Giving Voice to Harry Potter

Jim Dale, the voice of the Harry Potter audiobooks, reads to fans at Politics and Prose in Washington.
Jim Dale, the voice of the Harry Potter audiobooks, reads to fans at Politics and Prose in Washington. (By Tetona Dunlap -- The Washington Post)
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 11, 2005

The best-loved storyteller in America, a rail-thin man now on his third or fifth or eighth incarnation, is sitting in the back of a Lincoln Town Car Executive Series, tooling around the empty August streets of the nation's capital.

Jim Dale is 69, he's a Brit and he's a sensation. Again. A phenomenon. Again. And, to the public, as invisible as this sleekly polished vehicle purring through an afternoon thunderstorm.

He's the narrator, and portrays every single voice in a 200-plus-member cast, in the audiobooks of author J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series. More than 5 million copies sold. Parents and kids have snapped up 350,000 audiobooks of the sixth installment, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," in four weeks -- at a list price of $75 for the 17-CD set. Yesterday he had six recordings in the Top 13 audiobooks on Amazon. He is to audiobooks what Secretariat was to the Belmont -- 31 lengths out front, blazing away into history, the rest of the field scarcely in the homestretch.

He is talking in the car, black-and-gray hair a shade over the collar, a trace of the rock-and-roll singer he was 40 years ago, and is good-natured about his secondary role in the Potter phenomenon.

"I don't think for a minute that me going around the country doing readings is going to possibly promote the book more than the children already are," he says. "I mean, it's the book, isn't it? Children don't come to hear Jim Dale. They come to hear Harry Potter."

Perhaps, yes. But fame -- so very different from talent -- has always flirted with him this way. He started out a comical lad in the dreary Midlands of England. Song, dance, bit of a joke, got to do it all if you're going to be onstage, luvvie.

And here he is, six decades on, invisible even on Park Avenue in Manhattan, where he lives. At NPR in Washington, his face is so little known that when a producer comes into the station's greenroom, he hesitates.

"Jim Dale?" he says, scanning the room, eyebrows raised.

Of course, Dale is only a visitor to the land of Potter.

"I record the books in 14 days, do a few readings and go back to my life," he says. And: "I wouldn't call it part of my day-to-day doings."

His day-to-day, since he pulled out of a dreariness of a burg called Rothwell in 1952, has been acting, comedy, theater.

At 22, he was a British rock star. He was the first pop artist for a manager named George Martin, who would do something with a group called the Beatles. Dale had a hit called "Be My Girl," had kids run screaming up to his car, pounding on the window. (Years later, he would find a copy of the single at a used-record bin being sold for 6 cents.)

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