WHEN broadcasting legend Bob Harris celebrated 50 years in broadcasting this summer, heartfelt tributes came from some of the biggest names in music.

There aren’t many icons of rock that Bob hasn’t worked, and partied, with. From The Old Grey Whistle Test to Radio 1 and his recent incarnation as a champion of country music, the presenter – whose honeyed tones have earned him the nickname ‘Whispering’ Bob – has hung out with everyone from John Lennon and George Harrison to Marc Bolan and Led Zeppelin.

He was there when Arthur Brown set his hair on fire, sang backing vocals for Bowie, got into a scrape with the Sex Pistols, was spiked with LSD while watching Bob Marley with Alexis Korner, tracked down reclusive Beach Boy Brian Wilson in California and toured America with Queen.

So when he decided to assemble a cast of artists to record a Band Aid-style charity single to help musicians hit by the coronavirus lockdown, the question wasn’t who to include... but who to leave out.

He assembled a wish-list of performers to record a cover of his favourite song – Ben E King’s Stand By Me, with the proceeds going to the organisation Help Musicians.

Banbury Cake:

Bob with Ben E King

The project celebrates his own half-century in broadcasting and marks the 60th anniversary of the recording of the song on October 27, 1960.

“The result of the lockdown is that grass roots musicians have had their income abolished,” says Bob from his studio among the apple trees at his home in Steventon, near Didcot – the base for his suitably named Under the Apple Tree sessions and events platform.

“Their careers have been decimated. They haven’t been able to earn money by playing or get music published – and we were thinking what can we do for them?

“We’ve also got the anniversary of the original recording of Ben E King’s Stand By Me – which is my all-time favourite record – so I thought about creating a new version of the song by musicians I know. And the list we’ve compiled is incredible!”

Banbury Cake:

Mark Knopfler

He is not kidding. Contributors, who performed remotely, as Whispering Bob’s Allstars, include Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Duane Eddy, Rick Wakeman, Leo Sayer, Peter Frampton, Paul Rodgers of Free, Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Keb’Mo’, Darius Rucker of Hootie & the Blowfish, John Oates, Judie Tzuke, Kiki Dee, Laura Cantrell, Mary Gauthier, Mica Paris, Robert Vincent, Steve Cradock of Ocean Colour Scene, The Shires, Kimmie Rhodes, Twinnie, Ward Thomas, Wildwood Kin and many more.

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Each bring their individual charm, style and creative stamp.

The single, mixed by Bob’s son Miles Myerscough-Harris and released on their Under the Apple Tree label is a triumph.

“I am so proud of it,” says Bob, 74, who plays triangle on the single. “It’s a fantastic project.

“It is the crowning achievement of my 50 years in the music industry and on radio, which I still love.

“I’m still playing new music and love the job I’m in.”

Did Bob, who was awarded an OBE in 2011 for services to music broadcasting, ever imagine he’d still be respected as a pioneering broadcaster and taste-maker 50 years in?

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“No! My first contract was six weeks and I was on rolling six month contracts for the first few years. It was when that got extended to a year that I thought ‘I’d really made it.”

He adds: “I’ve been very fortunate to have had access to so many special bands and musicians.”

And who has been his favourite?

“John Lennon,” he says, without hesitation.

Banbury Cake:

Peter Frampton

Bob interviewed John in his adopted home of New York in 1975 for The Old Grey Whistle Test. He found him chatty, candid, open and honest – and famously asked him whether he’d get The Beatles back together. He said if someone pulled it together, he’d “go along”.

John had recorded his own version of Stand By Me the year before.

So what is it about the song that he loves so much?

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“I remember first hearing a great record by The Drifters called There Goes My Baby in 1959,” he recalls. “It was a completely new sound – a mix of orchestra and soul. When he released Stand By Me I bought it at the record shop, took it home and played it. The sound was so warm and caring, the voice so expressive and the strings were beautiful. I loved it on day one and have ever since.”

And he is equally fond of his version. “I just want to jump up and down!” he laughs. “And the whole reason it exists is to help musicians – because their role in society is vital.”

  • Stand By Me by Whispering Bob’s Allstars, is out now on Under the Apple Tree records. Go to slinky.to/standbyme
  • To contribute to the appeal to help musicians, see gofundme.com/StandByMe2020