I first learned the news when my neighbour stuck a note through my door in the early hours of Saturday morning. It said “JET HARRIS has died of cancer aged 71.” He knew that I would be upset…
There wasn’t much about him in the papers and there are probably many reading this who are wondering, “Who He?” but for thousands of fans all over the world Jet Harris was the embodiment of everything that made early British rock ‘n’ roll so great. He was talented, he was mean, moody and magnificent but best of all, he played bass guitar with The Shadows.
Musicologists rattle on about the influence of early groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones forgetting that it was the Shadows (along with Lonnie Donegan) that kicked off Britpop. It was the Shadows that promoted the concept of the three guitar plus drummer line-up, it was the Shadows who set every spotty teenager strumming a tennis racket in front of the wardrobe mirror, it was the Shadows who demonstrated that guitars are good.
Jet was born Terence Harris on the 6th July 1939 in Kingsbury, North London and picked up the nickname “Jet” as a sprinter at Dudden Hill Secondary Modern School His first instrument was the clarinet but encouraged by the rocking ragtime piano of Winifred Atwell he took up double bass. In 1958 while playing with Tony Crombie’s Rockets he moved onto a Framus bass guitar and became one of the very first bass guitarists in Britain. Jet played with a number of early British skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll bands including The Vipers and the Most Brothers, and in 1959 he joined Cliff Richard’s backing group, The Drifters. Realising that the name was already being used by a successful American vocal group, Jet suggested a change to the Shadows.
During the early 60’s Jet and the Shadows enjoyed a number of hits both with Cliff and in their own right…“Apache” and “Man of Mystery” in 1960, “F.B.I”, “Frightened City”, “Kontiki” and “The Savage” in 1961 and “Wonderful Land” in 1962. These recordings were all distinguished by catchy tunes, a clean, distinctive guitar sound and a tight rhythm section. It was a sound that could be reproduced – nearly but not quite – by most of the thousands of amateur groups around at the time.
The greatest and most influential of all their hits was “Apache”, described by music writer Jon Savage as “an instrumental of such power and mystery that it remains a cornerstone of British Pop as it was being created.” The band’s producer Norrie Paramour wanted the flip side “Quartermaster’s Store” to be the A side – but when his teenage daughter heard the test pressing she persuaded him to change his mind. Without that young woman British pop music would never have been the same.
The Shadows had something for everyone. There was Bruce, the rhythm guitarist, for those who knew the chords and couldn’t be bothered learning the twiddly bits, there was Hank B Marvin for anyone who wore glasses and loved the red Fender Stratocaster and there was Jet with his dyed blond hair who was cool, enigmatic and vaguely menacing…..and then there was Tony, the drummer, the quiet one at the back. For any teenage guitar twanger the Shads were “It”. They had bright red guitars, buckets of echo, sharp suits and that famous “walk” that everyone tried to copy. Unfortunately they were not it for Jet. Fed up with the confines of life on the road and struggling with a broken marriage he left the band in 1961 and went solo. In 1963 he teamed up with his former Shadows partner Tony Meehan and had 3 chart toppers:- “Diamonds”, “Scarlett O’Hara” and “Applejack”, all played on a recent innovation, the ultra twangy 6 string bass. Their partnership ended in September 1963 when Jet and his companion, the singer Billie Davies, were involved in a car crash. From then on it was mainly downhill for Jet. A heavy drinker and plagued by stage nerves Jet gave up the music industry and scraped a living as a labourer, a bricklayer, a hospital porter and selling cockles on the beach in Jersey. He made a number of come-backs but none were particularly successful. I saw him in the late 1970’s playing with a pick-up band in Isleworth and it was awful. He looked terrible and his playing was erratic. Even his most loyal fan – and I am one of those – would have been pushed to have seen any virtue in it. Eventually after 30 years of heavy drinking Jet faced up to his alcoholism and decided to clean up. In 1989 he teamed up once again with Tony Meehan for a support performance in Cliff Richard’s ‘The Event’ concert at Wembley Stadium. He also started appearing with a Shadows tribute band “The Rapiers”. Although his gaunt good looks had faded somewhat and his bleached blond hair had disappeared the old Jet was back and playing up a storm. Free from the stage discipline of the Shadows he also revealed a sharp, self mocking sense of humour and a pleasing honesty about himself and his troubles. It was good to see him back.
In 1998, he was awarded a Fender Lifetime Achievement Award for his role in popularising the bass guitar in Britain. He was a regular performer at Bruce Welch’s Shadowmania Festival and in 2006 released “San Antonio”, his first single in over 40 years. His only disappointment was not being invited to play with the Shadows on their 50th anniversary appearance at the Royal Variety Show in 2008. Too many years and too many troubling memories prevented that happening. In 2010 he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in the New Years Honour List.
Jet is gone now. All we have left are those confident, thudding bass lines and the memory of a time when we were young and rock ‘n’ roll was new and all you needed for success was a handful of chords, a mean, moody and magnificent look and a bleached blond hair do.
“Jet was exactly what the Shadows and I needed — a backbone holding our sound together… Jet will always be an integral part of British rock ‘n’ roll history. Losing him is sad — but the great memories will stay with me. Rock on, Jet.”
CLIFF RICHARD – 19th March 2011
JET HARRIS AND ‘THE SHADOWS’ IN “THE YOUNG ONES”
— from Martyn Day
Picture credits: The Shadows is from the Telegraph, Jet Harris from the Independent