Harry Corbett was born in Bradford, West Riding of Yorkshire. He had a younger brother, Les, a saxophonist, who he played duets with, and who would sometimes appear on The Sooty Show. Deafness in one ear precluded him from pursuing his musical ambitions to become a concert pianist, although he played the piano in the Guiseley fish and chip restaurant owned by his mother's brother Harry Ramsden. He married Marjorie Hodgson in 1944. They lived in the Dorset village of Child Okeford for most of their married life. Their son David was born in 1947 followed by Peter, known professionally as Matthew Corbett in 1948.
The same year, in order to entertain his children while on holiday in Blackpool, he bought the original yellow bear glove puppet, then called Teddy, in a novelty shop on the end of the resort's North Pier for seven shillings and six pence. His first appearance with the silent Sooty was in a 1952 BBC TV show, Talent Night. He was given a part in Peter Butterworth's TV show Saturday Special. Sooty was such a hit that the BBC offered Corbett six programmes at 12 guineas each. In a 1970 interview, Corbett recalled the conversation he had with his wife Marjorie about his next steps: “Well, lass... what’s it to be?” “Well, lad,” she replied, “it’s now or never. Best take the plunge.” So he did. He threw in his job.
They changed Teddy’s appearance, gave him black ears, and called him Sooty. Sooty soon had his own show which combined music, simple magic tricks with slapstick comedy in which Sooty usually poured liquid over or attacked Corbett. Sooty and Corbett were also regularly featured on the Mickey Mouse Club in the USA in the mid-to-late 1950s. In early 1968, producers at the BBC told Corbett that, while he should remain as puppeteer, an actor should interact with Sooty. Corbett declared this "A horrible American idea". Instead, he moved the show to commercial television.
After he suffered a heart attack at Christmas in 1975, his younger son, Peter (stage name Matthew), took over, buying out his father for £35,000. However he did make occasional appearances on The Sooty Show for several years with his son. In 1988, Corbett was the subject of This Is Your Life, commemorating forty years in the entertainment industry and the debut of Sooty. Harry continued his one-man stage show after he gave up his television appearances, and he died in his sleep on 17 August 1989, after playing to a capacity audience at Weymouth Pavilion in Weymouth, Dorset.