PROMOTING TEENAGE DECADENCE
Born Charles William Harris in Bermondsey, he was a tiny little boy. At full height as an adult he only grew to 5 feet 2 inches. His father was a River Thames bargeman.
After leaving school, he worked firstly as a meat porter and then as a pudding mixer at Peek Freans bakery but had dreams of becoming a rock star. So he taught himself how to play both piano and guitar.
He quit the factory and went to work at the ‘2-i’s Coffee Bar’,“the crucible of British rock ‘n’ roll”, in Old Compton Street, Soho. Initially, he swept the floors and once served a Coca-Cola to Mickie Most. But very quickly he became the house musician.
In the café, he performed alongside other musicians such as Tommy Steele, Adam Faith and Screaming Lord Sutch. But he decided he needed a change of image so as to stand out. He renamed himself ‘Wee Willie Harris’, partly as a tribute to his hero Little Richard, partly to reflect his size.
His manager Paul Lincoln (who also owned the club), and who was also a part-time wrestler, suggested he model his image on Gorgeous George, an American wrestler.
Willie bought himself a pink and red suit and then experimented with changing the colour of his hair. He tried green and orange and blue and scarlet, before settling on pink. “It took about 6 weeks to get it looking right. In those days you could only get dyes for brunettes or blondes, so first it went ginger then bright red. My hairdresser, Maison Louis, had to keep working on it. I never did find out how he made the formula. He kept it a secret”.
His hair was insured for £12,000.
He admitted once it had turned pink he was wolf-whistled at by builders in the street.
To complete his image he wore jackets too large for him (with his name embroidered on the back), tight drainpipe trousers and a large polka-dot bow tie.
And he created a wild stage persona. One critic said of him, “He gyrates like an exploding Catherine Wheel, emitting growls, squeals and what sounds like severe hiccupping”. He marketed himself as the ‘Small Ball of Fire’, and modelled himself on Gene Vincent and Little Richard.
In November 1957 he was chosen to appear on the BBC’s ‘Six-Five Special’. His performance led to outrage in the media and he was accused of “promoting teenage decadence”. Willie earned the nickname ‘Britain’s Wild Man of Rock’.
The record label Decca picked him up and his first single was ‘Rocking at the 2-1s’. It failed to chart.
Subsequent singles, ‘Love Bug Crawl’, ‘Got a Match’, ‘I Go Ape'(a cover of a Neil Sedaka song) and ‘Wild One’, all failed to reach the charts.
In 1958 as a publicity stunt, he was kidnapped by students from Leicester University as part of their ‘rag’ week.
In 1960, he went on a tour of the UK with Conway Twitty, Johnny Preston and Freddy Cannon. He performed in Liverpool where the unknown band The Beatles fell in love with his music and often quoted him as a major influence. John and Paul queued for his autograph. Years later, in his autobiography, Paul McCartney cited Wee Willie as a major influence on the band.
That same year, his touring bus was attacked by a group of Teddy Boys in London. They attempted to overturn the bus and stole three of his embroidered jackets.
Frustrated by the lack of chart success, he moved to HMV, followed by Polydor and then Parlophone.
In the mid-sixties, he released the single ‘Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah’. By then he had two new backing singers – Dusty Springfield and Madeline Bell. If you listen to the song, you can clearly make out Dusty’s vocals. It was the last thing she did before her highly successful solo career was launched. And Madeline Bell went on to be the lead vocalist with Blue Mink.
But yet again, the record failed to reach the charts, getting to number 39. In fact, Willie never did score a hit single in the UK.
By the 1970s, he was living in Prestwich and was performing regularly in Israel and Spain and was working on cruise ships.
But he was namechecked by David Bowie who called him the very first ‘glam’ star.
Suddenly, in the late 1970s, his career took off again as a nostalgia act. This was because Ian Dury had mentioned him in his hit single ‘Reasons to be Cheerful part 3’. He earned another nickname – ‘The Godfather of Punk’.
Although he was mocked in the press, his manager said, “Willie is earning vastly more now than at the peak of his notoriety”. About his reputation, he added, “Let’s face it. Willie as a raver was a never-wasser”.
In 1982, Willie married Sheila and they had 41 happy years together.
In the 1990s, Willie made a Campari advert alongside gangster ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser. The company were trying to alter their image away from being a “girlie drink”.
In 1999, a CD of all his singles was released. The following year he made an Ian Dury tribute album ’20 Reasons to be Cheerful’.
In 2001, he appeared in the Comic Relief (Red Nose Day) video of Hale and Pace’s ‘The Stonk’.
This led to another album, ‘Rag Moppin’(2003), performing alongside the Alabama Slammers.
In 2005, he was the mystery guest on TV’s ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’. His identity was guessed immediately.
His final TV appearance came in 2011 when he was interviewed by Melvyn Bragg on the ‘Reel History of Britain’, discussing the influence rock ‘n’ roll had on the country.
Rob Finnish wrote a biography about him entitled ‘I Go Ape’ (2018), which had an accompanying 30-track CD with all his best songs on it.
He was asked if he had any regrets and said, “I could have made better records with a better band. The record company made me have an 18-piece band. You don’t need an 18-piece band for rock ‘n’ roll”.
Willie wondered if his pink hair had helped or hindered him. It certainly got him noticed but did it stop him from being taken seriously, becoming almost a novelty act?
He was undoubtedly Britain’s first rock and roll star.
When he died, Sheila said, “He was a lovely man…a lovely husband. But it was music all the way with him. He could still sing right up to the end and was always a perfect gentleman”.
His bandmate Tony Thorpe said, “Willie was a brother, father, teacher, therapist and friend to me and I miss him dreadfully. God bless you guv, as I’m sure he is doing”.
RIP – Rocking Image = Pink