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Cockney Rebel frontman Steve Harley went from cub reporter to rock star

Make Me Smile singer and Cockney Rebel frontman Steve Harley has died at home with his family around him at the age of 73.

The 70s rock star, who was born in Deptford, south London on February 27 1951, became famous for the band’s hit Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) but his work-life began in a newspaper office as an accountant.

As a child, Harley spent almost four years in hospital between the ages of three and 16 and underwent major surgery in 1963 and 1966.

At Christmas 1964, the Rolling Stones made a visit to the Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children in Carshalton Beeches where he was being treated but he was to reminisce that most of the children were “interested in joking about the huge poster of The Beatles pinned to a wall”.

Music – Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel – Heathrow Airport – London – 1975
Steve Harley (centre) and Cockney Rebel, currently top of the best selling pop charts with Make Me Smile, at London’s Heathrow airport on their arrival from the US and two-week tour of one-night stands (PA)

Harley was given his first guitar as a Christmas present from his parents when he was 10 and also took lessons for the classical violin which he played in his school orchestra however he later admitted he was a “hopeless” reader of music so “must have been bluffing a lot of the time”.

His first full-time job was as a trainee accountant at the Daily Express in 1968 having left school without any A-levels.

He then followed his ambition to be a reporter and trained with the Essex County Newspapers in Colchester before working at various local newspapers before moving to the East London Advertiser where he stayed until 1972 until he gave up the job, leaving his desk to be taken by TV presenter Richard Madeley.

Paying tribute to Harley, following his death, Paul Henderson, former editor of the Sunday Mirror, said: “I am stunned by the death of my lovely friend Steve Harley.

“He was a great musician and singer and in many ways more importantly a deep thinking, compassionate man who wanted the best for his family and friends.

“That’s way he wrote and sung such wonderful songs.

“My dearest memories are of Steve walking into the tiny East London Advertiser newsroom on Mile End Road, where we were cub reporters in the early 70s, with his guitar slung over his shoulder.

“Then, he’d play a few tunes and we would have a good laugh.

“He gave up journalism and became a busker on the London Underground while trying to make his way in the world of rock music.

“Steve, you were always going to surprise us all and made your dreams come true despite your childhood polio which I never once heard you complain about.

“Your live music and beautiful smile will be deeply missed.”

Harley began his showbiz career “floor-spotting”, singing for free as a member of the audience, in London folk clubs in 1971/72 before later joining folk band Odin where he met Cockney Rebel’s first violinist John Crocker.

He then went on to form the band as a vehicle for his own work which was more rock orientated and which was signed for EMI for a three-album deal in 1972.

The single Sebastian, from The Human Menagerie album, became a Europe-wide hit reaching number one in the Netherlands and Belgium but it was Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) which gave Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel lasting fame when it reached number one in the UK and several other European countries.

The Performing Rights Society has confirmed that the hit is one of the most played records in British broadcasting and it has been covered more than 100 times and was featured in the movies The Full Monty, Velvet Goldmine and Saving Grace.

Harley put his rock career on hold during the 1980s as his two children grew up however he still ventured on stage for the title role of the musical-drama Marlowe which ran in London and off-Broadway.

He also continued writing lyrics for several other artists, including friend Rod Stewart who called him “one of the finest lyricists the UK has ever produced”.

However, he missed out on the chance of playing the phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom Of The Opera despite him having made the original recording of the title song with co-star Sarah Brightman in 1986.

The role was given to Michael Crawford despite Harley having been contracted to play the part and the case was settled in the courts.

In 2007, Harley, who was a keen racehorse owner, raised £100,000 for the Mines Advisory Group by completing a charity cycle ride across Death Valley in California with the money going to help train mine clearers in Cambodia.

But in 2014, Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson stepped in to encourage the show’s viewers to download Make Me Smile to raise money for Harley who had been fined £1,000 after being caught driving at 70mph on the M25 in Kent in an area where the limit had been temporarily reduced to 40mph.

As a result the song re-entered the iTunes top 30.

Clarkson said on the show: “He’s eke-ing a meagre living out of, let’s be honest, one hit single.

“Everybody loves that song – you can’t trust someone who doesn’t like that song.”

Harley was touring until late 2023 but had to cancel dates in November and December as he underwent treatment for what he called a “nasty cancer”.

A statement from his wife, Dorothy, and children, Kerr and Greta, released on Sunday said that he had “passed away peacefully at home, with his family by his side” and he would be “desperately missed by people all over the world”.