(This feature on Wee Willie Harris has been reproduced with Willie's permission from an over-50s' lifestyle site that died after one issue in August 2000. The interview is by Susan Conway.)
Robbie and Annie have promised to introduce me to some of their other friends in the business for future Lifebegins interviews, so look out for them.
Now back to Willie&&I just had to ask this one:
"Willie, just how did you come by your name?" (this was an interview by telephone, I must add). "My height - or rather - the lack of it". "I'm 5'2" - a small ball of fire!" he explained. Breathing a small sigh of relief, I continue...
"Willie, tell us about the early days and er&do I have to call you wee - it's positively embarrassing" I asked
"No, love, just call me Willie" says he, letting me off the hook &
"That's a wee bit better", (whoops!) - I thank him.
I asked Willie first about the famous Six Five Special TV series - considered by some to be the forerunner of the innovative Tube. "Back in November 1957 I was auditioning for the show in the hallway at the BBC's studios in Shepherds Bush, when one of the producers - Jack Good - passed by, heard me doing my stuff, (it was difficult not to), liked it and booked me for 5 shows! Jack co-produced The Six Five Specials with Josephine Douglas. Jo and Pete Murray presented it. Jack Good eventually fell out with the BBC, went over to ITV and produced "Oh Boy" - the show in which Cliff Richard rose to fame". "I also did a couple of Twelve Five Specials (yes, you guessed it, on New Years Eve)".
"I've made quite a few TV appearances, in black and white of course: "The Jack Payne Show", "Tonight" with the late Cliff Michelmore, "Crackerjack" with Leslie Crowther, alas, also no longer with us" recalled Willie, adding proudly, "I was performing at the Liverpool Empire. Paul McCartney and the rest of the Beatles happened to be there. Apparently Paul was very impressed, I even got a mention in his book - I'm his favourite British Rock 'n' Roll artiste!"
Praise indeed, Willie.
Another famous fan of Willie's was a very young Robbie Williams. Willie and Robbie's father, comedian Pete Conway often performed in the same shows and of course Robbie went along to watch.
I asked Willie who else he had performed with&."Johnny Ray, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Sophie Tucker &.to name but a few" was the answer.
The coffee bar scene was another huge influence on British rock 'n' roll in the early days. It's enjoying a welcome come-back on the High Streets right now. In the late 1950's two Australian ex-wrestlers decided they wanted a change of career and opened the "2 ¡'s" coffee bar in London's Old Compton St. A lovely story lies behind the name&.apparently three Iranians originally owned the bar&and one went home!
Willie was resident pianist at the 2 ¡'s. He told me, "just about anyone who was anyone played there, including Screaming Lord Such (late of the Monster Looney Party) - Wally Whyton (also, sadly gone) and his group, The Vipers - and Adam Faith with his skiffle band, The Worried Men. Adam went on to have many hits, including "What Do You Want If You Don't Want Money". The Money Channel is now Adam's pet project - from worried man to moneyed man!
Another famous 2 ¡'s discovery was the then embryonic Shadows - put together after Harry Webb (later to become Cliff Richard) paid a visit to the club looking for a touring band. They were originally called The Drifters, as no doubt many of you will remember. Before he became famous, Lionel Bart went through a drop-out, long haired hippy stage, said Willie, "Lionel could often be found in the 2 ¡'s, serving coffees when his money ran out. He was a dab hand with the paint brush when the place needed sprucing up as well". Sadly Lionel has also left us.
In the tradition of most successful venues of the era, you had to have a cellar - that's where it all happened. The 2 ¡'s was no exception. Great cellar - great music.
As you probably know, or guessed, Willie's no spring chicken, in fact he's an incredibly energetic 67. He assures me he's going to rock 'til he drops - hopefully that's a long way off. He lives with Sheila, his wife of 25 years, in Mitcham Surrey. Willie gave up smoking some time ago, and is now careful with his booze. He still keeps a fairly heavy schedule, performing twice weekly in cabaret, Wednesdays at the Grand Hotel, Cliftonville and Tuesdays at Saltdene (near Brighton), also at the Grand.
Willie's comment on today's pop music - "It's not quite rock 'n' roll .....is it?"
Look out for Willie's forthcoming cd, due out shortly on Fury Records.
You can contact Robbie and Annie Mack at Ready To Rock Productions, tel: 0208 287 3888. They're not on the web yet but I'm doing my best to persuade them.