Sometime during that school year, I was telling my dad, a professional musician, about this cool album we were hearing in music class. My dad ever-so-non-chalantly says, "Oh, I know Rolf Harris. In fact, I'm on a couple of his albums." From that point on, my dad was cool. I had to hear these albums immediately. He never played them, but dug them out and I put them on the turntable. One was called Rolf Harris Live at the Cave and Rolf actually spoke to my dad on the album, saying something like, "What shall we play next, Fras?" The other one, Jake the Peg in Vancouver Town starts out with my dad's baritone voice intoning, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Cave Theatre Restaurant in Vancouver proudly presents Mr. Rolf Harris!" I was in heaven.
The songs were just as funny even if I didn't understand all the street jokes he told in his cabaret act. But I laughed anyway. The guy was God to me. I probably know both those albums by heart to this day, too.
Harris used to tour BC all the time, and oftentimes my dad would lead the band behind him so I was lucky enough to see him live in concert a few times in my youth. Then one day he stopped performing here. I always thought there'd be an audience if someone ever brought him back, but 30-odd years went by and nothing. Until this week. Rolf Harris is performing a free show (!?) at the PNE on Thursday. Go figure. I'll be there, that's for damn sure.
And when I heard he was coming, I immediately set about to interview the man. My father had told me how Harris had started his nightclub career here in Vancouver, but I could never verify that. Obviously it's nothing the press in London or Perth is going to write about. And they both can lay claim to the man, as well. But I had to find out from the man himself. Turns out it was true, as you'll find out when you read this interview.
“I learned more about performing to the public in Vancouver than I’ve learned anywhere else in my life.” – Rolf Harris
Rolf Harris: Mr. Harris?! That’s good! How are you?
GM: I’m very well, thank you. How are you?
RH: I’m good. Yeah. I look forward to this gig.
GM: Oh, I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve seen you a few times in concert, when I was a young man. How long has it been since you’ve been here?
RH: Oh, it’s got to be 30 years but probably more like 40. Yeah. Gosh, gosh, gosh. Yeah, it’s amazing. I suppose the last gig I actually did out there was in the ‘70s sometime.
GM: Wow. Have you been back to visit?
RH: I’ve been back again. I came when the Commonwealth Games were there and did a television show for England about that. But I didn’t do a show then.
GM: Vancouver was like a home away from home for you, though, wasn’t it?
RH: Absolutely marvelous. Like a second home. Wonderful. Yeah, I loved it. Still do. I can’t wait to get back.
GM: I read that you arrived here originally by mistake. How does that even happen?
RH: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Well, we were coming from Australia. We’d spent a year in Australia with a television contract and were heading back to England and we read about the Oriana, the then brand new ship. And we wanted to go on the maiden voyage of the Oriana. So we booked tickets – we were over in Perth, in western Australia – we booked tickets to go on it and we were going to travel to Los Angeles on the boat and we were going to buy an old car and drive across the country to New York and fly from there back to England. And when we came to pick up the tickets – we were in Sidney, in New South Wales and we had to get on a different ship to get to Hawaii to pick up the Oriana on its maiden voyage – and the fellow in the shipping office said, “Uh, where did you book these tickets?” And I said, “In Perth.” And he said, “Aw, what do they know in Perth?” He said, “They don’t know anything in Perth.” He said, “Hawaii is now the 50th state of the United States of America. It’s not a country of its own; it’s part of America now. So the law says that you cannot travel from one North American port to another on a British vessel if there is an American shipping line covering the area. So I’m afraid you can’t travel on the Oriana.” And we were really shocked.
We said we’d set our heart on travelling on that brand new ship. We were really looking forward to it. He said, “What we could do: you could get off at Vancouver.” And I said, “Where’s that?” I’d never heard of it! (laughs) And he said, “That’s in Canada. That’s the second-last stop on this maiden voyage of the Oriana. They stop at Vancouver and then they go from there down to Los Angeles. So we could get you disembarking at Vancouver and we’ll give you a rail pass down to Los Angeles.” And I said okay, that’s good. We’ll do that.
So there you go. That’s how it all happened. And when we got there, it was the inaugural trip of what was to be a regular shipping route. They were trying to arrange as much publicity as they could for the ship and they found out that I was on the ship and I’d had a big hit with Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport in Australia. So they got a copy of the record from CKLG and they taught it to a Vancouver school choir, and they were down on the dockside. They met the ship and they were all singing Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport in their lovely Canadian accents.
GM: We don’t have an accent.
RH: (laughs) But it was just amazing. And I met Jack Webster, the news reporter. You know, the Scottish fellow; he’s dead and gone now, but he was a real big noise in Vancouver. We met him on the ship. He was reporting on the arrival of the ship. We got on like a house on fire and he organized to get me to do an audition for Ken Stauffer, who ran the Cave Theatre Restaurant. And so I got booked to do a trial week at the Arctic Club, which was in Pender Street then, and I finished up staying there 31 weeks, held over every week.
GM: That would be a nightly show?
RH: Twice a night, six days a week.
GM: My father played with you at the Cave.
RH: Yeah. I gather, yeah.
GM: Fraser MacPherson.
RH: Yeah, yeah.
GM: So it was a big thrill for me, as a big fan of yours, to see my dad playing with Rolf Harris when I was a kid.
RH: Yeah, he was marvellous. He played on all sorts of tours with me. I mean, what a lovely man he was.
GM: I still have the sketch you did of him.
RH: Wow! How good is that?
GM: It was a quick little portrait you did of him during a break on the set of your variety show on CTV.
RH: Yeah. He did the music for... I remember him playing for Six White Boomers all the time. Oh, gosh, that’s something. I hadn’t thought of doing Six White Boomers on the gig. Should I do that at the PNE?
GM: Of course!
RH: My God, I better bloody do it.
GM: You better. There are so many I’d love to hear... Did you really arrive here on the 9th of February, ’61?
GM: Okay. See, that song is still stuck in my head: Vancouver Town.
RH: (sings) “I hit Vancouver in the blazing sun/ on the 9th of February, ’61/ From the 10th of February through till May/ it rained and poured all night and day/ The more they try to keep me down/ the better I live in this here town...” Are there any scandals at the moment that could make good verses for that?
GM: Oh, yes. The mayor of Vancouver recently had a meeting with the public and they left his microphone on and he was just insulting everyone. He’s a very nice guy in public, but the microphone was left on and he was calling them all sorts of names. So that’s the latest scandal... So 31 weeks you wound up staying. People don’t usually come to Vancouver to forge a career. But did you develop your stage act here?
RH: Oh, yeah. Vancouver was the making of me, really. It was the first time that I felt like my own person. I could be and do exactly what I wanted to do in my life. There was nobody to judge me. I was quite comfortable with who and what I was. And I found the people of Vancouver took me to their hearts in the most amazing way. I learned more about performing to the public in Vancouver than I’ve learned anywhere else in my life.
GM: Is that because you could perform under the radar, Vancouver not being a major media centre?
RH: Yeah, the thing was that before, when I went to England from Australia, I was fiercely conscious of my Australian accent and I was very conscious of the fact that when somebody English spoke to me in a posh voice, I felt like a peasant. I felt like getting down on one knee and tugging my forelock and saying, “Yes, sir, no, sir, three bags full, sir. Walk on me, sir, on the way to the toilet, sir.” (laughs) I felt very much an inferior, second-rate person because of the accent difference, you know? And I still find it hard, to this day, when I meet somebody who says, (in thick posh accent) “Oh, hello there, jolly good, old chap!” You know. It just feels as if I’m a second-class citizen and he’s the king of the castle.
And then when I went back to my hometown to do a five-days-a-week television show for children, I went back there and of course I didn’t have any special kudos because everyone there had grown up with me as a little kid. People were saying, “Yeah, I remember changing his nappies.” (laughs) You know? Everybody knew me and didn’t think I was anything special. So when I got to Vancouver, nobody knew who I was and I could be exactly who I wanted to be and they would accept me for me. And that was the first time that had happened. So it was a landmark for me. A huge landmark.
GM: How long did you stay in total?
RH: Well, when the Arctic Club burned down in Christmas ’61, Ken Stauffer opened up the Cave. It was being refurbished. But he opened it up for me to move straight over into the Cave. And the Arctic Club members were allowed in just by showing their Arctic Club membership card. And I moved onto the Cave stage. I think if the other club hadn’t burned down, I would probably be there still! (laughs) It was so comfortable. It was 126 people in the audience and that’s about it. And it was a really intimate place where you could see everybody and you could almost touch everybody from the stage. And suddenly in the Cave it’s a thousand seats. You know, it was very scary to move over there, but it worked just the same as it had worked in the Arctic. It was lovely. And they continued to take me to their hearts. It was great.
GM: What was your act like prior to Vancouver? Was it significantly different back in Australia?
RH: If I can say that I hadn’t really done much cabaret stuff before I came to Vancouver... The only things that I had done was like once a week, a weekly show on a Thursday night at an Australian club in England. And I’d done the odd concert here and there. I did a weekly gig in Australia at a pub. I’d work five days a week on television and then Saturday nights I’d do a gig at a pub, a sort of beer garden place. So I had done that, but it wasn’t on the fierce two-shows-a-night-six-nights-a-week stage that I did in Vancouver that really hones your performance down. If you’ve got any sense, you get better and better.
GM: Did anyone work with you on it or did you just develop it on your own?
RH: No, I just did what I wanted to do and bounce back off the audience’s reaction, really.
GM: I just read last night that [legendary Canadian jazz pianist] Chris Gage was on Six White Boomers originally?
RH: He was, yeah. Lovely Chris. Chris Geisinger, as his real name was. Good heavens, what a pianist he was. Bloody brilliant.
GM: What do you remember about the old days in Vancouver?
RH: Oh, I remember all the guys: Cuddles Johnson on the bass, Jimmy Wight[man] on drums. I don’t know whether Cuddles is still going.
GM: No, Cuddles passed away a number of years ago now. And Jimmy Wightman died a couple years ago.
RH: I just loved it there. I learned all about stone cutting and polishing as a hobby. Lapidary stuff. It really opened up our lives, my wife and I, in Vancouver. We had a marvelous time.
GM: Where did you live?
RH: Oh, gosh... We had an apartment down near English Bay for a while. Then when I went back to England and would come over and do gigs and would stay in hotels. I would come over, say for a month, and do the Cave.
GM: Vancouver Town was originally Sydney Town, was it?
RH: Yeah, Sydney Town it was originally, yup.
GM: So you just adapt it to wherever you’re playing.
RH: Yeah (laughs). It’s a great vehicle for verses... What’s the mayor’s name that left the mic on?
GM: Gregor Robertson.
RH: Okay. (chuckles)
GM: I grew up in Victoria and it was Victoria Town when you played there.
RH: That’s right!
GM: Jake the Peg was written here?
RH: Yeah, Frank Roosen.
GM: How did that come about?
RH: I was booked to do a show for the Lion’s Club. They had a big fundraising thing and all their club members were doing little bits of entertainment and then they booked me as a professional to do the final section of the show. And I’m waiting backstage to go on and there was somebody on in front of the curtain on the small section of stage and he was getting huge laughs. And from behind the curtain, you don’t know what they’re saying and you can’t hear their act but you can hear the laughter and it was just amazing. Then when I came on to do my bit, they were still laughing at the previous fellow ten minutes into my act.
So after my show had finished, I said to the stage hand, “Who was the fellow on in front of me?” Because he was getting great laughs. And they said, “Oh, that’s that mad Dutchman, Frank Roosen, with his three legs.” So I was intrigued and I got in touch with him and asked him if I could use the song. And he said yes, so I got all the words from him and I went back to England. And I wasn’t too thrilled with the way it ended. It sort of petered out so I asked him if he’d mind if I changed a little bit of it. So he was quite happy and we recorded it and it didn’t go to any chart positions but it was the sort of song that everybody remembers because it was a good visual. So it was a great opener for me wherever I went. A fantastic opener.
GM: Did you use his leg?
RH: I made a really good-looking false leg for myself and organized it all so that it worked like a dream on stage.
GM: When you left town, was that to try it at the next level? You developed the act in Vancouver and now it was a chance to see how it played elsewhere?
RH: I left Vancouver to go back to England, where we lived originally, my wife and I. When I went back, I had a big hit with Sun Arise with George Martin. And he re-recorded most of my songs I’d done to date and I had a big success with George Martin’s recordings, primarily Sun Arise but also Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport. He re-recorded that. We had a big album out with George Martin before the advent of the Beatles (chuckles) where he was too busy to have any time for me.
GM: You recorded Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport with the Beatles, didn’t you?
RH: We did a version with them, yeah. I didn’t record it, sadly. When I came to try and use it on one of my albums, apparently all of the Beatles have to agree on something like that and I didn’t get the full quorum of people agreeing, so I think Yoko Ono must have put the kibosh on it because I’m sure the other guys would have been very happy.
GM: At the time, what were they? Did they mean anything to you then?
RH: The Beatles? They were just in the same stable I was with being recorded by George Martin. And I just watched their meteoric rise to fame. I was up in the office with them and going to see George in his studio with them and they were there. And then all of a sudden, it just got better and better, you know?
GM: You came back to Vancouver in the 1970s for a national variety show on CTV.
RH: Yep. Well, I came back a lot in the ’70s doing spots at the Cave and here and there.
GM: But this variety show, I’d love to see that on DVD. Everything else is on DVD, I don’t know why that isn’t.
RH: It went right across Canada but the problem was they kept changing the time of showing it in the other states [provinces] and they really just killed it. They put it on a different time each week and on a different night even. So it just went down the tubes, really.
GM: How long did it run?
RH: Oh, I don’t know. About a year.
GM: Your bio says you worked with Woody Allen. Is that right?
RH: Oh, that was in New York, yeah. I didn’t know who he was. And I didn’t understand any of his jokes! I didn’t get the Jewish New York humour at all. But I was at the Blue Angel with him.
GM: So he was doing stand-up?
RH: Yup, yup.
GM: And you would come on after or before?
RH: I can’t remember, honestly.
GM: Do you ever reflect on what an amazing career you’ve had?
RH: Yeah! And I keep thinking I wish I had somebody to advise me on money matters or wish I’d learned about how to handle money when I started earning some, you know. Because I haven’t got a clue, still, about how to manage money.
GM: You had some unlikely hits lately, with Stairway to Heaven, I Touch Myself, Bohemian Rhapsody.
RH: Ha! That was amazing. I was asked to sing it [Stairway to Heaven] on an Australian television show and it was like a joke thing. They did it every week in a different version. They’d had an Elvis Presley impersonator, they’d had a rock’n’roll version of it, they’d had a heavy metal version, they’d had it done as an opera, they did it as a poem, they did it as country & western. And they said, “We’d like you to do the Rolf Harris version, with everything that says Rolf Harris: wobble board, maybe didgeridoo, and maybe a chorus like Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.” So that’s what I did. Then they put the 26 different versions out on an album a year later and everybody started requesting mine on radio stations. They would all ring up and say, “Play the Rolf Harris single of Stairway to Heaven.” So somebody then put it out as a single in Australia and somebody sent a copy over to England and it was played on Radio 1 five days on the trot. And the deejay kept saying, “They should put this out as a single. They’d be mad if they didn’t.” And he played it every day, which was quite amazing. (laughs) And lo and behold, they put it out as a single and it got to number 4. So it just re-started my career, really.
GM: Can we expect to hear any of those when you’re here?
RH: I won’t do Stairway, I don’t think, but I’ll probably do Two Little Boys, which was a huge hit for me. It never came to Vancouver, I don’t think, but it was a huge hit. My biggest ever hit.
TWO DAYS LATER
GM: Thank you so much for talking to me again. I know you can’t say much about the documentary that’s being filmed on you, but I understand they’re following you here.
RH: The documentary’s being shot all over the place. Vancouver’s just one segment of it. They said, “What part of the world has made the most impact on you? Where would you like to go?” And I said, without hesitation, “Vancouver.”
GM: Is it a feature-length documentary?
RH: I don’t know. I have no idea. They’ve been shooting a fair bit of stuff already. They’re doing all sorts of bits and pieces of my life and what’s happening at the moment. They’ve been covering my art exhibition and they’ve been covering my appearance as Glastonbury. They’ve dealt with various bits and pieces. They’ve been up in my art studio watching me paint. So it’s all sorts of bits and pieces about my life, really.
GM: Is that what precipitated the gig at the PNE?
RH: The people who are doing the film were in Vancouver for some sort of a film festival just recently and made some inquiries and got fantastic reaction from everybody. They said, “Wow, that’d be good if we could get him to do the PNE again.” Because I’ve done it so many times before in the past.
GM: Was there a reason you haven’t played here in the last 30-odd years? Was it that you weren’t touring much anywhere? Or it just didn’t come up?
RH: I think touring got to be a bit too much for me, really. I did a lot of touring in Australia. But the touring to Vancouver, it just sort of petered out a little bit, I think. I think it was probably when Bobby Mitton and Ken Stauffer passed away, from the Cave Theatre Restaurant, that was like the end of it, really.
GM: Have you ever considered how your career might be different had you never spent the time in Vancouver?
RH: I can’t imagine. I was doing performance things and cabaret things, but I certainly hadn’t learned my trade as I did in the Arctic Club. I hadn’t developed as much. I was a novice, really, when I arrived in Vancouver. I had the enthusiasm for it but not the experience.
GM: You have fans in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K.... The sun never sets on Rolf Harris fans.
RH: (laughs) Well, that’s a nice thing to say. That sounds good.
GM: Do you have a following in other parts of the world?
RH: Um... South Africa, I guess. Australia certainly. New Zealand. U.K. Canada, mostly the west coast of Canada. That’s about it, really. I’ve done some stuff in Sweden. I did a couple of records in Swedish and did some concerts in Sweden, but not very much.
GM: Did you ever try to make inroads in the U.S.?
RH: I did a little bit in the U.S. but I didn’t light up any great beacons anywhere. I remember I went to the Hungry i to see Mr. [Enrico] Banducci there because I thought I could have the same success as the Kingston Trio, who were based there. And I thought what would happen was I would do exactly the same as I’d done in Vancouver: I could do an audition there in front of the audience and get booked for a week and maybe get held over for another year! (laughs) And Mr. Banducci said, “We don’t work like that. Do an audition and I’ll assess your performance from that.” So I did an audition and there’s nothing worse than doing an audition to an empty nightclub with my sort of act, with the owner sitting there stone-faced and an empty room and no reaction to any of the unusual aspects of the stuff that I do. So at the end of it, he said, “No, that wouldn’t work with our audience.” And I said, “I assure you it would.” I mean, they’re just exactly the sort of audience I would love. You know, they’d be perfect. Young college kids, they would love what I do. And he said, “Allow me to know my audience, young man.” And that was the end of it. (laughs) So it didn’t happen.
GM: You were a confident young man to talk to him like that.
RH: I was, yeah. Yeah. I did a bit of stuff in the Blue Angel in New York but that was short-lived and didn’t come to anything. The last performance I did in the Blue Angel, I opened on the week that Kennedy was shot. So you can imagine how well I went down there. Nobody came out in droves. Everybody stayed at home. So over that two-week period when I was booked, the club went broke. The Blue Angel. And I closed the club. So that’s a good bit on your c.v. (laughs)
GM: Through no fault of your own, though.
RH: I haven’t had much success in the U.S., I must say. I had a big record hit with Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport and that was it, really. A little bit of a hit with Sun Arise.
GM: You’ve had such amazing staying power over the years while others have fallen by the wayside. Is that through determination or luck or what?
RH: I think I’ve got so many different strings to the bow, you know? There’s so many different things. In the U.K., every time one door closed, with a bit of luck another one opened and I stepped in fearlessly and got a job. I had a brilliant career move with a program here called Animal Hospital, where I was the presenter at a veterinary practice. That was just brilliant. I mean, we were getting 7.5 million viewers every week. It was quite staggering.
GM: Which is more important to you, artist or entertainer? Are you an artist who entertains or an entertainer who also paints?
RH: Well, I would be hard-pressed to separate them, honestly. Probably an artist who entertains. But if I was asked to portion out which was most important and say if it’s 50 percent or 75-25, I couldn’t make any decision on that because they’re both equally important. I would say 50-50.
GM: You made the news with your portrait of Queen Elizabeth in 2005. Was that a live sitting?
RH: It was live. We had two one-hour sittings and then I finished it from a photo that I took at the time.
GM: Two one-hour sittings? You usually finish things in seconds!
RH: (laughs) Yeah, but when you’re trying to do a portrait, it’s a little bit more difficult.
GM: Were you entertaining her as she was sitting?
RH: Well, we chatted away like old friends. It was really wonderful. Did you get a chance to see the television show on it? It was shown in Vancouver. Shown in Canada.
GM: No, I did not. I’ll have to check on-line. And the reaction to the finished product... You got some praise and some criticism, just as all art does. Some people are going to like it, and some not. Do you pay attention to it?
RH: When you get damning criticism on something, it always hurts. It always gets under your skin. People say, “Don’t worry about it. He’s just a frustrated painter himself. And he just doesn’t like you so don’t worry about it.” But it still hurts when somebody does really vicious criticism. I mean, I had one guy say, “Rolf Harris is the essence of naff.”
GM: Of what?
RH: Naff. N-a-double-f. It just means very bad taste. He said something about, “Whatever occasion he goes to, you can be assured he wears the wrong clothes and looks totally inappropriately dressed.” And you think to yourself, “What the bloody hell’s that got to do with your ability as a painter?” You get the feeling that a lot of these critics are just practicing clever words, practicing how to be smart and sharp as a tack and clever with their criticism.
GM: Yes, too many take cheap shots.
RH: Yeah, cheap shots at you.
GM: And those ones tend to stick with you more, don’t they?
RH: Oh, yeah! You don’t remember the others! You remember the hurtful ones. (laughs)
GM: Even though the positive ones outnumber the bad ones.
RH: Yeah. I remember once, many years ago when I first started doing big paintings on television, some critic said something about, “Who does he think he is? A Picasso or Rembrandt or Van Gogh?” And I was going to write back a really snooty letter and have a go at him, and the producer of my television show said don’t do it. He said they always have the last word because they’re a newspaper and whatever you say, they will print it and then they will refute your argument in another clever critique, so don’t, whatever you do, get hooked into tit-for-tat, writing insults back to them. Just leave it.
GM: In show business, it seems if you’re known as one thing to a large number of people, they don’t want to accept you as anything else.
RH: That’s right. I think it’s taken up till now to put people to really accept that those huge paintings I used to do on television way back, 12 feet by 9 feet paintings, they weren’t just a gimmick; they were based on very solid talent and ability and knowledge of how to paint tonally and how to paint impressionistically and they just translate into really good paintings, fine art paintings, as well as just being entertainment.
GM: Do you have a particular style or do you do all styles?
RH: I’ve got all sorts of different subject matter but basically I use the same approach. I’m an impressionist painter. I try to paint something which looks like the stuff I’m painting. I want people to recognize it when it’s finished. You may have to step back a couple of yards from it to get the full impact, but it’s certainly not photographic, although it does look like the subject that I’m portraying. But it’s got a lot of life and vitality in the brush strokes and the surface of the paint, really. Yeah.
GM: What kind of show will you be bringing here? Can we expect something similar to what I used to see when you’d bring it to the Royal Theatre in Victoria?
RH: Yeah, I hope so, yeah. I’m just getting all the music together now to send over to Dal. He wants it a week or so before the event. He wants to be able to run it through with the band beforehand. I’ve gone through all the things that I used to do but I’ve added a few that I hadn’t yet done when I was in Vancouver, that have been very successful for me.
GM: Will you spend any amount of time here?
RH: Just here for a week.
GM: It was fantastic talking to you. Thanks so much again. I look forward to seeing the show.
RH: Okay, Guy. And make yourself known. Say hello when you do come.
GM: I will. I still have an autograph you gave me and my sisters with a cartoon that you drew, too.
RH: And you’ve got the one I did of Fraser.
GM: I do. Maybe I’ll bring it and show it to you.