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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2002/11/27
by Mike Gruenberg

Richard Harris

There’s an old saying in Las Vegas and Hollywood that proclaims that all the actors want to be singers, all the comedians want to be singers and all the singers want to be actors. Apparently, there is more than just a modicum of truth to this adage since we all know of examples where entertainers tried, but somehow did not achieve their same success in different venues of the entertainment field. I recently read that Mick Jagger was acting in a new film. While I applaud his diverse talents, we all know that his previous forays into cinematic explorations for Mick have not been met with critical acclaim. I guess it’s hard to relate to Mick without seeing Keith and the Stones in the background. Conversely, there has been many a thespian that was marched into a recording studio so as to capitalize on their notoriety on stage and screen just to sell a few records.
The crossing over of lines of talent is a case of performing arts once again imitating life. It is a basic human trait to suppose that the "grass is greener on the other side" although it usually is not. My advice to those younger than me has always been to find your strength, work hard at it, refine it and use that talent to it’s fullest capacity.
I was saddened to hear of the passing of actor and singer, Richard Harris on October 25th in London at age 72. Harris had been ill for some time although he did manage to appear recently in two Harry Potter movies in the role of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Harris brought his classically trained acting skills to this role and played the part with dignity and grace.
I first heard about Harris when I was a student at Long Island University. Apparently, he was appearing in a movie as a rugby player. The coach of the LIU Soccer team, who was also a star rugby player, was recruited to help train Harris for the role. For a school like LIU to have its coach help train a movie star was big news.

In 1968, composer Jimmy Webb wrote, arranged and produced an album called "A Tramp Shining." Webb amassed the top session musicians in L.A. for the music and got his friend, Richard Harris, the actor to sing on the album. It was quite odd to pick Harris as the singer for this album since his singing had previously been confined to the stage and his reputation was known as an actor, not a singer. Even more of a mystery was the single they chose to release from this album, "Mac Arthur Park" whose lyrics were somewhat romantic and a bit difficult to understand especially the part about leaving the cake out in the rain. To add further insult to injury, the song was 7:20 long! Radio stations did not like to play any song longer than 3 – 4 minutes.
With everything going against the success of Mac Arthur Park, it became an international smash hit. At the time, many of the disc jockeys at the radio stations who reluctantly played the song said that they decided to play it because it gave them time to go to the bathroom while it was playing on the air. Legend has it that Webb originally offered the song to the Association who turned it down.
"A Tramp Shining" was released on Dunhill Records ( DS 50032). It continues to be a very listenable and enjoyable record. Although one can never mistake Harris as a singer, his Irish accent coupled with his vocal acting skills mixed on top of Webb’s music and lyrics tied together by the best LA session musicians makes this a great album even after all these years. This album was followed-up by "The Yard Went On Forever" album which reunited the team. Sadly, they were unable to duplicate their previous success.
In 1972, Harris released an album called "Slides" on ABC Records (DSX 50133). In this offering, Harris had written some of the tunes and does not use Jimmy Webb or the L.A. musicians he used in the past. The album is a travelogue of his travels throughout the western part of the United States. He demonstrates the same singing/talking style as was present in previous albums. Although it is not as slick and polished as his collaborations with Jimmy Webb, it’s a very personal and appealing album. He talks about his travels, his drinking buddy and describes to his son, the pictures he took during his travels.

To me, Richard Harris represented all that is good in the field of entertainment. He regaled us with his Shakespearean acting skills. He ventured into the pop music business and left us a legacy of unique interpretations of songs that still sound good today. We still may not understand the meaning of those lyrics, but the music holds up well. Although he made some movies in his career that could never be thought of as Academy Award material, he brought enormous dignity to those roles. In his final days, he was able to appear in two Harry Potter movies, exhibiting the same class and skill he showed over a 40 years career. An interviewer asked Harris why he consented to play in the Harry Potter movies. Harris simply said that he accepted the role as a gift to his eleven-year-old grand daughter, who had said that she would never speak to him again, if he did not accept the role.

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