Richard Harris in one of his many Nehru style jackets he designed himself (1968)

Blame TCM for recently showing Lindsay Anderson’s brilliant This Sporting Life (1963), blame the wonderful Colin for sending me a copy of Richard Harris’s 1968 album A Tramp Shining as an early Christmas gift and last but not least, blame The Simpsons for parodying one of my favorite musical numbers from Camelot (1967) in a recent episode that I just watched. All these factors have somehow combined to put the incredible Richard Harris in the forefront of my thoughts lately.

I first became aware of Richard Harris when I was a very young thing. My parents had a copy of the Camelot film soundtrack and the original Broadway recording, and both of them got a lot of play in our home. I can distinctly remember my father loudly singing all of Richard Harris’ songs from the film while he was in the shower.

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot,
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.

As the years wore on I became enamored with Richard Harris, as well as that rowdy bunch of womanizing British & Irish actors who drank too much and had egos as big as their booming voices. Along with Richard Harris, I can never get enough of Richard Burton, Oliver Reed, Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole. They’re all personal favorites and I’ll watch them in anything.

With that pronouncement out of the way, you may be asking yourself, besides Richard Harris, what do This Sporting Life, A Tramp Shining and Camelot all have in common? Well, they all feature Richard Harris singing of course!

I was surprised while watching This Sporting Life recently to see Richard Harris take the stage at a pub and belt out a somewhat forgettable song called Here In My Heart. I love the film and I had first seen it many years ago, but I didn’t remember Harris singing in the movie. It’s one of his earliest and best films and his performance in it made him a star, but his singing voice seems rather underdeveloped in 1963. Even though Here In My Heart is a rather traditional tune, it was released as a single in 1963 and was the first song Richard Harris ever recorded. It had previously been a hit for Al Martino in 1952, but I haven’t been able to track down any information about how Harris’ version of Here in My Heart was received by the record buying public.

Harris was never a great singer but he was a great orator, and there is an obvious improvement in his voice when you compare his singing in This Sporting Life to his singing in Camelot four years later. Harris got the part of King Arthur in Joshua Logan’s version of Camelot after Richard Burton (who had been in the stage version) turned it down. In Camelot Harris gets to perform a few songs, including the impressive opening and ending themes. The film and the soundtrack were very popular with listeners in 1967 (including my parents!), and the film went on to win an Oscar for Best Music Score. Camelot is one of my favorite musicals and with a terrific cast that also includes fabulous sixties stars like Franco Nero, Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings, what’s not to like?

The popularity of Camelot led Richard Harris to record the pop album A Tramp Shining in 1968, which contained the hit song MacArthur Park. The song has become the butt of a few jokes over the years and is often parodied, but I think it’s amazing for it’s length, memorable lyrics and bombastic tone. Listening to it today might make you wonder how in the world it ever became a hit, but I think it’s a really remarkable tune.

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down…
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
’cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again
Oh, no!

Richard Harris’ album A Tramp Shining was written, arranged and produced by the American songwriter Jimmy Webb. Webb is best known for writing hit songs like Up, Up, and Away for The Fifth Dimension and By The Time I Get To Phoenix for Glenn Campbell, but the hit single MacArthur Park that he wrote for Richard Harris may be his most ambitious effort. MacArthur Park was #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1968 and A Tramp Shining was nominated for Album Of The Year. Richard Harris was also nominated for Contemporary Pop Male Vocalist of The Year in 1968 for MacArthur Park.

After the success of his album A Tramp Shining, Harris would go on to record 10 more records, but he never really had the same success with his musical efforts that he achieved in the sixties. Listening to the record now, it’s impossible to not be reminded of the Camelot soundtrack since they share a similar musical style at times. MacArthur Park is undoubtedly the best song on the album, but I also like the sweet and short Dancing Girl and the epic unconventional composition The Yard Went on Forever, which rivals MacArthur Park in length. I’m sure my rather sentimental opinion of Richard Harris colors my view of A Tramp Shining, but the record is just plain fun to listen to.

There’s no video on YouTube featuring Harris actually singing MacArthur Park, but I did come across this video featuring Richard Harris’ hit song:

Newly added (1/2008) – another video detailing the recording and performance of the song from a British program called the “50 Greatest One Hit Wonders.”