26 November 2007
Which Bermondsey rocker - still going well into his dotage - has played with Robbie Williams, had half The Beatles queuing up for his autograph, been immortalised in one of the greatest cockney songs of all time and caused Cliff Richard and The Shadows to be pelted with rotten tomatoes and glass ashtrays in the Elephant and Castle?
No idea? That's fair enough because the answer is someone you may not have even heard of - pint sized local legend and rock 'n' roll hero over six long decades, Wee Willie Harris.
'Wee' Willie, born in Bermondsey in 1933, may not have acquired the classic 'Bermondsey Boy' title bedecked on his colleague Tommy Steele but his achievements certainly bear serious recognition - not least the fact he is still touring and playing live nearly fifty years after first getting involved in the London scene in early fifties.
Like so many in his generation, Willie's first memories of Bermondsey are framed by the Blitz and the unique experiences he shared in the early 1940s. Evacuated to Derbyshire he would frequently return to London to see his Dad - a lighter man at the Surrey Docks - and sit near the Plough Way flat where the family lived to watch the wharves burn into the night.
Following the Blitz, the Harris family returned to Rotherhithe, with Willie vividly remembering one morning when he was woken by the loudest plane buzz he had ever heard. Safe in the knowledge that the Blitz was over, the family rushed outside to see what was going on. Looking up, Willie recalls seeing well over thousand Allied planes flying overhead towards Germany, signalling the invasion and the final push towards victory in Europe.
After the war, Willie returned to Bermondsey, attending Credon Road School before leaving at 14 and taking a job in a West End hotel. After growing bored of this he decided to find employment closer to home and took a job at the Peek Freans Biscuit Factory in Bermondsey.
He was only there for five months before bosses fired him after repeatedly refused to stop singing Frankie Lane's classic, 'Girl in the Wood' whilst travelling in the pudding block lift.
Upon leaving Peek Freans, Willie returned to the West End, taking a job as a waiter in the Savoy Hotel. It was whilst he was at the Savoy that he met Hollywood icon Errol Flynn. Recognising his unmistakable dialect, the Robin Hood star asked Willie to speak cockney to him. When the willing waiter obliged he was duly rewarded for his performance with a 10 shilling note stuffed into his top pocket.
So, even without his rock 'n' roll abilities, Willie had led quite an eventful life. It was the stage to which he was drawn though - and he started this process in London talent shows, particularly those at the famous Raymouth Tavern, situated opposite where the Shell Garage now stands on Southwark Park Road.
On top of this, Willie's family had moved house and he had now started working in the Martini bottling factory down near the Old Kent Road. His new house was so close to the factory that he was able to ferret away bottles of booze from the factory floor, take them to the staff toilet and pass them out of the window to his waiting Dad, who would store them safely in the Harris household, with the Martini company none the wiser to the entire process.
The Martini job was to be his last in Bermondsey though, because the stage was beginning to call. This started with the 2 I's Coffee Bar on Old Compton Street in Soho, run by a pair of old wrestlers from Australia - Paul Lincoln and Ray Hunter.
After initially letting him downstairs without paying to get a sneak peek at a performance by The Vipers, Paul Lincoln decided that Willie was worth investing in and offered him a job serving coffee downstairs - where the bands played.
Working downstairs at the 2 I's (which gained its brilliant name because it used to be run by three Iranians before one left!), Willie saw bands like Adam Faith's The Worried Men, Chas McDevitt and, once again, The Vipers.
On top of his work serving coffee and the 2 I's, Willie was also jamming at The Montana down the Blue in Bermondsey, packing out houses with his friend Gary Mills.
Living in Bermondsey and working in Soho, Willie became very familiar with the route of the number one bus (as it was then, the route is now almost copied by the 453). In fact, the number one bus was the venue Willie chose to write what eventually became his first single.
After finding fame at the 2 I's, Willie - now sporting dyed pink hair - was put on nationwide tours with the likes of Gene Vincent - a good friend of his - and Cliff Richard - who he never had any time for!
These package tours visited large halls around the country such as the Trocadero at the Elephant and Castle and the Liverpool Empire. It was at the Liverpool Empire that two young scouse rock 'n' rollers named Paul McCartney and John Lennon queued up outside for two hours to get the autograph of a short bloke with pink hair from Bermondsey.
When another tour rolled up at the old Trocadero in Elephant and Castle, Wee Willie Harris and his band were due to close up the first half, with the second half being closed by Cliff Richard and The Shadows.
However, what the promoters failed to recognise was that Willie was a local legend in the Elephant and Castle and the crowd had largely come to see him, not Cliff Richard. When the 'headliner' came out, the three songs he made it through were barely audible through boos and chants of 'We Want Willie'.
When it became clear that Willie wasn't going to return, the crowd went for ammunition, pelting the hapless future Knight of the Realm with rotten tomatoes until he fled for the wings.
The next year, both Cliff and Willie returned to the Trocadero. Once again, Cliff was due to close the show with Willie finishing up the first half. Before the show Willie and his band had a quiet word with both Cliff and the promoter, suggesting that it might be wise for Willie and Cliff to swap places to avoid a repeat of the incident the previous year.
Both promoter and star decided not change the order and exactly the same thing happened. Chants of 'We Want Willie' were studiously ignored - only this time the crowd came armed with ashtrays and Cliff's performance was even shorter than the year before!
Whilst his star waned with age, Willie continued performing to packed houses over the years, still touring with stars such as Gene Vincent, Fats Domino and the Everley Brothers.
Another famous nod was given to Willie in 1979, when legendary cockney Ian Dury released one of the greatest British singles ever recorded - Reasons to be Cheerful - which, as well as name checking John Coltrane, Steve Biko, Buddy Holly, Woody Allen, Salvador Dali and the Marx Brothers included the following lyrical triplet:
"Take your mum to Paris
Lighting up the chalice
Wee Willy Harris"
As he started playing the clubs in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, another man who would often feature on the same bill as him was a Stoke based comedian called Pete Conway. Pete would often take his young son Robert along with him to watch the acts - and that is how young Robbie Williams became Willie's latest celebrity fan!
The kid from the Brick Boys who grew up with the likes of Dicky Hart, Ronnie Roth, Charlie Roth and Mickey Roth had come a long way!
Still performing today at the age of 74, Willie has a gig at The Music Palace in Tottenham next month, a 2 I's tribute show at the famous 100 Club in January and will even be starring in Blackpool next year!
"I'm 74 but I ain't past it yet!" Willie said this week. "I'd make some of young uns look sick even today!"
If you want to book Wee Willie Harris yourself, contact the 'News' and we can put you in touch with the right people.
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