(Sad note: Harry Harrison passed away on Jan. 28, 2020.)
In the early 1960s, Harry Harrison was one of New York radio station WMCA’s Good Guys. Right up until he stepped down from the morning show at WCBS-FM 40 years later, he was also one of radio’s Nice Guys.
While other morning radio hosts increasingly became your wild-and-crazy uncle, Harry Harrison remained calm and steady. He was The Morning Mayor, waking New York as gently as a whiff of fresh-brewed coffee.
For doing that, which isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds, Harrison this week will join the 2019 inductees into the National Radio Hall of Fame.
In a ceremony scheduled for Friday at Manhattan’s Gotham Hall, Harrison’s fellow inductees will include WKTU and syndicated host Sean “Hollywood” Hamilton, talk host Joe Madison, sports talk host Jim Rome, lifestyle host John Tesh, KROQ morning team Kevin and Bean, KIIS morning host Ryan Seacrest and, speaking of more graphic radio content, Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
Mike Francesa of New York’s WFAN will host and Harrison will be inducted by Joe McCoy, program director for most of Harrison’s 23 years at WCBS-FM.
Harrison is expected to attend, though he has had some health issues the last few years. He turned 89 in September.
Perhaps because he never raised his voice on the radio, figuratively or literally, Harrison isn’t always noted when the history of radio’s remarkable late 20th century is recounted.
That’s a shame, because he was in the center of it.
Born in Chicago, he interned at WCFL there in 1953 and 1954. He launched his full-time radio career in 1954 at WPEO in Peoria — yes, that Peoria — where his success five years later catapulted him to New York — yes, that New York — and WMCA.
WMCA was the scrappy underdog in New York radio in the 1960s, the little guy fighting WABC’s Goliath. The battle paid off for listeners, who got some great radio fun out of it — particularly during seismic moments like the arrival of the Beatles in 1964.
As WMCA’s mid-morning host, Harrison featured folksy bits like the “Housewives’ Hall of Fame” between the rock ’n’ roll records.
While rock ’n’ roll may still have been considered wild and dangerous by some of the older generation, Harrison’s style was disarmingly soothing, a throwback to that mythic age when the family would sit around together listening to the radio.
“Every brand new day should be unwrapped like a precious gift,” he would tell his listeners, and he made it sound like just a nice thing to say.
Every holiday season he would recite “May You Always,” a list of good wishes that was deeply sentimental even by the relaxed standards of the holidays.
Some might argue that, to pinch a line from another sentimental song, it was as corny as Kansas in August. Here again, Harry Harrison made it work, and it became such a favorite with his listeners that he recorded it for Amy Records in 1965.
The original song, written by Larry Marks and Dick Charles, had been recorded by the McGuire Sisters several years earlier and became a top-20 hit.
Harrison’s version was an extended rewrite, changing song lyrics into a spoken recitation. It touched enough chords for Harrison’s fans that he brought it along when he moved to the morning show at WABC in 1968, and again when he took his final gig at WCBS-FM in 1980.
For Harrison fans, not hearing “May You Always” would have been as unthinkable as not seeing the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
A highlight reel of Harry Harrison’s radio career would raise no eyebrows and elicit no gasps. It would feature the “familiar,” things with which radio listeners grow comfortable. There would be easy banter, which in later years meant good-humored exchanges with morning team regulars like Mr. G the weatherman or engineer Al Vertucci. It would include the Birthday Book, where listeners were saluted next to the celebrities.
It would include regular mentions of his wife, Pretty Patti, and the yearend broadcasts where the four Harrison children would join Dad on the air with their wishes for the new year.
In between, of course, he did all the music radio deejay things. He was a regular at Good Guys picnics. He met the Beatles. After he left the WCBS-FM morning program in March 2003, he did weekend Beatles shows.
He didn’t criticize colleagues who took morning radio in different directions. They do what they do, he said. I do what I do.
Harry Harrison started his radio career just as some experts were declaring that radio was over, that television would sweep it into the media dustbin.
Radio personalities like Harry Harrison filled the dustbin instead with those doomsday predictions.