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Bob's On The Beat
Tim Hughes talks to the man they call Whispering Bob - who is set to make his own home village debut. Yeah!
BOB Harris is not only a broadcasting legend. He can rightly be described as that most precious of creatures, a national treasure.
Over the course of 40 years of television and radio, Bob has become one of the best-loved music presenters on air, driven by a passion to share great music with like-minded souls.
And all delivered in those rich, soothing mellifluous tones which have earned him the sobriquet Whispering Bob.
I catch up with Bob at his home in Steventon, near Abingdon, after he’s travelled back from his London studio.
“It’s been a fairly hectic day,” he begins. “I’ve just been doing an interview with Cilla Black for Radio 2. We were talking about the songs the Beatles gave away – because, of course, she recorded three of Paul’s songs. Cilla is terrific. She’s a 66 year-old teenager. But then I’m a 63 year-old teenager!”
Starting his career on the radio, Bob has turned his hand to many things, including setting up Time Out magazine. But it was his reign as frontman of the groundbreaking BBC TV music show The Old Grey Whistle Test which established him as a household name. He fronted ‘Whistle Test’ for six years in the 70s, establishing it as an authoritative vehicle for credible new music.
And that same hushed, laid-back delivery which earned him his nickname gave the show its identity. It was also Bob, incidentally, who inspired The Fast Show’s Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson, to create the character of Louis Balfour, presenter of Jazz Club (“nice!”).
But, says Bob, radio remains his first love due to “the one-to-one nature”.
“One of the things I love is when people recognise my voice,” he says. “Last weekend, my wife Trudie and I were at RAF Fairford for the Air Tattoo and some of the guys were saying they grew up listening to me. For some people it’s been a 40-year relationship.”
His cult Radio 2 Saturday show features Americana, alt country, new folk, blues, indie and acoustic music, while his Bob Harris Country show presents the best tunes coming out of Nashville, as well as quality offerings from acts yet to break through, but who, once featured by Bob, invariably go on to cross over to the mainstream. But doesn’t this carry great responsibility?
“An exciting responsibility,” he laughs. “And it is how a lot of people find out about new artists. I get CDs from all over the place, and travel, to Nashville in particular, so I get to know the music community and the artists and labels really well.
“And if an artist who starts on my show ends up crossing over to mainstream radio, that shows we are on the right track.”
A recurring theme in Bob’s life is country music – not the commercial Rhinestone and Stetson variety, but the artists he describes as “authentic” – everyone from Gram Parsons to Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle.
“Robert Plant always said ‘you can tell when someone really means it,’ and I think you can,” he insists. “And Americana now is where the heart is.”
It comes as a surprise to learn that his career started out on a different, err, beat.
“I was a police cadet for two years,” he reveals. “My dad was in the police in Northampton, which is where we lived, and he would have loved me to have followed in his footsteps.
“I left school in a bit of a rush, and other than wanting to go on the radio, which was a bit of a fantasy then, I didn’t know what I was going to do.
“So dad encouraged me to go into the police. The deal was I would give it my best for two years, and if I still wanted to pursue a career in music at the end of that, he would back me. And that’s what he did.
“After those two years, a friend moved to London, said a bedsit was going in Hampstead, and that was it.
“I met John Peel, we became friends and he introduced me to Radio 1. John and I were very close.”
A Steventon villager for 14 years, Bob is, inevitably, a regular visitor to its annual Truck music festival, organised by near neighbours Robin and Joe Bennett.
This year, for the first time, he has been invited to curate one of the stages – booking the Sunday line-up for the eclectic Market Stage – landing the likes of Jayhawks Gary Louris and Mark Olson, Hot Club of Cowtown, Mike Heron and Pete Molinari.
He says: “This is my wish list, and it’s great they are all available to play. They are amazing artists. And the Hot Club of Cowtown, who are a Western swing band, will really get everybody dancing.
“Truck is a lovely organic festival. There’s a gentle atmosphere and there is no heavy pressure to be anything. It’s like a hippie festival.
“A lot of local people volunteer there and it has a real community feel. And I have known Robin Bennett since he was in his first band, which was called Whispering Bob. In fact, I’m the one who told him to change the name!”
Bob seems to have more energy than ever, also turning out documentaries in Steventon through his own independent production company Whispering Bob Broadcasting Company (WBBC).
This is despite a 2007 scare with prostate cancer, which, displaying great bravery, Bob shared with his listeners before leaving Radio 2 for treatment.
Now fully recovered, he stays healthy by working out, and is involved in charity work – helping to raise £200,000 for Cancer Research UK this year by joining Sir George Martin as patron of the Sound and Vision evening at Abbey Road studios.
“One of my tactics is always to spend as much time as possible with people much younger than I am – including many of the bands who come into the studio,” he says.
“The energy rubs off. After all, I don’t want to hear people complaining about their back problems.
“It seems strange to say ‘this is what I was born to do’, but it is. I wouldn’t want to be a brain surgeon or an astronaut; I want to be on the radio!”
Bob’s fantasy Truck Festival line-up, this Sunday: 11:30am Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou 12.30pm KTB 1.30pm Eliza Gilkyson and band 2.30pm Oxygen Ponies 3.30pm Danny the Champ 4.30pm Angie Palmer 5.30pm Pete Molinari 6.30pm Mike Heron & Georgia Seddon 7.40pm Hot Club of Cowtown 9pm Gary Louris and Mark Olson
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