JOHNNY HARRIS - "all to bring you music"
a Profile by DAVID NOADES
In a previous issue it was revealed that composer-arranger Johnny Harris started his career as a trumpet player in a series of dance bands in the 1950s after graduating from The Guildhall School Of Music. He got his first break as an arranger with Tony Hatch at PYE and throughout the 1960s worked with many top names both live and on record including Tom Jones, Lulu, Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey, Cilla Black, Jackie Trent, Connie Francis, Rolf Harris, Olivia Newton John, Roy Budd and John Schroeder.
The turning point in his career came in 1969 when his manager Daniel Secunda signed a deal with Warner Bros to record two albums, the first being the cleverly-titled "Movements" which is now considered by many to be a classic. There has been a lot of renewed interest in this album in recent years and Warners have now reissued the album on CD complete with bonus tracks. The album was preceded by a single, the hauntingly beautiful "Footprints On The Moon", which was Johnny's tribute to the Apollo moon landings. The single received a lot of radio airplay during the summer of 1969 and film director Richard Sarafian was suitably impressed and decided that he wanted Johnny to write the score for his new film, the psychological thriller "Fragment Of Fear". "The director said it was a movie about drug addicts and said that he wanted the music to be spikey" Johnny revealed, which led him to pen the hypnotic title theme and the fast and furious "Stepping Stones" which was used in a chase sequence. The score was recorded in London with a small 10-piece orchestra and a rhythm section including Mickey Gee on guitar, Herbie Flowers on bass, Harold Fisher on drums, Johnny Dean percussion with the addition of Roger Coulam on organ and Harold McNeil who played the distinctive screaming flute solos.
The result was a highly original and strikingly beautiful score which Johnny thought was too good to remain hidden away and so decided to re-record some of the material for the album. To achieve the same sound he used the same musicians who had recorded the score plus a larger string section. Originally he had wanted to fill the album with his own compositions but Warners also wanted him to duplicate the type of stuff he had performed on the Lulu show where he famously rearranged pop hits of the day in his own unique style. So the set includes impressive arrangements of The Beatles' "Something", The Doors’ "Light My Fire" and The Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black". The latter is especially memorable as it features elements of "Night On A Bare Mountain" but each and every track is an audio delight combining elements of rock, jazz and classical resulting in a truly memorable musical melange. As well as the fine blend of pop and orchestrations and the distinctive arrangements, many of the tracks were linked with tiny flute motifs. "'We wanted to make it like a trip" Johnny said and revealed that the effect was created by getting engineer Bob Auger to play the tapes of Harold McNeil's flute pieces back-wards during the mixing which gave the whole album a very haunting, almost psychedelic feel.
"Movements" received enthusiastic reviews and was a huge success in the UK and overseas and remained on Warners’ best sellers list for several years. However the public had to wait over three years until the next Harris solo album as he was busy on other projects. Eventually he found time to work on a worthy follow-up and the result was the enigmatic and energetic "All To Bring You Morning". Although not as memorable as the first album it contains blissfully delicate versions of John Lennon's "Imagine" and Leslie Duncan's "Love Song", plus one incredible suite (the title track) where over a 13-minute period Johnny takes the orchestra from a hard edged brass filled stomp to a beautiful finale of crying strings. During the sessions for the album Jon Anderson and Alan White from the rock group Yes got involved as they were in the studio next door and were fans of Johnny's work. As well as adding to the rhythm section they also provided vocals resulting in a nice mix of rock and orchestra.
Following on from the success of the two Warner albums United Artists reissued an album Johnny had recorded for them in 1966 which was a tribute to the music of Lionel Bart. Here Johnny rearranged a number of the writer's famous songs for string orchestra, and the results hinted at the spine-tingling sound which was to be a feature of later projects. Far more satisfying however was "The Guitar Workshop" which was a project he did for PYE with Tony Hatch. The idea was to present well-known classical pieces arranged for a pop beat combo and Johnny took the idea further injecting elements of jazz and baroque with melodies played by guitar, mandolin and harpsichord resulting in a wholly superb musical experiment.
Highlights are Delibes’ "Valse Lente" presented as a choppy jazz-waltz and a suite from "Peter and The Wolf" with Peter's Theme played on guitar in octaves and The Cat's Theme enhanced by some serious fuzz guitar.
Sadly Johnny rarely got to perform his solo material live, however there were a few occasions when he was given the opportunity to put on a show. The first of these was "Uptight!" which took place at the Talk Of The Town in 1968 and was a one-off special filmed by the BBC. Producer Stewart Morris had watched Johnny's performance when he appeared at the Royal Variety Show with Tom Jones and was so impressed by the way the audience paid just as much attention to him as they did to the singer that he created the special show just for him. The result was truly amazing and featured songs from Georgie Fame and Lulu, dance sequences and most importantly instrumental numbers from Johnny and the orchestra for which they received a standing ovation.
This led to him being invited to act as musical director for Lulu's series "Happening For Lulu". Here Johnny used the same highly visual conducting style and quickly became very popular with audiences and received almost as much fan mail as Lulu. He also conducted the orchestra for Lulu's appearance at the Eurovision Song Contest in Madrid where she won. This made further impact with the public and even influenced comedian Benny Hill to stage his own spoof "European Song Contest" with Benny playing all the contestants as well as the British conductor "Jet Pacey" which was an obvious reference to Johnny's kinetic conducting!
Johnny also found time to sit in for Johnny Pearson as MD for "Top Of The Pops" and also provided the music for a TV documentary about the footballer Georgie Best. And on New Years Eve 1969 it was his orchestra who backed the many artists who appeared on "Pop Go The 60's", which was a look back at the music of the decade, and a show which Johnny confesses he can't even remember. As well as backing such singers as Tom Jones, Adam Faith and Sandie Shaw one of the highlights of the show was Johnny's superb interpretation of The Rolling Stones’ "Jumping Jack Flash" where he whipped the orchestra into a funky frenzy much to the delight of the studio audience.
However the best was yet to come when Johnny was invited to conduct for Dionne Warwick when she appeared at the Albert Hall in 1970. Here he enjoyed the pleasure of conducting an impressive 40-piece orchestra who as well as backing Dionne and guest singer Ritchie Havens, presented some tracks from Johnny's solo album to great effect as a warm up to the main show. The orchestra included young musicians from the Royal College and the Royal Academy of Music and were greatly enhanced by the addition of rock musicians including Tony Colton and Ray Smith from the country-rock band Head Hands and Feet. "It was quite an evening " Johnny recalled and the press thought so as well calling it "One of the most exciting experiences in show business" .
As well as arranging for a great number of artists during the 1960s and early 70s Johnny was also partly responsible for kick-starting the careers of Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and Paul Anka who all went on to achieve international success after succumbing to the Johnny Harris sound. Up until 1966 Tom Jones had always performed with his backing band The Squires but it was decided to back the singer with a big orchestra to give him a fuller, harder sound and Johnny was hired as musical director. He toured extensively with Tom throughout 1966-67 in the UK and in the US including Las Vegas where they were very well received. It was during these times that Johnny first developed his highly visual conducting style having recognised that with a singer as dynamic as Tom Jones it was necessary to offset what he was doing on stage. So Johnny literally became part of the music, cavorting round the stage and directing the musicians in a highly flamboyant manner which gave the audience a show to remember. Some of the highlights of these concerts can be found on the highly charged "Live At The Talk Of The Town" album which was issued in 1967. Johnny also arranged for Tom on record and toured with him again in the 1970s.
With Shirley Bassey Johnny was asked to do almost the opposite and turn her from a cabaret star into a pop star. Although she had enjoyed enormous success as a live act and was now living as a tax exile in Switzerland she hadn't had a top ten hit for nearly seven years and her managers wanted to give her a new image and a new style. Johnny had already worked on arrangements for her albums and shows and was considered to be just the man for the job and was encouraged to take the pop-orchestral sound he had created on "Movements" and develop it to suit the singer. Once again he called upon the services of Tony Colton and Ray Smith who along with guitarist Chris Spedding supplemented the orchestra and the result was the truly stupendous "Something" album which was one of the most successful of her career. The title track was also lifted as a single and gave Shirley her biggest hit ever and put her back on the musical map. Johnny went on to work on no less than four other albums with her for United Artists which although were not as memorable as the first one contained more stunning arrangements and wonderful performances.
Throughout this time Johnny was also busy working with other singers including Richard Harris, who he became great friends with, Sacha Distell, Jack Jones and Petula Clark. Johnny worked with his song writing partner John Bromley on songs for the latter's "Petula 71" album which Harris also produced, conducted and arranged. He also did some concerts with her at this time including a TV special, "Petula and Friends" as well as other TV shows with Lulu, Tom Jones, Matt Monro and Keith Michell, who like Richard Harris was another actor turned singer. Johnny also met up with Paul Anka who he had originally met while he was working with Tom Jones in the UK. Anka had enjoyed enormous success in the early 1960s but a decade later was looking for a new sound and came to the UK to record an album which he asked Johnny to arrange and produce. The result was the highly polished "Jubilation" set (released on Buddah) which included the six minute title track which became Anka's theme song throughout the seventies. And it was the start of a five year working relationship which saw Johnny relocating to America and working on the singer's follow-up albums "Feelings" and "The Painter" as well as a series of memorable concerts.
The main reason for moving to the States was that although he was happy with his producing and arranging work in the UK he felt that he wanted to concentrate on writing scores for film and television and Hollywood was the place to be as the UK film industry was on the decline. He had written the scores for a few British films including the controversial "I Want What I Want" and the Richard Harris vehicle "The Hero", but as they were not mainstream material his music went largely unnoticed. He set up home in California and quickly found work writing music for TV commercials (which he had also done successfully in the UK), however get-ting commissions to write film scores took a little longer. His work with commercials soon paid off when he won a Clio Award for his Kodak commercial with Paul Anka, "The Times Of Our Lives". And once he became established as a composer-arranger in this field he found he had more offers of work in both film and television.
The first of these was for the horror film "The Evil" which led to a string of others including "The Initiation Of Sarah", "I Spy Returns", "Raw Courage", "Raven Hawk" and "Cyber High" which has just been released. There were also TV serials including "Mathew Star" and "Family Pictures" starring Angelica Houston and Sam Neil for which Johnny was nominated for an Emmy Award. He was also asked to rearrange the title theme and provide the incidental music for the cult series "Wonder Woman" which bought his name to the attention of a whole new audience. The star of this series was Lynda Carter who was also an accomplished singer and wanted to purse a career in music. Her manager Ron Samuels had seen Johnny's work with Paul Anka and hired Johnny to help mastermind her live act. At first Johnny refused as he was concentrating on his film work, but in the end he accepted and the result was a series of wonderful concerts, a world tour and three TV specials for CBS. Lynda continued her acting career as well and Johnny supplied the score and songs for a trio of TV movies which were released to critical acclaim in the 1980s. His success with Lynda led to requests to conduct other TV specials for CBS including shows by Jack Jones, Vikki Carr, Lisa Minnelli and Goldie Hawn and Diana Ross where he also got to work with Michael Jackson. There were also live concerts where Johnny conducted for Kenny Rogers, Johnny Mathis and also continued to arrange and compose for artists such as Sammy Davis Jnr, Barbra Streisand, Sacha Distell, Shirley MacLaine and Anthony Newley.
Johnny's success with the "Wonder Woman" series led to writing music for another cult sci-fi series "Buck Rogers In The 25th Century" for Universal. Here he had the luxury of working with a 40-piece orchestra on the lot although he found the work quite stressful creating new music for 26 shows a year. However as a result of the series the composer suddenly found himself in the charts when a piece of music from the series was turned into a disco track. One of the episodes centred around a mythical futuristic pop group and Johnny was required to write a piece of "space age pop" for them to be seen playing. With help from a synthesiser and a funky rhythm section the orchestra jammed for several minutes until the required sound was achieved. The result was a fast and funky 6 minute disco track which so impressed Howard Casey of KC and The Sunshine Band that he put the track out under the title "Odyssey" on his own label which became a huge hit in the clubs in the summer of 1980.
In 1990 Johnny was asked to supply the music for the newly launched Palm Spring Follies shows. These were the brainchild of retired TV producer Riff Markovitz who came up with idea of staging 1930s-style song and dance shows at the then-vacant Plaza Theatre in the heart of Palm Springs in California. And the neat part was that all the performers taking part were aged 50 or over having been coaxed out of retirement and were veterans of the vaudeville era. Some critics thought the idea was a total folly, however the shows quickly grew in popularity and were soon completely sold out every night. Johnny had been recommended by his friend TV composer Earle Hagen and was required to reproduce a Broadway-style orchestra to back the various singers, dancers and comedians for a three hour show which he worked on in association with vocal arrangers Earl Brown and Scott Lavender. As well as resident performers guests artists have also appeared including Frankie Laine, Tony Martin, Gloria DeHaven and The Mills Brothers who were all very well received. Johnny also takes part in the show conducting the overture, however the music is all pre-recorded and he is actually directing a non-existent orchestra although the sound is so good the audience think there are real musicians in the pit!
The work at The Follies has kept Johnny busy seven months a year for the last twelve years however he still manages to devote time to other projects. He now lives in Rancho Mirage, California with his second wife Laura and their young son Emerson and he has built himself a state-of-the-art studio in his garage which includes a place to record live musicians and its own digital control room. This enables him to work from home where he is able to prepare all the music for the Follies shows and to rehearse live material and try out new ideas.
Johnny is currently working on a few projects including "Musical Names" where pieces of orchestral music are created using women’s names. The letters of a name have notes assigned to them and a piece of music is built around it resulting in a full orchestral love theme which is presented on a CD as a unique gift idea. Johnny is also busy working on songs with Alan J. Freedman and Bob Merrill for a new pop opera based around the children's story "Pinnochio" which is planned to star Howard Keel and will debut next year. Recently he was also asked to re-record the "Movements" track "Stepping Stones" for use in a TV ad for Levis jeans. It seems that the ad agency had approached Warners to use the original but were put off by the $100,000 price tag and enquired if Johnny would be prepared top remake it. He said he could and brought in guitarist Paul Jackson and well-known jazz player Tom Scott on flute and recreated the sound using samples, painstakingly transcribing Harold Fisher's drums note for note from the original. He did such a good job that very few people realised that it wasn't the original recording and the track was released as a single which reached the charts.
This single bought Harris' name to the attention of a whole new audience who searched out copies of his original albums, which in turn led to deejays and dance acts sampling tracks from "Movements" and Shirley Bassey albums. His music also became big in the clubs where "Stepping Stones" and "Odyssey" so entranced listeners that the tracks were featured on a number of dance compilations. There was also the recent Shirley Bassey remix album which included new mixes of many of her old numbers including several Johnny Harris productions which proved to be very popular. This renewed interest in his old work has completely taken Johnny by surprise but he is always delighted when fans track him down to his west coast hideaway. "It's amazing to me that people are still interested and I'm getting e-mails from so many people" he revealed, both shocked and pleased by his new-found fame.
Recently he announced that he is devoting his spare time to ideas for "Movements 2" which will hopefully include contributions from all members of his family who are all involved in some capacity in the music business. "I just want to do another album, to do what I want to do" he said and revealed that the set might include his arrangement of the Leslie Bricusse song "Pure Imagination". However as he doesn't have much spare time at the moment it might be quite a while before we get to hear this sequel to his classic 1970 album. But one thing's for sure, it will be well worth the wait...
Johnny Harris Discography (All UK releases except*).
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