My Top Five Tracks By Phil Harris

This week marks the 115th anniversary of the birth of Bandleader, Singer, Comedian and Actor Phil Harris. I have already written about him in a previous article, so felt this was the perfect time to celebrate an underrated part of his career. Harris may not have had the best vocal range, but his unique voice made for some entertaining recordings. Mostly steering towards novelty, Phil had a remarkable talent for tongue-twisting songs, sung at a frantically fast speed, with all of the soul still intact.

I have a compiled a list of five songs I feel show off Phil’s unique talents. I have opted to exclude Harris’ work in Disney productions, as most of these recordings are familiar to the public already. In addition, they are also a fine example of the vocal talents of Phil Harris, meaning the list could be filled with them!

5 – The Thing

Written by Charles Randolph Grean, it was a huge hit for Harris in 1950, peaking at number 1. The novelty song was based on the traditional English Folk tune ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’.

One of Phil’s most recognisable tunes, it follows the story of a man who cannot get rid of a ‘Thing’, that he finds “floating in the bay”. The enthusiastic delivery of Harris makes this track memorable, along with another key element. There is a drum, throughout the track, that allows the listener to fill in the gaps. This clever device helped to provide comedy material for the radio show and inspire a follow-up record…the less said about that, the better.

4 – Where The Blues Were Born In New Orleans

Originally recorded by Louis Armstrong for the 1947 film ‘New Orleans’, it tells of the birth of the Blues in New Orleans. During the height of his popularity in 1951, Harris produced his own interpretation of the song, featuring an upped tempo and altered lyrics.

Harris re-invented this song to suit his style, with the lyrics coming under a more novelty banner than before. It is the injected energy that makes this song a memorable standout, along with the fast coming but clear lyrics.

3 – Is It True What They Say About Dixie

Another song that Phil would make his own, possibly helped by the popularity of his long-running character on The Jack Benny Program. Irving Caesar, Sammy Lerner and Gerald Marks wrote the song in 1936, becoming a hit Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra the same year. Later recordings include such artists as Dean Martin, Al Jolson, Bill Haley and Max Bygraves.

However, it is Phil Harris’ recording that really makes this song sing. His stylised mixture of spoken word and singing feels patriotic, with a touch of pizazz. He recorded the song frequently, but the 1949 version really stands out.

2 – The Preacher And The Bear

The Preacher and The Bear dates back to the turn of the 20th century, originally recorded by Ragtime artist Arthur Francis Collins in 1905. Many versions exist over several genres, including The Jubalaires, Andy Griffith, The Big Bopper and Jerry Reed.

Phil recorded his ‘definitive’ version in 1947, featuring orchestration and a fast vocal performance. It is worth checking out his early 60s performance of the track on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’, as it really showcases Harris as a skilled vocal performer.

1 – That’s What I Like About The South

The hallmark song of Phil Harris, written by Andy Razaf. Harris first performed the song in the 1930s, with an early rendition featuring in 1937 short subject ‘Harris In The Spring’. The first attempt at the tune was a jaunty mid-tempo foot-tapping number, lacking the energy of later incarnations. The frantic 1940s version with a fast, almost breathless, refrain and high energy orchestration is as memorable today as it was back in the day; He performed this version in the 1945 film ‘I Love A Bandleader’.

They derived much humour from the song during Phil’s years on The Jack Benny Program, with Benny often pointing out his dislike of the lyrics. Other versions of the song have included mostly Country acts like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, who put a slightly different spin on the track. However, it will always be Phil Harris that I associate with this song, and with good reason. His unique style of delivery along with the various ways he adapted it throughout the years, make this song a must hear for those wanting to hear peak pre-Disney Harris.

What is your favourite track by Phil Harris?

Jamie Dyer

Jamie Dyer is an experienced writer, broadcaster, musician and social media marketer. He enjoys Old Time Radio, vintage TV, collecting vinyl and supporting the New York Knicks.

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