Chapter Seven – 1981-84 (The Melbourne Years)
Within days of the sudden closure of ELVIS – The Musical, fortune smiled on me in the form of a phone call from Wal Bishop, manager to Johnny Chester (Chess as he is known to all around him). When I had declined their previous offer to join their show they had hired an excellent guitarist named Graham Davidge. He had been the original lead guitarist for Little River Band back in 1975. Now, after just a few months with the Johnny Chester show, Graham had moved on to join the band Goanna and the following year you could hear his high guitar lines on their huge hit Solid Rock. Wal called to ask if I was available yet and would I consider replacing Graham and making the move to Melbourne? They would fly me down the next day to meet the band and see how I would fit in with their musical style. So it was that on Wednesday 20th March 1981, straight after an in-studio appearance at 5am (!) on Barbara Morison’s radio show on 2SER-FM, I caught the morning flight to Melbourne. Chess himself wasn’t in town as he was busy in Nashville securing a producer for his forthcoming album. So, I played just a handful of songs with Johnny’s group Hotspur, before bandleader Marshall Parker declared I was just what they were looking for. I caught the afternoon plane back to Sydney, played three gigs that weekend, bade a sad farewell to Laurel Lee, apologising for my sudden departure, then loaded my car and set off to Victoria.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind and I had arranged to stay in the basement rumpus room of Wal and his lovely wife Rosemary until I could find my own place. Finding the time to actually go flat-hunting was the problem. In one day alone the band started at the Aerolyte flight-case factory for instrument fittings, then on to the Tres-Bon fashion house for stretch-jeans fittings (the latest thing), then on to the Quarterback factory for our sponsored shirts. At 2.30 in the afternoon we were at the renowned Allan Eaton Studios to record the audio for our television commercial for the upcoming tour and finally at 6.30pm we began a long evening at Chelsea Studios filming the visuals for the ad. In the coming days there were rehearsals, photo shoots and finally shows at the weekends and all weekdays in the studio recording the new album. Johnny Chester was reaching a second peak in his musical career. The first had been in the sixties as a rock and roller, including appearing as one of the support acts for The Beatles tour of Australia in 1964. Now he had re-established himself as a country singer/songwriter and in January 1981 he was named Male Vocalist of the Year at the Golden Guitar Awards in Tamworth. He would hold that title for three consecutive years. My first outing with the show would be at the Buchan Recreation Reserve in East Gippsland. The concerts always began with a set from Donna Fisk who had been their opening act for a year at this point. To say she was surprised and delighted to find that I was the new guitarist would be an understatement! The following day we were all on the 9am Ansett flight to Sydney, a drive out to the Australiana Pioneer Village in Wilberforce for a 3pm show and then back to Melbourne on the 8pm flight. The next day we started the album at Allan Eaton Studios and the first week the sessions were booked for 8, 10, 12 and 13 hours on successive days! While that might seem like a grueling schedule, it would be one of the most enduring educations I would ever enjoy.
The trend for Australian country music artists that was gaining a hold, was for them to visit Nashville, Tennessee and record with the American musicians in their studios. Johnny Chester admirably wanted to use his own band and so he struck a deal with U.S. record producer Brien Fisher to bring him to Australia and produce the album on our home turf. Among Brien’s best-known productions is Heaven’s Just a Sin Away by The Kendalls which was named the CMA Single of the Year in 1978 and won them a Grammy Award. That year he also produced Joe Sun singing the original hit version of Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You. Brien had a quiet Southern nature as he sat behind the mixing the desk often peeling a turnip with a pocket knife and eating it raw, just as we would an apple. In those first four days we put down the rhythm section tracks for 13 songs. After the weekend gigs were done, the following week was for instrumental overdubs which the band took in turns. If it wasn’t your time to be behind the microphone, there was always the cocktail-table format Space Invaders and Defender arcade games in the green room. A lot of twenty-cent pieces were deposited in those machines during the making of the album. Chess had a brand new top-of-the-line Messiah model Maton acoustic guitar and that was what I played in the sessions, along with my electric Fender Telecaster and mandolin. Robin Gray and Mike Wilson were the excellent and patient engineers for the studio. In that short time I learnt so much from Brien’s approach to recording music, that to this day, I never sit in front of a studio microphone without thinking of the methods I picked up from him. Once the album was in the can, we then put down a track for Terri Heart who was also visiting from Nashville, and a single for Donna Fisk. Terri’s recording of Dark Side Of The Moon became the A -side of her debut single and was reviewed in Billboard magazine, who made reference to the Australian influence and to my lead guitar. It later appeared on her album Straight To The Heart. Donna’s A-side was a remake of Little Things Mean A Lot in the style of Crystal Gayle, with myself on acoustic rhythm and Graham Davidge on nylon string lead, while the flip My Heart’s Not Broken was written by Chess and features my twin harmony electric lead guitar playing. Eventually Brien would take the multi-track tapes of the album back to Nashville where he added cameo overdubs by Terri, Margie & Marcy Cates, Curtis Young, Todd Cerney, Gregg Galbraith and Randy Scruggs. Before they left, Brien and Terri gave everyone in the band a state-of-the-art Toshiba ‘walkman’ that had an FM radio which slotted in to the unit in the same place as a cassette would go. Brien also had a tape with only side one of Albert Lee’s first solo LP Hiding. I made a copy and nearly wore it out on the subsequent weeks on the road. It was years before I ever got to hear side two!