Smiling Al Harris, the guitar man (A Catnerine Dunphy life story)

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Jul 4, 2006, 9:05:40 PM7/4/06
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The Toronto Star
July 3, 2006 Monday
Catherine Dunphy, Toronto Star


When Al Harris was 14, the school principal at Weston C.I.
called his parents in for a meeting. He was concerned: Their
son was interested only in music, nothing else. He showed
them his notebooks; no matter the subject, the content was
music.

That wasn't a surprise for them. The oldest of their four
children had made, out of an old Havana cigar box, a crystal
radio set he'd always have on late at night, picking up
dance bands playing in a room high atop a hotel in some
midwest American city. He had invented a contraption
involving pedals for his steel guitar and he was already
earning pocket money teaching music to neighbourhood kids.

Okay, they told their son when they returned from that
meeting, if you're not studying then you might as well take
lessons from the best. Then they sent him to the Royal
Conservatory of Music.

Two years later, he was playing professionally with Jimmy
Fry and his Orchestra at Port Carling's 21 Club, in a career
that ended only with his death, at 84, on March 4.

He was everybody's sideman.

"He was a perfect sideman," said Tommy Hunter. "He knew
instinctively what to do. He had a dry sense of humour and
he'd play you along but when the (studio) red light came on,
he played it straight."

Harris played with Hunter on the singer's eponymous CBC
radio and television shows in the '60s.

He played with Bert Niosi, Joe DeCourcy, Moxie Whitney,
Trump Davidson and their orchestras. Rob McConnell's
Spitfire Band. Peter Appleyard. Our Pet Juliette. At Barbara
Ann Scott's wedding. And Bobby Gimby's iconic Ca-na-da
recording? He was the guitar on that Confederation year hit.
He played at the CNE Bandshell, the Palais Royale, the Old
Mill, Casa Loma, the O'Keefe, Maple Leaf Gardens, Massey
Hall and yes, on the 54th floor, high atop the
Toronto-Dominion Centre.

Harris wrote the jingle for People's Credit Jewellers. He
gave Lenny Breau lessons on reading music. He worked with,
to name just a few, Marlene Dietrich, the Ink Spots, Kay
Starr, Eartha Kitt, Gene Autry and Danny Kaye, when they
came to town.

When he was 18, he was voted the #1 guitarist in Canada by
DownBeat magazine. He was entertaining troops across Canada
with Mart Kenney's orchestra before he was 21.

Throughout the '40s and early '50s, when Canadians gathered
around the radio set for their entertainment, Harris was
usually the man playing the guitar, be it acoustic, electric
or steel.

In September 1952, Cliff McKay's Holiday Ranch hit the
black-and-white television airwaves, the first country show
to go coast-to-coast. McKay was the genial bespectacled man
in the plaid shirt and cowboy hat on clarinet and vocals,
King Ganam was the scene-stealing fiddler, and the Buddy
Holly lookalike, bent and intent over his guitar, was always
introduced as Smiling Al Harris.

"Cliff called him that because he never smiled," said
Harris' youngest brother, Ken. The show was on every
Saturday night at 7: 30 p.m. Their mother insisted
everything stop while the family watched it. "Sometimes at
the end of a piece, there would be just a small smile, in
one corner of his mouth, but only if he liked the way the
song had turned out."

Al Harris was never a showman, shunning the spotlight and
the microphone patter.

But he was a brilliant musician.

"We couldn't do a show without him," said Gordie Tapp.
Harris played for three years on Country Hoedown and on
about 10 overseas tours, including three to the Middle East.

Harris was the kind of guy who refused to let anyone carry
his guitar, then fell into a trench with it. In the Gaza
Strip, he ignored all the warning signs and crossed a fence
to take a short cut to the beach. He later found out he had
walked through a minefield.

During one of their return trips from the Middle East,
Algeria declared war on France. Their plane was re-routed
and when they landed in a West German airbase where Vickers
bombers were parked, they were ordered to take no pictures
and go straight to the waiting bus. Harris set up his
tripod, mounting his camera, and was checking the light on
his meter - "he wanted to get a picture of the planes he had
heard so much about," Hunter explained - when he was beset
by guards who ripped the film from his camera. "And that was
Al. That was really Al, " said Tapp. "He'd do the darndest
dumb things."

When it came to his music, he was the consummate
professional "on time and on cue," his brother said.

He never turned down a gig - from weddings to bar mitzvahs
and political conventions - and took on students in his
spare time.

Harris was married in 1960 to Ina Webdon, one of his
students, and they performed as Al and Ina Harris in many
venues. Ina died in 1990, but Al continued performing.

"Retire? Does a postman stop walking?" he once said to his
son, Wayne, one of two children, including a daughter, Pam,
from a previous marriage.

He dyed his hair, took on more students and gigs at seniors
residences. His health wasn't good, but he'd say he'd feel
better once he got on the bandstand. Six months ago, he
played at Woodbine Lounge.

But late in February he collapsed while having dinner at a
restaurant and was rushed to hospital. He never went back to
his Thornhill condo; he moved straight from the hospital
into a seniors residence where he could be looked after. He
wasn't happy there, but he was more concerned about the fact
that his guitar - an Ovation he used to call his
Stradivarius because of its rich sound - was still in the
condo.

"He was also worried that his fingers would get soft or
stiff if he wasn't practicing," said his brother, who
brought Al his guitar.

Al died the next day.

Catherine Dunphy can be reached at cdunphy @ thestar.ca

GRAPHIC: Smiling Al Harris was given his name in the 1950s
by Cliff McKay, the host of the country TV show Holiday
Ranch, who always introduced the guitarist that way because
he rarely smiled.


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