One of Harris' first jobs as frontman of a musical group began in 1928, with Carol Lofner, as co-leader of the Lofner-Harris Orchestra. They were the first group to play the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, CA, and were such a hit at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco that they were held over there for three years. In 1931, with Muzzy Marcellino on violin, they made six sides for Victor, such as I Got the Ritz From the One I Love (I Got the Big Go-By), which was sung by Harris.
Harris led a band under his own name at the glamorous Cocoanut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1933, and they made four titles on Columbia Records.
However, when they appeared for an engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City in 1935, its sedate patrons didn't appreciate Harris' gregariousness or the orchestra's swinging sounds.
Luckily, elsewhere his showmanship won out.
given name Wonga Philip Harris [ "Wonga" means "swift messenger" in Cherokee ]
birth June 24, 1904, Linton, IN
death Aug. 11, 1995, Rancho Mirage, CA, heart failure
father a clarinetist with circus and other bands
mother a clothes buyer
education graduate, Hume Fogg High School, Nashville, TN
first wife Marcia Ralston, m.Sept. 2, 1927, div.Sept. 1940
son Phil Harris, Jr., b.1935 [ adopted ]
second wife Alice Jeane Leppert (aka "Alice Faye," the actress), b.May 5, 1912, m.May 12,
1941, d.May 9, 1998, stomach cancer
daughter Alice, b.May 19, 1942
daughter Phyllis, b.Apr. 22, 1944
military service Merchant Marines, Dec. 1942-Mar. 1943
hobbies golf; hunting; fishing; playing Scrabble
membership Local 6, American Federation of Musicians, San Francisco, CA
residence on the green at the Thunderbird Country Club, Palm Springs, CA
physical description 6 ft. 1 in. tall
Between 1937 and 1958, Harris made additional, numerous recordings with his band for the Vocalion, Okeh, ARA, and RCA Victor labels, such as Woodman, Woodman Spare That
Tree; One-Zy, Two-Zy (I Love You-zy); That's What I Like About the South; The Preacher and the Bear; Fun and Fancy Free; Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette); and The Thing.
Among his musicians in his band were, at various times, Floyd O'Brien, trombone; Joe Huffman, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Frank Remley, guitar; and Leah Ray, vocals.
He eventually settled back on the West Coast, where work in radio flourished for him.
In 1936, he joined NBC's "The Jack Benny Show," as conductor and comic foil for Benny's insults (many of them directed at Harris' supposed reputation as a heavy boozer). The program switched to CBS in 1949, and he remained with Benny until 1952.
For part of the same time, from 1948 to 1954, Harris starred with his wife, Alice Faye, on their own appealing radio program, over NBC.
Phil Harris - In his Own Words:
"If it hadn't been for radio . . . I would still be a traveling orchestra leader. I played one-night stands for
17 years, except for a few longer engagements. I slept on buses. I never even voted, because I had no
residence. Radio gave me a chance to settle down, to marry, to establish a home and raise a family."
"It was all fun, everything. I say thanks to God every night that I get a kick out of every day."
"I've never endorsed any brand of booze. Wouldn't want to slight the others. They're all just great!"
"I can't die until the government finds a safe place to bury my liver."
Harris continued to record as least as late as 1972, when he did an album called "Southern Comfort: The Best of Phil Harris" for Mega Records of Nashville.
Ever the personality and despite battling heart and kidney problems for years, he continued to occasionally make appearances, whether on stage or at the golf course, until shortly before his death.
Internet Movie Database, imdb.com.
Richard Lamparski, Whatever Became Of ... ?: 9th Series (New York City: Crown
Publishers, 1985?), pp.68-69.
"Phil Harris, comic, bandleader," [ Riverside, CA ] Press-Enterprise, Aug. 13, 1995, p.B5.
"Phil Harris, pal to Benny, Crosby, dies," Canton [ OH ] Repository, Aug. 13, 1995.
Brian Rust, "Henry Halstead and His Orchestra," in The American Dance Band
Discography 1917-1942: Volume I Irving Aaronson to Arthur Lange (New Rochelle, NY:
Arlington House Publishers, 1975), pp.717-718.
---, "Phil Harris," in The American Dance Band Discography 1917-1942: Volume I Irving
Aaronson to Arthur Lange (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House Publishers, 1975), p763.
George T. Simon, The Big Bands (New York City: The Macmillian Company, 1967), p.497.
I would like to expand this tribute with, if possible, a new interview of someone who was important to Phil Harris' life or career. Are you an alumnus of his band, a member of his family, or a collector who is knowledgeable about his accomplishments? Please contact me via e-mail