Bob Harris: ‘I was worried I’d become the Ken Barlow of rock’
7th October 2023

But the veteran DJ has needed all his powers of positive thinking to get through the last few years.

“It’s been very difficult,” he tells me in that familiar voice as warm as melting butter. “I live with prostate cancer and suffered an aorta dissection in 2019 that nearly killed me.

“Then my wife left, we went into Covid, I had to pause the cancer treatment…It was a huge challenge. I got very low, but I never lost faith that I could somehow get through this. My greatest strength is my determination not to go under.”

He was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and suffered a tear in his main artery, the aorta, in May 2019, while out walking with a friend. “By the time I got home my chest felt like it was being crushed from both sides.”

Rushed to intensive care, he wasn’t expected to last the night, but he pulled through only for scans to reveal the cancer was back. Bob now has intravenous radiation treatment every two months and takes “a fistful of pills” every day.

“I got very frightened,” he says, but was buoyed by calls from friends like Robert Plant and Johnnie Walker, and visits from Willie Nelson’s Bafta-winning son Lukas.

“The support from the public has been miraculous and heart-warming.”

Miraculously, five months later he was back working at his usual pace. “I could have pulled the duvet over my head and given up,” he tells me. “But I will never do that. Every day is a celebration. I won’t let anything defeat me.”

Bob, 77, is now an ambassador for the Aortic Dissection Charitable Trust. “We think with education we could save 2,000 lives a year. We have received support from Health Secretary Steve Barclay to help us create information packs and took kits for hospitals and medical centres.

“I use my Instagram account to support others and say I understand, I really have been there.”

His condition was caused by stress hypertension and very high blood pressure. “I must keep my blood pressure down and avoid stress situations.”

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But irrepressible Bob is currently halfway through The Songs The Beatles Gave Away – a national tour with author Colin Hall, custodian of John Lennon’s childhood home – based on hits Lennon and McCartney donated to other artists and Colin’s book of the same name.

The show includes the stories behind the numbers and Bob’s rare archive interviews with both the Liverpool legends. The tour itself is leisurely and sedate. “I’m past the days of late-night partying and throwing TVs out the window,” he chuckles. “I have to be careful.”

Bob’s anecdotes, from more than half a century of broadcasting, stretch from Led Zeppelin to Dylan-loving US President Jimmy Carter. He championed Bowie, co-founded Time Out magazine and befriended and holidayed with Marc Bolan and his wife June.

The son of a Welsh policeman, Robert Brinley Joseph Harris was born and raised in Northampton, but his life changed forever in 1957 when they holidayed in the Norfolk seaside town of Cromer.

“That was the first time I heard music coming out of a jukebox. It was Paul Anka singing Diana. I was 11 and it literally changed my life.”

He bought that single, and never stopped. At one stage he had over 40,000 records at his home in Oxfordshire, but lost a lot of it in 2006 to “a biblical storm”.

“A lot of my vinyl was in boxes on the floor and was ruined. Thankfully my favourites were safe, including a record John Peel gave me when we became friends, Forever Changes by Love.”

Now his home studio – called Under The Apple Tree – houses more than 18,000 CDs.

His other childhood passion was rugby. Bob played at school and later at county level.

“I did have a couple of concussions played but not the 25 people have said,” he recalls. He played for the Midlands and dreamt of progressing to the England team, but rock’ n’roll changed all that.

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Harris left school under a cloud. A teacher had seen him drinking half a pint of shandy in a pub, and the headmaster wanted to cane him.

“There was no way that was going to happen. I was so angry I cycled home. I thought my dad would hit the roof, but he just said ‘So what do you do now?’”

Bob told him he was thinking about going to London and getting into music. His father wanted him to become a police cadet, saying “Give it everything for 18 months and I’ll back you in whatever you want to do”.

He did, but at 19 Harris moved to London and immersed himself in the growing sixties counterculture. He met Tony Elliott and launched Time Out as a crudely printed listings magazine, named after a Dave Brubeck album.

He interviewed John Peel who was so impressed by his musical knowledge that he invited him to host his radio show while he was away.

Harris landed his own BBC radio show, Sounds Of The 70s, in 1970. “My Dad came along and got chatting to Terry Wogan. Dad asked him if there was any security with the job. Terry replied, ‘Put it this way, I have a contract that lasts 13 weeks…’”

Fifty-three years later, Bob now hosts Radio 2’s The Country with Bob Harris.

Pirate radio, especially Peel’s Perfumed Garden on Radio London, was his biggest influence. “I wanted to create that kind of one-to-one intimacy.”

In 1972, he took over as host of BBC2’s The Old Grey Whistle Test, a TV platform designed as the antidote to the disposable chart hits on Top Of The Pops.

“Producer Mike Appleton devised Whistle Test and got a rubber stamp from David Attenborough who was controller at the time. We had no budget but complete creative freedom. We had artists like James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Carly Simon. It was Bob Marley’s first UK TV appearance.” And Attenborough turned a blind eye to the clouds of Ganja enveloping the Wailers…

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Chaos often reigned. Keith Richards downed a bottle of Jack Daniels during a TV interview and remained lucid.

At its height, the show attracted five and a half million viewers.

When John Lennon appeared on it, he asked to be paid in biscuits. Bob had bumped into his old friend Reg, at a London launch party in 1974. Reg, by now known by his stage name Elton John, told him he was off to New York, to do a few dates at Madison Square Garden.

“He did ten nights! He said, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but I think John Lennon might be joining me on stage.’ I said when you see John tell him we’d love to do something with him’.”

Lennon called their production office. He wasn’t interested in being paid, but Appleton insisted. “He said, ‘It’s the BBC, we have contractually to offer you a fee, it’s £15.’ So John said to spend it on Huntley & Palmers Chocolate Olivers, because he couldn’t get them in the States.”

Bob went to the USA for Radio 1 in 1974, interviewing the Beach Boys on Santa Monica beach and hanging out with Alice Cooper.

He’d return every summer finding new bands to rave about – Little Feat, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and Bruce Springsteen. “I saw him at the Roxy in 1975.”

Bob famously befriended Led Zeppelin and recalls the day guitarist Jimmy Page had a Harley Davidson delivered to the sixth floor of their hotel so he could ride it down the corridors at 4am.

Then there was the band’s 1974 Halloween Party at Chislehurst Caves in Kent when 200 people watched George Melly play jazz dressed as a nun and horror films were projected onto the walls…

“After he came off, naked women started dancing in open coffins in red jelly that looked like blood…it was a different time.”

The rock’n’roll hedonism gave way to the puritanical punk explosion. Somehow this likeable man became punk rock’s public enemy. In 1977, he was attacked by Sid Vicious in London’s Speakeasy Club. Bob was saved by some of Procol Harum’s roadies but his friend was hit by a bottle and had to be rushed to hospital.

Harris realised he’d become a “human coconut shy” a target for limitless bile. Worried he’d become “the Ken Barlow of rock”, he retreated from the limelight to local radio to let the dust settle.

Bob bears no grudge. “My heart went out to John Lydon when he spoke about his late wife’s dementia,” he says. “It was so touching. Now is the time to put all that to bed.”

Ironically, although derided as “an old fart” Bob Harris has always supported new talent, famously championing David Bowie who he took with him when he DJ’d at a medical college gig in east London in 1968. Bob played Motown and Stax floor-fillers, David sat on the stage and played his unreleased song, Space Oddity. He was booed, a glass was thrown and students poured beer all over him.

“I was incensed. I stormed to the mic and told them he’s going to be a star.”

He was right then, and he was right about Emmylou Harris, Carrie Underwood, and Kacey Musgrave too. Today Bob backs new country acts like The Shires and Ward Thomas who can be seen performing on his YouTube channel.

Three-times-married Bob has eight children from four relationships and eight grandchildren.

Medical issues aside, his biggest crisis was bankruptcy – a result of the property crash.

So although he dreams of following the England cricket team “to the sunshine”, he won’t ever retire.

“I am still paying rent every month. When bankruptcy disfigured our lives for ten years, we had to find somewhere quickly, so we rented.

“I literally have to work to stay in the house I love, and I do love it. Last weekend, Annie Keating, a lovely artist came and played a few songs for us on the lawn. I had 30 people here, a barrel of beer, my son Ben a chef did a picnic…it was lovely. Sunshine, family, friends, music…perfect,

“So I have no intention of retiring. I’ll go on working till I walk on stage and that’ll be it. What else would I do? What else could I do?”

*Bob Harris & Colin Hall present The Songs The Beatles Gave Away, touring until May 2024, details at 

Colin Hall’s book of the same name is out now.

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