Sunday 26 February 2017

Celebrating 40 years of Whispering Bob's honeyed tones . . .

To music lovers of a certain age, there are few sounds in this world so sweet as the honeyed tones of 'Whispering' Bob Harris.

The BBC Radio 2 DJ has been a warm, calming presence on the airwaves since 1967 -- he credits the late, great John Peel for getting his start at the Beeb -- but it was when he got the gig presenting the Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC television in 1971 that Bob became a household name in these islands.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of this much-loved landmark of music television, Warners have just released a three-CD compilation of the best bands and moments from the show, taking in everyone from Aztec Camera to ZZ Top. There's also a series of documentaries on BBC TV and radio lined up to pay tribute to the programme's pioneering spirit.

Today, in the super-saturated multi-channel digital age, music is inescapable on the goggle box, but in 1971 the Old Grey Whistle Test was the only sound in town.

"When we started in 1971, there was nothing like it anywhere in the world," says Bob. "Think about it: you had Top of the Pops, but that was geared towards singles -- and it was mimed.

"Old Grey Whistle Test was centred on albums -- it was the only show on television where bands could come on and play songs from their new album. It was revolutionary. I was flicking through the satellite music channels on my TV the other day and most of them seemed to be playing the same Lady Gaga video at the same time.

"Despite the number of channels, there was no real choice. Where's the quirky, avant-garde acts? We gave them an outlet, but there doesn't seem to be much room for them on TV these days."

Bob was noticeable for his long hair, beard and polo necks back in the day. How does he feel when he sees clips of himself back then? "Do I cringe? Yes, but then you have to remember this was how the bohemians of the day looked. We were hippies. That was the scene."

Until he handed over the reins of the OGWT to Mark Ellen and Andy Kershaw in the 1980s, Bob helped to launch the careers of so many rock icons. The footage on YouTube, for instance, of Thin Lizzy performing 'Don't Believe A Word' is still breathtaking all these years later.

"It's funny, so many artists who now are legendary figures in the history of rock -- we gave many of them their first exposure on British TV," says Bob.

"Many acts who today are household names were introduced to the public on the programme. I'm thinking of someone like Elton John. I remember being really excited when he came on the show. I could see that here was a guy who was gonna go places. He just had it. A brilliant musician and incredibly charismatic.

"He's always acknowledged the hand up we gave him. Any time I'm at a function and Elton's there, he makes a point of coming over and saying hi."

Fans of 1990s TV comedy The Fast Show fondly remember the thinly veiled parody of Whistle Test that was its 'Jazz Club' sketch. How did Bob react to the mickey-takers?

"I remember when the show came out, I met the producer in the BBC and he admitted that Jazz Club was based on the Old Grey Whistle Test and that the presenter Louis Balfour was based on me. I felt quite flattered, to be honest. It's quite a gentle, affectionate piece of satire," says Bob.

"I wasn't offended in the least. But I remember when I met Jon Thompson, who plays the character, he claimed that it had nothing to do with me! He couldn't believe that I was the source! But I have to say I really enjoyed Jazz Club!"

What's next for 'Whispering' Bob?

"I continue to play new music on my show on BBC Radio 2. I'm always on the look-out for new bands. I don't believe in only looking back."

The OGWT compilation is out on Warners

nkelly@independent.ie

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