For a fleeting moment in the late 1950s, Wee Willie Harris – born Charles William Harris in 1933 – was one of Britain’s hottest homegrown performers in a still-evolving rock ‘n’ roll scene. He was a genuine dynamo, a 5ft 2″ pink-haired pocket rocket – and cheeky with it.
By the autumn of 1956, Willie was a regular on the Soho scene where he performed as plain Charlie – or sometimes as ‘Finger’ Harris – making the rounds of the innumerable clubs and coffee bars which had sprung up in the area.
He briefly fronted an obscure Soho combo called Lo’Don’s Ravin’ Rockers and also hung out at the Nucleus coffee bar in Shaftesbury Avenue where jazzman Diz Dizley taught him a few chords on the guitar.
He was soon earning enough money singing to pack in his job at the Peek Freans’ factory in Reading where he mixed puddings in the Christmas pudding department.
When an edition of the BBC’s Six-Five Special was broadcast live from the 2i’s Coffee Bar in London’s Soho in November 1957, Willie, one of the star turns, was filmed casually leaning against the bar, calling the stuffy broadcaster Gilbert Harding “Daddy-O”.
For reasons unknown, the old boy had been invited onto the show and the irreverent remark – playfully delivered as it was – reflected the shifting of cultural tectonic plates as the country’s youth movement gathered pace.
With his outrageous antics, Willie could captivate an audience, but goofing around diluted a genuine talent. Later arguing that fame came too soon in his development, Willie’s period in the sun passed before he could cut a big-selling single to stamp his name indelibly in the annals.
When the story of early British rock’n’roll is told now, it is the more groomed or teen-friendly names who came up behind him and enjoyed real chart success – such as Marty Wilde, Cliff and The Shadows and Billy Fury – who get all the accolades.
Edgier than fellow Bermondsey boy Tommy Steele, Harris had a distinctive, rasping voice and an instinctive feel for the black, bluesy end of rock ‘n’ roll, as exemplified by his version of Bloodshot Eyes on the soundtrack of the 1960 Italian movie Il Mondo di Notte (“World By Night”), in which Willie – who developed a big following in Italy from the early 60s – is seen belting out the song in leopard skins. He also performed Trouble In Mind and Lollipop Mama.
Harris was perhaps typical of the early fleetingly famous UK rocker. He was a useful, largely self-taught, piano player, and early fans included Paul McCartney, Chas Hodges and Ian Dury.
Dury saw Harris in 1958 at the Ritz in Romford and left with such an impression that he cited Wee Willie Harris in the lyrics of his 1979 hit Reasons To Be Cheerful.
Harris continued to be in constant demand on the club circuit during the 60s and 70s, where he was content to play the fool, and he built a big European following, as well as becoming the first western pop star to tour the Holy Land in 1962.