Saturday March 26,2011
By Neil Norman
CLIFF Richard is known to have slept with one woman – the wife of guitarist Jet Harris who died last week of cancer. It’s a reminder of how fame and betrayal cast a destructive shadow over Britain’s first pop superstars.
When drummer Tony Meehan left The Shadows in 1962 he went to work at Decca Records as an AR man for the infamous Dick Rowe, the man responsible for the greatest missed opportunity in recording history.
The story goes that Meehan was at a press reception when he was buttonholed by Brian Epstein who asked him if he’d listened to the demo tapes of his new group. Meehan replied: “I’m a very busy man, Mr Epstein.”
So thanks to the still-teenage Meehan and his boss Rowe, The Beatles slipped through Decca’s fingers.
As an AR man (it stands for Artists and Repertoire and refers to the division of a record label responsible for talent scouting), Meehan still clearly had a lot to learn.
But as the original drummer for The Shadows he was an integral part of British pop history. Even John Lennon, of the band Meehan helped Decca ignore, acknowledged their position. “Before Cliff and the Shadows, ” said Lennon, “there had been nothing worth listening to in British music.”
With the death this month of Jet Harris, The Shadows’ original bass player, the group and the ageless singing legend who was its front man are back in the news. We have become so accustomed to thinking of Sir Cliff as the perennial Bachelor Boy Christian that we have forgotten his and The Shadows’ impact on the British music scene at the dawn of the Sixties. They were a bona fide rock group with an amazingly distinctive sound, thanks to Hank Marvin’s echo-laden Fender Stratocaster guitar and the tight rocking backbeat provided by Jet Harris, drummer Tony Meehan and rhythm uitarist Bruce Welch.
Harris provided the rock ‘n’ roll cred with his playing and his appearance. He was the bad boy of the group and looked it. With his skinny, moody features, the dark eyes beneath a greasy lock of blond hair, he embodied the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. “Jet was always the most louche character, ” agrees Keith Altham, veteran rock writer and music PR who interviewed the group in their heyday. “He was a kind of early prototype of Keith Richards. That pale complexion and slightly haunted face gave him an air of decadence.” On hearing of his former bandmate’s passing, Sir Cliff paid the following tribute. “Jet, the bass player, will always be an integral part of British rock ‘n’ roll history, ” he declared. “Losing him is sad but the great memories will stay with me. Rock on, Jet.” But if the memories were so great, why did Cliff consistently fail to include his original bass player in The Shadows’ farewell and reunion gigs in later years? And why, according to Harris’s manager, did the singer fail to help when he was told that Jet was broke and battling throat cancer? Earlier this week Peter Stockton, 63, who managed Harris for the last two years of his life said: “This man is meant to be a born-again Christian and humanitarian but he’s just a bloody hypocrite. Cliff was contacted 18 months ago by a friend of Jet named Audrey, about Jet’s cancer. She explained that Jet didn’t have the necessary funds to get specialist treatment and wondered if Cliff might be able to be of assistance in some way It wasn’t a direct request for cash although I suppose the intimation was there.
“Anyone with any common sense would have said, ‘OK, he needs some money for specialist treatment’.
Audrey just got a letter back saying something like ‘I’m sorry to hear about Jet. I suggest that he contact the Macmillan cancer people for help’.”
To understand how this sad state of affairs came to pass we need to go back to the origins of The Shadows and their relationship with Sir Cliff.
When Jet Harris – whose nickname derived from his running skills at school – and his friend Tony Meehan joined The Drifters in a Soho coffee bar in the late Fifties, they completed a quartet of backing musicians for Britain’s answer to Elvis Presley: Cliff Richard.
From the beginning they were an oddly matched bunch. Hank Marvin was a geeky, bespectacled, friendly joker; Bruce Welch was sensible and organised, while Cliff was the driven star in the making.
Meehan was a classical and jazz-trained drummer with a punctuality problem while Harris was a wiry, effortlessly cool nice guy with a taste for vodka.
With five such different personalities there was bound to be tension. But they bonded by all being superb musicians. They were also very young, with an average age of 18. And they came up with strong rock songs: High Class Baby, Livin’ Lovin’ Doll and Mean Streak. “In those early days it wasn’t a singer and backing band but a proper five-piece band, like the Stones with Mick at the front, ” said Hank Marvin. But not for long. Cliff was the boss and the rest of the band were literally his shadows. Hired as a backing band they received session sees but no royalties from the hits they played on together.
This was one of the reasons that The Shadows went off and did their own thing, coming up with hits such as Apache, FBI and Man Of Mystery.
But Cliff remained a hard taskmaster, as Keith Altham recalls. “He’s a real perfectionist. He rehearses and rehearses; he’s almost obsessional. And it would often go far beyond their allotted period and there was no overtime. So it wouldn’t endear him to anyone working for him.”
Meehan, in particular, had a very short fuse and ironically for a drummer was a chronically poor timekeeper. Rehearsals often started without him.
On one occasion when he arrived an hour late, Welch commented: “Heck, if Thor Heyerdahl can get to Tahiti on time on the Kon-Tiki you can make it to Leeds.” By October 1961, Meehan had left to pursue his brief career in AR and was replaced by Brian Bennett.
Bereft of his closest ally, Harris ramped up his vodka intake. As teenagers with sudden success and money, the band members were also as much a prey to the pleasure principle as any of their counterparts. “We did everything together, ” said Marvin. “We stayed in the same places, we went out to the movies together, partied together. We even occasionally shared girlfriends.” Sharing girlfriends was one thing; stealing a band member’s wife quite another. When Harris discovered that Cliff was bedding his wife Carol – the only woman Cliff has ever admitted to sleeping with – it sent him into a spiral of depression. In spite of the dreadful betrayal Harris kept silent.
While humiliated, he needed the money and maintained his professionalism on stage and on record for as long as he was able while at the same time drowning his pain in alcohol. But finally the drinking became a problem and Bruce Welch, who more or less ran The Shadows, saw the writing on the wall. Following the departure of Meehan, Harris left the following year in 1962, though it was unclear whether it was his decision or if he was pushed.
He suffered a breakdown soon afterwards but never blamed Cliff or the remaining band embers for his problems. He said later: “I’d just had enough of sleeping, drinking, eating and doing everything together, day in, day out.” Even in his final years he defended the former bandmate who cheated on him. “If anyone has a go at Cliff, I shout them down, ” he said. “We were a mean band but, life-wise, we were only kids.” He refused to criticise Cliff even after he was the only surviving member of the group not to be invited to participate in Cliff and The Shadows’ farewell tour in 2009. “There’s absolutely no malice, ” he said at the time. “We all speak to each other but I automatically thought they’d have me – maybe on the first six or so numbers, the ones I played on. A lot of fans can’t believe it and have said it won’t be right. But the powers that be have decided. I’m not losing sleep over it as I’ve got Jet Harris gigs and we’re filling them.” It was perhaps the last time that Jet, who died last week, was filed with such confidence.
What happened to the band?
Hank Marvin is now a Jehovah’s Witness living in Perth, Australia, where he runs a recording studio called Nivram (Marvin spelt backwards). Bruce Welch, awarded an OBE in 2004, still plays in a Shadows’ tribute band and acts as a musical consultant on shows such as Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.
Tony Meehan and Jet Harris formed their own band and had a couple of hits in the Sixties, even knocking their former group off the No1 slot in 1963 with Diamonds. But it was a brief interval in the sun. In September 1963 Harris was injured in a car crash with his girlfriend, singer Billie Davis. Since he was married, though he and Carol were separated at the time, the story made headlines. Meehan and Harris then went their separate ways.
Meehan died in November 2005 as a result of head injuries following a fall down the staircase at his London flat.
Harris, who was awarded an MBE in 2010, died last week after a two-year battle against throat cancer. Cliff Richard received a knighthood in 1995, the first rock star to be so honoured. Though Marvin and Welch remain financially comfortable, Cliff Richard’s wealth easily surpasses theirs – recent figures suggest he’s worth at least £50million.