time, and if you start going way over budget, or not getting a good performance or the artist walks out on you, don’t bother to come to my record company again. They won’t want to hire you. It’s a lot of pressure in that regard, but you mustn’t show it to them – just make them as relaxed as possible.

If I watch a clip of you conducting ‘Downtown’ on Lulu’s TV show, or listen to the version of ‘Paint It Black’ from Movements, the music is incredibly exciting and dynamic. When you listen to other people’s work, where do you hear that same kind of passion and excitement? Who are the arrangers you know you can trust to have done a great job when you see their name on a record sleeve, for example?

Nelson Riddle would be one, who I met two or three times, and was a genius. Bill Holman is an American big band jazz arranger. He’s got to be in his late eighties and still going. He’s done arrangements for Bublé, and Natalie Cole’s first album, he did two or three on that – he is a fantastic big band jazz arranger. I first heard his work with the Stan Kenton Orchestra on Contemporary Concepts, when I was about twenty, on the road with the Ken Mackintosh Band. I think it was ’55, ‘56. I had an old Grundig tape recorder which the sax player and I – we were buddies and used to share our digs – would listen to the American bands on. I got a copy of this album, put it on my tape recorder and we started listening to it. They were all Bill Holman arrangements. I’d never heard anything like this in my life before. And I’d love to meet him and just say, ‘Thank you’. That album made me think, I want to do this. I had no idea about arranging at that time, I was still a trumpet player playing in the band, and I’d decided that’s what I wanted to do, and he really changed my life. I’d love to be able to tell him. Claus Ogerman is a great arranger and composer. He did an album, Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra, and it’s absolutely great. An incredible arranger.

Your work rate in the 1960s and 1970s was astonishing, but are there performers who, for whatever reason, you missed out on working with in that period?

It’s hard, because there was Engelbert, Tom, Shirley, Pet. . .I kind of didn’t have any spare time, and those were the top guys. When I first heard Tom sing on the radio and I hadn’t met him or anything, I heard ‘It’s Not Unusual’ and I thought he was black. I didn’t know he was a white Welshman. And then I saw him when he had his rabbit’s foot on a chain around his neck – I think it was on Top of the Pops – and I read in the paper he was Welsh! It was amazing – the Welsh thing all came back around again.

Finally, do you think there is a ‘Johnny Harris sound’?

I don’t know, I wish I could answer that question. Maybe it’s my string lines. Everybody comments on my string writing. Everyone says, ‘I know that’s your arrangement!’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because it sounds like you.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Well, it sounds like you. . .’ I don’t know what it is. You should ask my wife (laughs). She’d explain it.


Johnny Harris: A Top Six


Johnny Harris Orchestra – ‘Downtown’ (1969)

Johnny was the musical director on Lulu’s TV shows at the end of the 1960s, including the episode featuring the infamous appearance by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Here, Johnny and his orchestra perform a typically imaginative cover of Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’, with Johnny more than justifying the description of a journalist who’d seen him perform with Tom Jones in 1968 and said that he had ‘the most expressive hair in the business’.


Nita Rossi – ‘Untrue Unfaithful’ (1965)

Gordon Mills, who wrote this song, managed both Tom Jones and Nita Rossi. Both acts performed the song, but it was Rossi’s version which came to prominence again at the end of 2012 when it was used as the theme to an ITV promotional trailer for Emmerdale.


Tammy St John – ‘Dark Shadows and Empty Hallways’ (1965)

The teenage St John released four singles in the mid-sixties, including a Harris-directed Northern Soul favourite, ‘Nobody Knows What’s Goin’ On (In My Mind But Me)’, but she also gave a haunting rendition of this Fangette Willett song.


The Flirtations – ‘Nothing But A Heartache’ (1968)

The Flirtations formed in mid-sixties New York before moving to London later in the decade. In spite of some strong material and a debut album with musical direction by Johnny Harris, they never quite made the big time. Equally mysterious is the art school studio theme for this promo clip of ‘Nothing But A Heartache’.


Shirley Bassey – ‘Light My Fire’ (1970)

A performance of Dame Shirley’s version of The Doors’ song using the Johnny Harris arrangement, with the orchestra conducted by Brian Fahey, her musical director of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Another Bassey/Harris collaboration, ‘Jezahel’ (1973), was sampled by Public Enemy for ‘Harder Than You Think’ in 2007 and used subsequently as the theme music for Channel Four’s coverage of the 2012 Paralympics and the series The Last Leg.


Johnny Harris – ‘Stepping Stones’ (1970)

Johnny Harris originally wrote this frantic percussion and flute-driven piece as part of his soundtrack to the David Hemmings thriller, Fragment of Fear (1970). He re-recorded it for the Movements album and thanks to its many appearances on compilation albums since, it has become one of his best-known pieces.

Illustration by Dean Lewis