Jet Harris: rock on!

Let’s strike a resonating bass chord for Jet Harris, bass player with The Shadows, who has died aged 71.  Reading his obituary this morning brought back memories of when, a kid on the cusp of the teenage years, I’d thrill to the twanging sound of The Shadows heard on the BBC Light Programme, in one of those rare zones where teenage music was allowed, or on Radio Luxembourg.

He was born Terence Harris (the ‘Jet’ appellation came from his sprinting skills at school) to a working class family in north London. His  musical career took off in 1958 when he joined Cliff Richard’s group The Drifters. It was Jet, apparently, who suggested their new name The Shadows.  His first recording was on Cliff’s hit ‘Livin’ Doll’.

In their own right, The Shadows went on to release a string of hits, beginning with Apache, which reached No 1 in 1960.

Over the next two years, Harris played on more top 10 singles, including Man of Mystery, FBI and Kon-Tiki, before suddenly quitting the group in 1962.  The classic Shadows lineup consisted of  (left to right, below, in a scene from the 1961 film The Young Ones) Bruce Welch, Cliff Richard, Jet Harris and Hank Marvin. How that song, that film stirred an adolescent heart!

Harris was immediately signed to a recording deal with Decca, releasing the top 30 hits ‘Besame Mucho’ and ‘The Theme from The Man With the Golden Arm’, before hooking up with The Shadows’ former drummer Tony Meehan. As Jet Harris and Tony Meehan, they had a big hit in 1963 with ‘Diamonds’.

The partnership with Meehan came to an abrupt end in September 1963, when Harris was seriously injured in a car accident involving a vehicle in which he was travelling with Billie Davis of ‘Tell Him’ fame.  After that, it appears that alcoholism and depression took its toll, and for many years he disappeared from the music industry, being sighted at different times working as a labourer, bricklayer, porter in a hospital, bus conductor, and selling cockles on a beach in Jersey.

In 1998, Harris was awarded a Fender Lifetime Achievement Award for his role in popularising the bass guitar in Britain.  He died of cancer on 18 March, but in recent years he had been performing and recording again, his last gig being on 5 February, when he was reported as being on brilliant form despite ill health.

Cliff Richard responded to the news of his death by saying:

Jet was exactly what the Shadows and I needed – a backbone holding our sound together.  Jet will always be an integral part of British rock’n’roll history. Losing him is sad – but the great memories will stay with me. Rock on, Jet!


2 thoughts on “Jet Harris: rock on!

  1. I had a huge crush on Jet in the fifties when I was only single digits old – preferred him even to Cliff. He was the best! I know all about depression and alcoholism – 13 years sober now. I guess he did get sober and started performing again. Then the big C got him as it does so many loved ones. In America where I now live, no one has even heard of Cliff and the Shads. Shame!

  2. The trouble with the Shadows is that their music dated very quickly. Although hugely novel for late 1950s Britain, it was wiped out, even in our teens, by more accomplished performers with more complex sounds. Alas, I doubt Jet Harris could have lived with the post-1963 gear shift, even without his accident. Cliff Richard survived as a non-threatening crooner/balladeer, Elvis/Bobby Vee-lite, to become a parody of elevator music.

    Still, before the Beatles changed everything forever, the familiar riffs of Marvin & Harris and that cheesy step pattern they used were part of our landscape. As John Lennon said: “Before the Shadows, there was no British music worth listening to.” That’ll do for me as the final word.

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