Steve Harley: The Glam Rocker Behind the Hit 'Make Me Smile'

Published March 20, 2024

At the age of 73, Steve Harley, the lead singer of the British glam-rock band Cockney Rebel, passed away from cancer. Despite what their name might suggest, Harley was neither a true Cockney, originating from London's East End, nor a stereotypical rebel. Nevertheless, he delivered a series of hits that dominated the dance floors during the 1970s, the most iconic being the chart-topping Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) in 1975.

The Rise of Cockney Rebel

Formed in 1973, Cockney Rebel quickly joined the music label EMI after a mere five live performances. Their debut album, The Human Menagerie, featured the orchestral piece Sebastian, which was a hit in several European countries but didn't achieve the same success in the UK until later.

Among their popular tunes, Judy Teen and Mr Soft stood out, hitting No 4 and No 8 on the charts respectively. Mr Raffles (Man, It Was Mean) and (I Believe) Love's a Prima Donna, as well as a Beatles cover, Here Comes the Sun, also found chart success.

Band Turmoil and Solo Success

Despite the band's growing fame, internal strife led to its split in 1974, prompted by Harley's dominant attitude towards his bandmates, who felt reduced to backup musicians. Unfazed, Harley re-formed the band as Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, with the hit Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) as their breakthrough single under the new arrangement. The song, filled with pointed lyrics, became a kind of lyrical revenge against his former band members.

Harley's Persona and Early Life

Proud and confident, Steve Harley didn't shy from controversy or rejected doubts about his self-worth. Born Stephen Malcolm Ronald Nice in Deptford, southeast London, he faced a challenging childhood, suffering from polio which left him with a limp. He nevertheless pursued music passionately, stating that even with a backing track and no live band, audiences would still adore him. Indeed, his stage presence was undeniable.

Having initially pursued a career in accounting and journalism before venturing into music, Harley's pre-stage life was as colorful as his stage persona. A lasting interest in horse racing emerged alongside his musical endeavors, proving to be both exciting and financially rewarding at times.

A Versatile Entertainer

The numerous facets of Steve Harley included fatherhood, a brief acting career, and even a stint as a radio DJ. Over the years, he never fully stepped away from the limelight and was known for his charitable work and candid spiritual beliefs. He leaves behind his wife, Dorothy Crombie, whom he wed in 1981, and their two children.

musician, glam-rock, obituary