Known to generations of music lovers as Whispering Bob Harris, the DJ tells Tim Hughes it is time to speak up about his life

Bob Harris describes himself, modestly, as a presenter. But he is so much more than that.

Since the late 1960s, he has been at the heart of music – not just rubbing shoulders with, but partying with the likes of John Lennon, George Harrison, David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Led Zeppelin.

As the face – and voice – of The Old Grey Whistle Test, he pioneered serious music broadcasting in the 1970s. He is now the darling of Nashville, helping to introduce a new generation of country music to the British and turning into the phenomenon it has become.

He would blush at the phrase national treasure, but rarely has an epithet been more deserving.

The extent of his contribution to music is recounted in lurid detail in a new autobiography called, appropriately, Still Whispering After All These Years.

In it, Bob talks of his early days in broadcasting, his hair-raising exploits with the likes of Arthur Brown (who set fire to his own hair while performing Fire as Bob watched), singing backing vocals for Bowie, getting spiked with LSD while watching Bob Marley with Alexis Korner, seeking out elusive Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson in California and touring America with Queen.

“I’ve had a great life,” he says in his home studio in Steventon, from where he and his wife Trudie run their own independent radio and TV production company, WBBC.

“I consider myself very lucky. We are blessed by being right in the middle of an unbelievable world of musicians. I’m as enthusiastic as ever. I was 69 last month and you’d think, by now, that some of it would have worn off. But no.”

It is not all rosy though. While happy now, things have not always gone Bob’s way. He has gone bankrupt twice, been married three times, fought a nasty spat with fellow Radio 1 DJ Bruno Brookes (from whom Bob borrowed money to buy a flat from - only to see its value fall, leaving him the trap of negative equity), and was sacked from Radio 1 in controller Matthew Bannister’s “dinosaur” cull, in a shallow attempt to make the station appear more hip.

He has also wrestled with cancer, legionnaire’s disease and the violent extremes of punk; including an aggressive showdown with the Sex Pistols.

It all makes for an exhilarating rollercoaster of a story. For Bob, who was awarded an OBE in 2011 for services to music broadcasting, it’s the completion of a project which has occupied him for years.

“Over 45 years in the industry, you are going to have lots of ups and downs," he says. "You don’t expect the trajectory to be constantly upwards. It doesn’t work that way. But I am very resilient, and have managed to get myself through those moments."

The book, he admits, is something of a cumulative effort. A first edition was published two days after 9/11 (he had been interviewing singer-songwriter Yusuf Islam – the artist formally known as Cat Stevens – on the morning of the attacks). Edited down and brought up-to-date, it now charts Bob’s rise as a champion of country music, as much at home in Nashville as Steventon.

“I wrote it in two instalments,” he says. “I had to edit back the first edition to make space and started writing at Cynthia Lennon’s home in Mallorca and then here in Steventon, writing every day.

“I only stopped because I had to stop somewhere.”

As rich as his stories appear, with their heady mix of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, he admits he was only able to scratch the surface on a life lived to the full; glossing over or omitting private family moments.

“So many friends and people have played such an important role in my life, but aren’t mentioned” he says, in the distinctive honeyed tone which earned him his nickname.

The Rolling Stones, Blondie, Alice Cooper, the Bee Gees, Bill Haley, the Everley Brothers, Duane Eddy, Van Morrison, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Robert Plant, Taylor Swift… from anyone else the list of anecdotes would sound like shameless namedropping. From Bob, they are all part of the job.

So, who was the most impressive character? “Well, John Lennon is an obvious one,” he says.

The Oxford Times:

“But more recently it’s the new generation of artists in Nashville. The biggest thing that’s happened in my life since the completion of the first edition is what has happened with the country music world in Nashville. I have spent so many weeks there and forged so many great friendships. I love the Nashville community to pieces.

“The country community is so open-hearted and warm and I write about some of those people in the book. One of the most beautiful is Beth Nielson Chapman.”

He goes on: “It’s so exciting. Nashville has opened up an entirely new world of friendships and artists, and as much as I love the Nashville community, they have embraced me - and to be embraced by that community is very special.”

Bob still presents Bob Harris Country on BBC Radio 2, as well as his more eclectic Bob Harris Sunday show, showcasing new Americana, blues, new-folk and indie-rock.

“Being allowed a country show on Radio 2 took everyone by surprise,” he laughs. “But The Old Gray Whistle Test were great pioneers of country-rock. I’ve always been in the Gram Parsons camp. Same with The Eagles. I didn’t realise some of the artists we were playing were country - or at least playing the roots of country - but it later made perfect sense.”

On Saturday, Bob will share book anecdotes with an audience at The Theatre, Chipping Norton, in conversation with Ian Willox.

“We are going to sit and talk about the book but I hope the conversation will be wider than just the book and give me an opportunity to explain some of the things which are alluded to in its pages. Hopefully it will be a very enjoyable night.”

He will do the same at Blackwell’s in Oxford, on May 26, talking with friend and fellow broadcaster David Freeman, with whom he worked at BBC Radio Oxford.

The story of their threatened sacking from the station features in the book – as does the campaign by the Oxford Mail, to keep him on air with a drive to Save Bob Harris.

“It was so funny,” he recalls. “The Oxford Mail was definitely on my side. And I still keep finding those letters!”

A more lurid moment in the book recounts that encounter with the Sex Pistols in a London nightclub. It paints a particularly vile picture of punk and the thuggish elements which attached themselves to the scene.

It’s a time that still haunts Bob. “I was questioning what I was doing in the midst of all that,” he says. "I do see music as a unifying force – and what is there not to like about music? One encouraging thing about this present generation is that genres have become much less defined.

“There are just tracks you like, or don’t like – it doesn’t matter if it’s r’n’b, country… or hillbilly!”

A loyal family man, Bob is full of praise for Trudie, and their videographer son Miles, who both join him in running WBBC. “I am so proud of us all,” he says. “Without trying to blow our own trumpet, we are an unbelievable creative force.

"We are a formidable hub.”

Whispering Bob in Conversation
The Theatre, Chipping Norton
Saturday
Tickets £8
See chippingnortontheatre.co.uk