Rolf Harris CBE, AM is almost unique among Australian entertainers, in that he excels and is prominent in many different areas of the arts. He is a musician, singer, composer, television host, sportsman and painter, who has even painted an oficial portrait of the Queen.
Rolf was born on 30th March 1930 in the Perth suburb of Bassendean, in Western Australia to Welsh immigrants, Crom and Agnes Harris. He is also the nephew of Australian artist Pixie O’Harris. He was named after Rolf Boldrewood, an Australian writer that his mother admired.
As a young man, Rolf was also a champion swimmer, being Australian Junior 110 yards backstroke champion in 1946, and Western Australian state champion in a variety of strokes between 1948-1952.
He met his wife, the Welsh sculptress and jeweller Alwen Hughes while they were art students at the University of Western Australia, and they married in 1958. They have one daughter, the artist Bindi Harris, born in 1964.
Harris started on intelevision in it’s early years in Perth, with his rapid drawing style and flair for amusing entertainment. He moved to England as an art student at City and Guilds Arts School, Kennington, South London at the age of 22, notably illustrating Robert Harbin’s Paper Magic (1956). He also had a few acting roles in British televison programs and film as Harry in The Vise and as Pvt. Proudfoot in the 1955 film You Lucky People. Harris returned to Perth after art school and was involved in children’s television shows. Some years later he returned to the United Kingdom to live. He has regularly returned to Perth over the years for family visits.
Harris has been credited with inventing a simple homemade instrument called the wobble board. This discovery was accidentally made in the course of his work when he attempted to dry a freshly painted hardboard with added heat, from hearing the sound made by the board as he held the board by the short edges to cool off. He suggests the effect can best be obtained through faint bouncing of a tempered hardboard or a thinner MDF board between the palms of one’s hands.
“Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”
In 1959 he worked on TVW-7’s first locally produced show Spotlight. During his time at TVW he recorded his hit “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”. The song was recorded on a single microphone placed above him in the TV studio. The song was sent to record company EMI in Sydney and it was soon released as a record. Rolf Harris offered four unknown backing musicians 10 percent of the royalties for the song, but they decided to take a recording fee of 28 pounds between them because they thought the song would be a flop. The novelty song was originally titled “Kangalypso” and featured the distinctive sound of the “wobble board” which was played by “wobbling” it back and forth. The original recording of the song issued in Australia was considered controversial by some listeners because of the lyrics: “Let me abos go loose, Lew/ Let me abos go loose/ They’re of no further use, Lew/ So let me abos go loose”. The verse appears to refer to Aboriginal servitude and captivity in a whimsically approving manner. In addition, the word “abo” was beginning to be seen as a term of abuse at the time. Most of the rest of the song refers to animals in captivity. The offending verse did not feature in later versions of the song. In 2006 Harris expressed his regret about the original lyrics.
Harris sang “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” (with The Beatles singing backing vocals) in the first edition of the From Us to You BBC radio shows, in December, 1963. Harris completely customized the original lyrics to a version that was especially written for The Beatles:
“Cut yer hair once a year boys”
“Don’t ill-treat me pet dingo, Ringo”
“George’s guitar’s on the blink, I think”
“Prop me up by the wall, Paul”
“Keep the hits coming on, John”
Harris went on to use an array of unusual instruments in his music, including the didgeridoo (the sound of which was imitated on “Sun Arise” by four double basses), Jew’s harp and, later, the stylophone. Harris has played the didgeridoo on two albums by English pop singer Kate Bush, 1982’s The Dreaming and 2005’s Aerial. Harris went on to create one of his most famous roles in the 1960s, Jake the Peg but his biggest hit was in 1969 with his rendering of the US Civil War song” Two Little Boys”, written in 1902.
He also made several television appearances in which he would paint pictures on large boards in an apparently slapdash manner, with the odd nonsense song thrown in, but with detailed results. This was often accompanied by the phrase “Can you tell what is it yet?” just before the painting became recognisable. These appearances led to a string of TV series based on his artistic ability, notably Rolf Harris’s Cartoon Time on BBC1 in the 1980s and Rolf’s Cartoon Club on CITV in the early 1990s. He also hosted a successful variety TV series in Canada, which was a second home to Harris during the 1960s. In 1967 he hosted the BBC’s A Song for Europe contest and provided UK commentary at that year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Vienna.
In 2002 his work was exhibited at London’s National and in 2005 he was commissioned commissioned to paint a portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II for her 80th birthday, which was unveiled by Rolf Harris on 19 December 2005 at Buckingham Palace. The Queen expressed her approval at the painting after her final sitting, particularly with the way in which Harris had painted her smile. The story of the painting featured as a special edition of Rolf on Art. The special, called The Queen by Rolf, was broadcast on BBC One on 1 January 2006. Rolf Harris’ grandfather painted a portrait of the Queen’s grandfather, King George V (in which King George V was inspecting the troops).
In 2005, Rolf played the didgeridoo on Kate Bush’s album Aerial, contributing vocals to the songs “An Architect’s Dream” and “The Painter’s Link”. He also appears on the video to the lead single, “King of the Mountain”, dancing with a white jumpsuit in a reference to Elvis Presley, one of the themes of the song.
At the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, he sang a special rendition of his hit song “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”, which included some lyrics especially written for the Opening Ceremony:
Let me welcome you to the Games, friends,
Welcome you to the Games
Look, I don’t know all of your names, friends,
But let me welcome you to the Games.
Following his singing of “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”, Harris sang “Waltzing Matilda”. As well as a video tape recording of the Opening Ceremony being released, the music for the Opening Ceremony was released as an album and an audio tape, with Harris as one of the featured artists.
Harris’ career received a boost in 1993 when his cover version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” became a hit, singing the song in the style of “Tie Me Kangaroo Down”. Harris also recorded a version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” around this time. He performed The Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” — accompanied only by his wobble board — for Andrew Denton’s Musical Challenge on the MMM Breakfast Show.
Harris has also recorded an Australian Christmas song called “Six White Boomers”, about a joey Kangaroo trying to find his mother during Christmas time, and how Santa Claus used six large-size male Kangaroos (Boomers), instead of Reindeer (to put an Australian spin on the traditional story) to pull his sleigh and help the little joey find his “Mummy”.
In October 2008, Harris announced he would re-record his 1969 hit “Two Little Boys”, backed by North Wales’ Froncysyllte Male Voice Choir, to mark the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I.