Today is the birthday of Phil Harris (Wonga Phillip Harris, 1904-1995). Most people today know him only as a Disney voice-over actor in such films as The Jungle Book (1967), The Aristocats (1970), and Robin Hood (1973). But of course he’d gotten those roles because he was a well-known personality (at least to grown-ups) from other contexts prior to that.
Harris’s parents were vaudeville and circus performers. His father hired him to play drums in a circus band he was leading; this was the younger Harris’s entree into show business. Throughout the 20s, Harris worked his way from being a drummer in big bands, to being singer and front man. By 1931 he began cutting popular record albums; his first film role was in 1933.
In 1936, he became a regular on Jack Benny’s radio show, as music director, singer and cast member, playing (like all of Benny’s cast) a parody of himself, a kind of hip-talking Southern musician who loved to drink and fight. He was to play this role for Benny as late as 1952, with some interludes in between.
He married Alice Faye in 1941. From 1946 through 1954 the two had their own hit radio show The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show (originally called The Fitch Bandwagon). So, you see Harris had decades of voiceover experience before he did the Disney gigs — he knew just how to make comedy into a microphone. He was still doing that as late as 1991 when he supplied the voice of Patou in the animated feature Rock-a-Doodle.
Here he is performing his 1950 novelty hit The Thing:
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc