He was born in Kensington in London in 1934. His mother Collette Thomas was the first of Rex Harrison’s six wives; they divorced in 1940. Harrison lived with his mother’s parents in Bude, North Cornwall, during World War II. At fifteen his mother took him out of school at Radley to live in the Swiss Alps. Harrison never returned to school and began ski-racing. He joined the Ipswich repertory theatre group and taught himself guitar, but his main interest and most of his spare time was spent skiing. At an early age he was a member of the British ski team, becoming its first giant-slalom champion in 1953, and representing Great Britain at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway, and at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
Harrison undertook National Service and, after leaving the army in the 1950s, toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist, but instead, concentrated on his guitar. His early break came when he took a regular part in the BBC Television programme, Tonight, as part of a team who sang the day’s news in a calypso style. When he was aged 20, he started playing professionally, around the tables in a Greek restaurant in London. He also made a living playing in bars and nightclubs all over Europe, including appearances at the Blue Angel Club, where one show was recorded for a live album.
He left for the United States in 1965, working as a nightclub entertainer at such venues as the Hungry I in San Francisco, and at the Persian Room in New York. Thanks to his managers Bob Chartoff and lrwin Winkler, who went on to produce the Rocky films, Harrison had a record reach the charts. The track was “A Young Girl”, written by Charles Aznavour. In 1966-1967, Harrison appeared as Mark Slate in The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., as the co-star of Stefanie Powers (April Dancer). As Mark Slate, Harrison also appeared once on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in a third-season episode titled “The Galatea Affair”.
“A Young Girl” was included as one of the tracks on his debut album, Noel Harrison, in 1966. Two years later, he recorded “The Windmills of Your Mind”, the theme tune from the film The Thomas Crown Affair, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1968, and was also a Top 10 hit in the UK Singles Chart. Despite the song winning the 1968 Oscar for best original song, Harrison did not sing it at the Oscar ceremony. Instead his place was taken by Jose Feliciano. The change was made because Harrison was working on the film, Take A Girl Like You in England, with Oliver Reed and Hayley Mills. Coincidentally, his father Rex Harrison had sung the Oscar winning song (“Talk to the Animals”) only the previous year (1967).
The television series, plus the Top 40 record, landed Harrison a recording contract with Reprise, who released three of his albums, Collage, Santa Monica Pier and The Great Electric Experiment Is Over. Collage reached #135 in the United States Billboard 200 chart. He also toured with the Beach Boys, and Sonny and Cher, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, featured on a music program, Hullabaloo and appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. In 1968, Harrison played the male lead in The Fantasticks, in touring theatres in the round, including The Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis, Massachusetts.
In 1972, Harrison left the United States for Nova Scotia in Canada, settling in rural Mount Hanley. He bought a farmhouse with 320 acres of farmland, and from there he commuted to Halifax where he hosted a show called Take Time for CBC Television. In the winter of 1974, the wood stove caught fire and his house burned down, inspiring Harrison to write the humorous song, “The Middleton Fire Brigade”, which appeared on his 1979 album Mount Hanley Song. He subsequently built a new house from scratch with no electricity, inspired by the fashionable pioneers Helen and Scott Nearing and their self-help bible, Living The Good Life.
During the 1970s, Harrison toured the United States in productions of Camelot and The Sound of Music. He also played Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, the part first performed by his father Rex Harrison, in the musical’s original stage production and film version. Other touring roles included King Arthur in Camelot, Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, Brian Runicles in No Sex Please, We’re British and Lloyd Dallas in Noises Off. An admirer of Jacques Brel, Harrison later created a one-man musical, Adieu, Jacques, and in 2002 released an album of songs from the show.
In the late 1990s, Harrison returned to Britain, moving to Devon. He continued to sing, putting on occasional performances and financing his own albums including Hold Back Time. A compilation album of his work for Reprise called Life Is a Dream was released in 2003, and his debut album, Noel Harrison, was re-released in 2008. In 2010, he recorded a new album, From the Sublime to the Ridiculous!. The record was made as part of the Internet event, the RPM Challenge, which challenged musicians to record a new album from scratch during the month of February. In June 2011, Harrison played Glastonbury Festival’s “Spirit of ’71” stage, marking 40 years since his appearance at the second staging of the then new festival. Television footage was recorded, including a solo backstage acoustic version of “The Windmills of Your Mind” for the BBC. Harrison died in a hospital following a heart attack at his home in Devon, England, several hours after he had performed on the evening of 19 October 2013.
- January, 29, 1934
- Kensington, London, England
- October, 19, 2013
- Exeter, England