Chapter Six – The Early Eighties
1980 would prove to be an interesting year, full of new associations, and my busiest yet with over 248 gigs listed in my diary! It began with a few shows in Wollongong and then my first trip (as a musician) to the Tamworth Country Music Festival. During the previous year, when I wasn’t on the road, I would guest quite regularly with one of the best country bands in Sydney – Kevin King’s Country Sounds. Five years earlier I had marvelled at the band when they were resident at the Crystal Palace Hotel in George Street. Now they had moved just around the corner to the Government Transport Club in Regent Street and as before, their gigs were a regular gathering place for many of Sydney’s country music players and singers. Playing alongside steel guitar maestro Kenny Kitching proved to be a tremendous learning experience for me. We also played regularly at Moss Vale Services Club in the Southern Highlands, where the band’s female singer, the fabulous Jan Kelly, would assume the lead role. Now we were all in Tamworth and I was ready to do some serious picking! Driving in to town and tuning my radio to 2TM, I had the greatest thrill of hearing John Minson (Mr Hoedown himself) playing a track from my first E.P. on the air. First stop was the Town Hall where Jan was appearing on the CCMA Jamboree Spectacular. The next day it was Kenny’s turn at the 4th Annual Steel Convention and the band joined him Antonio’s Restaurant on 27th January 1980.
You can’t see him in this photo, but Tommy Emmanuel was there, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of us (no pressure!) enthralled by Kenny’s playing. He followed us, duetting with Pee Wee Clark, playing songs from their new LP Tommy Emmanuel, Pee Wee Clark and Friends – From Out Of Nowhere (which was recorded Direct-To-Disc – no retakes!). Later that day Country Sounds would all be at West Tamworth League Club backing Jan Kelly on the CCMA Showtime. The next day I went to visit Tamworth’s famed Hadley Recording Studios who were having an Open House and where owner Eric Scott showed me not only the recording gear, but also ‘Big Red’, a genuine London double-decker bus that he owned. During the visit I found myself playing guitar for hillbilly stars Buddy Bishop, Shorty Ranger, Dusty Rankin and Jean Stafford. I had two tracks nominated in the 8th Australasian Country Music Awards (Best New Talent and Best Instrumental – Blues Eyes Crying In The Rain was voted as a “Judges’ Selection”) and although I didn’t win a trophy, the festival was a blast.
After that it was back to Sydney for more shows and then a 16-day tour of New South Wales with the Emma Hannah/Roger Thwaites Country Revue with adagio dancers The Marzels as support act. Roger had been impressed when I’d played some ‘outlaw’ style guitar behind him on the Reg Lindsay television show the previous year and he had been hiring me for one-off shows and some jingle sessions. I also had the pleasure of accompanying the wonderful Emma Hannah as her Musical Director for one solo show. A short while after this tour, I would direct the music for Roger’s next LP, Bound For Glory at Soundlab Studios. We would use many of what had now become a regular crew of musicians and singers, joined on this occasion by Darryl Lawson on banjo (from Roger’s band), Jim Manalis on keyboards (from Roy’s band) and the legendary Herbie Marks on accordion, piano and virginals ottavini!
Back in those days, The Musicians’ Union of Australia still had some influence, so when all The Osmonds (including Donny and Marie) came to Australia in June 1980 along with their own band, the support act was required to employ the same number of Australian musicians. Roy Cooper, from one of Australia’s top showbands, Roy Cooper & Custer’s Last Stand was engaged for four nights (eight shows) at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre. In order to match the number of visiting performers and musicians, Roy augmented his show with a horn section, a percussionist, three back-up singers (The Moir Sisters) and myself on acoustic guitar. It was the largest live band I had worked with at that time and it was a fabulous experience. I had previously sat in the Capitol Theatre and watched Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs and (more than once) the rock-musical Jesus Christ Superstar, so it was also a thrill to tread those boards, even though the building had seen better days. Remodelled as an ‘atmospheric theatre’ in 1928, the formerly spectacular playhouse was being considered for demolition by the Sydney City Council. Later in 1981, a Heritage Council conservation order saved it from a fate that would sadly befall other Sydney theatres such as The Regent and Her Majesty’s. Happily the restored Capitol is now a thriving concern.
Meanwhile, back at Roy Cooper’s Soundlab Studios, I worked on sessions for Vic Price, Claude Woodbridge and production also continued for Selection Records including a long-awaited album for Dusty Rankin entitled Sunset Valley Calling.
Always controversial, Label owner Eric Watson wrote at the time that I had “…given it a nice tight sound without changing the unique Dusty Rankin sound.” Years later he would tell me it was a mistake to have not have had Dusty play his signature dobro guitar and sales suffered as a result! It seemed a ‘progressive’ thing to do at the time, but in hindsight it was too early to try to alter the sound of the ‘bush ballad’ genre. After all, even Slim Dusty didn’t achieve any noticeable degree of ‘modernity’ until late in his recording career.
Gigs continued to be plentiful and I was working often with Lucky Starr, following on from Mick Hamilton’s recommendation. Lucky was a household name in Australia, having been a regular on music and variety TV shows Bandstand and Six O’Clock Rock. In 1962 he had the original hit recording of I’ve Been Everywhere (written by Geoff ‘Tangletongue’ Mack) and Lucky was a seasoned stage veteran, having appeared everywhere (as the song would imply) including Vietnam and Las Vegas. When I travelled with him, it would just be the two of us (he played acoustic guitar and I played electric) and we would use the local/resident bass player and drummer wherever he appeared. Only the first handful of songs would be planned in his show, leading up to his hit record. From that point on, the rest of the show would simply be requests from the audience, which could be a lot of fun. If he got stumped, which was very rare, and I knew the request, he would pass the song over for me to sing.
By April, I was also working with Laurel Lee (thank you again, Mick Hamilton). Laurel (the original spelling of her surname was Lea) was another regular from Bandstand, Six O’Clock Rock and Saturday Date. She had also toured with countless rock and roll shows and she was one of the most genuine and down-to-earth people I would ever meet. Each gig would vary as we used the resident band that was supplied at each venue (which in those days often included a horn section), and I would lead them through the written arrangements of her show. At that time Laurel was leaning towards a country-rock sound and covers of Linda Ronstadt songs and the like, would feature in her performances.
Lucky would usually get in early and book his dates with me, closely followed by Laurel (they shared the same agent which helped) and this agreement worked well. Now and again they would join forces with others stars of the era and perform as the Stars of Bandstand, which was always a treat.
I returned to Tamworth in July to appear on the live radio show of Country Muster which Radio Station 2TM broadcast from ‘The Barn’ at the Workman’s Club. Also on the show were Johnny Heap, Auriel Andrews and Ellen Mitchell & Ed Riley. I performed three numbers and was interviewed by John Minson.
Later in the year I received a call from pianist Peter Warham who was putting a band together for an upcoming tour by Diana Trask and he was asking if I was interested. Peter was unaware that I had played on a 45rpm single for Diana in 1976, so that was just a happy coincidence. The tour began on August 26 in Warrnambool in Victoria and ended on November 15 in Sydney by which time we had performed 69 shows! Diana and her husband Thom Ewen were marvellous to travel with and had a relaxed manner with the band, yet could show a fierce professionalism if there were any problems with venues or promoters. They bought us all matching tracksuits for the cold weather and custom-made sweatshirts with a garbage can design that was a joke on the fact that Diana had been introduced onstage as Diana Trash once to often!
For the Sydney shows we were also joined by Dez Anthony on steel guitar. Dez had a day job with a company that made brass piping so he couldn’t travel with us, but he made a great addition to the band when he was there. He also brought me two pieces of brass tube which he had cut and polished into the right size for slide guitar. I experimented with the two different weights until one day I found the smaller tube could fit inside the larger one and that configuration suited me down to the ground. I’m still using that slide to this very day! Highlights of the tour included five days (six shows) at Twin Towns Services Club in Tweed Heads, six nights at Top Of The State in Brisbane (then Queensland’s only revolving restaurant on the 24th level of the SGIO building) and on the second last day, November 14, an outside broadcast for BTQ7 for their Carols By Moonlight program, live from King George’s Square in Brisbane. Support acts for the tour included The Hawking Brothers in Victoria, Mario D’Andrea at Twin Towns, comedians Lester & Smart in NSW, plus a two-night double-bill at the Central Coast Leagues Club with Johnny Chester & Hotspur. Memorable moments included a show at Tenterfield Golf Club, the only venue of the tour where Peter Warham didn’t have a grand piano to play. Their old upright piano was a bit dodgy, but we tuned our guitars to it anyway and hoped for the best. It turned out to be an unseasonably hot October night and as we sweated on stage, the low notes on the piano seemed to drift further away and out of tune with the high notes!
For the first show I was given instructions from Thom for when Diana would sing the Vicki Carr classic With Pen In Hand. I was to stand at one end of the stage and face Diana who be at the opposite end, while there would be a spotlight shining on both of us. “What should I do?” I asked. “Nothing!” came the reply, “…just stand there and play”. I thought I was being set up for some kind of gag, but the opposite was true. As Diana slowly sang the lyrics, a plea from a wife for her husband not to sign their divorce papers, she walked gradually towards me until she was singing the final line with just inches between our faces! At that moment I heard the audience gasp and I knew something was happening that I couldn’t see, but I didn’t know what it was. It turned out that as the circle of spotlight that had followed Diana across the stage met with the circle that I was standing in, they formed a heart on the backdrop behind us. That, coupled with the emotion that she had wrung from the song, brought the house down! When Diana sang a ballad, she often wanted the tempo so slow that the band feared we would come to an involuntary halt, but to this day I’ve never known another singer could draw such feeling and bring a song to such a rousing pinnacle.
Using some of the same crew from the Dusty Rankin sessions, I had recorded my second solo E.P. Cowboy Blues, which contained two originals, one of which, Old-Time Cowboy, Roger Thwaites would cover on his album. My little vinyl disc came out in November, as did an LP I had worked on for the legendary Gordon Parsons (The Old G.P.). Work was also in progress for a compilation album to be released the following year on Selection Records called More Country Cream. For two of the tracks, Eric Watson had joined forces with leading broadcaster Nick Erby who was then running a television from Canberra on CTC7 called Nick Erby’s Country Close Up. I flew to Canberra one morning with Eric, Johnny Heap and Ellen Lee Osterfield and went straight to the television studio. There I directed a band of local musicians, including Mike Hayes on banjo, as they filmed one song each for Johnny and Ellen. Later that day, we left with the audio tapes to be included on More Country Cream and two live video clips in the can for Nick’s TV show. Eric had licensed Old-Time Cowboy from me for the compilation (despite the fact that he didn’t like my American pronunciation of ‘record’ as ‘reck-erd’ in the lyric) and later he asked me to also record an instrumental version of a classic hillbilly tune. I recorded two Buddy Williams tunes and Eric chose The Bushman’s Rodeo to include on the L.P. record. I had become fascinated by the pedal-steel guitar and purchased a Sho-Bud ‘Maverick’ student model. Kenny Kitching has fine-tuned the workings for me and I played a solo on my own E.P. and also on a session for Desree-Ilona Crawford alongside two very young bluegrass players, the McCormack Brothers (Rod and Jeff). Later I would play on Desree’s The Cowgirl & The Spaceship LP though my steel playing days were short-lived, but not my enjoyment of the instrument in the hands of masters.
The day after the Diana Trask tour ended I was back on stage in Sydney with Laurel and then down to Victoria for five shows with Lucky and then back to Tweed Heads for another five nights. That’s how it was for me back then, always on the go. As I mentioned, Lucky used to book me well in advance for shows, but while he gave me the dates, I wouldn’t get the full details until the time came nearer. This usually worked OK, but on the 5th December 1980 there were a few slight hiccups and the day would prove memorable for several reasons. Lucky had decided to drive to his show in Melbourne so that his wife could visit her family in Shepparton on the way. He gave me my flight details and said someone would meet me at the airport and everything would be taken care of when I got there. Armed with this scant information I boarded the Ansett flight to Melbourne. On arrival I learnt first that my guitar hadn’t made the plane and also there was no-one there to meet me. Those dramas were resolved when thirty minutes later my escort arrived and an hour later, on the next flight, my trusty Telecaster appeared. I was driven to a motel somewhere near Brighton and checked in to my room. While awaiting further instructions, I took a nap. I was awoken by banging on my door, which turned out to be a man trying to give me the keys to a hire car which I insisted I hadn’t ordered. Just then the phone rang and it was Lucky asking where I was, because soundcheck was starting. I explained no-one had even told me where the show was taking place and as he gave me address I motioned to the guy at the door that I would take those car keys after all.
With the aid of a street directory I found my way to Sandringham Yacht Club where we were doing an early show for the Comet company. Later we would do a second show at Brighton Town Hall for them and things seemed to have settled down. Our support act was fine young local singer by the name of Donna Fisk who was very impressive. The next day, driving ‘my’ brand-new Holden Commodore V8, I followed Lucky towards the airport until he veered off, waving me on in the direction of Tullamarine. I parked the car and took the keys to the hire car desk where they asked for the paperwork. Explaining that I didn’t have any and that the booking might have been in the name of Starr (or Morrison, Lucky’s real surname) or even Comet did not appease them. “We can’t take the car back without paperwork”, they exclaimed. I replied that the car was in bay 26 and I was getting on the plane so they might as well take the keys as I was off! As far as I knew, that was that, and as far as that trip was concerned it was done. What I didn’t know until much later, was that Donna Fisk was meanwhile remarking to her manager, that if she ever got to choose her own guitarist, it would be that guy who came with Lucky Starr…
Arriving back in Sydney I was back on stage with Laurel within hours, the following weekend in Brisbane with Lucky, and the next with Laurel for two shows on the same day, first at the Aberdeen Chateau in Geelong, and then the West Geelong Town Hall, Victoria. Unfortunately all this was before frequent flyer points came in to being! The year would finish with two Laurel Lee shows: the first was at Wollongong Showground in the early evening backed by John Charter’s band and compered by by Calvin DeGrey and later on in Sydney at Wentworthville Leagues Club where we were backed by the Sounds Quintette and introduced by compere Alan Dale.
The next morning, New Year’s Day 1981, I was due to fly to Albury with Lucky Starr where he was scheduled to perform at the Yackandandah Festival organised by Ray Kernaghan. There was a strike by airline workers, but Lucky had just bought a SAAB 900 Turbo car and decided to give it a run down the highway, even though the Hume Highway was nothing like the smooth motorway it is today. We set off very early and all I remember of the journey is alternately sweating in the mid-summer heat and then freezing every time the air-conditioning came on. We arrived in time for a late afternoon appearance, and as we left the stage a huge rainstorm swept the stage, temporarily halting further proceedings. Ray’s son Lee, who was sixteen at the time, would tell me years later how he remembered being impressed by my guitar playing.
It was back to Victoria on the 18th January when Lucky was on the bill of the grandly named 9th Famed Australian Grand Young Opry, held at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne. The show had a great line-up of visiting and local Melbourne talent (pictured above, the lads from the Stoney Creek band are backing us up), and the afternoon including the presentation of the Across Country FEIP Awards. Back then Across Country was the glossy national country music magazine that emanated from Melbourne and FEIP stood for Free Entertainment In the Parks, a wonderful initiative of the City of Melbourne’s Parks, Gardens and Recreation Department. Little did I know that I would be back again for next year’s show but under a totally different set of circumstances!
Next it was a return trip to the Tamworth Country Music Festival. Once again my first stop was the Town Hall where the Buttercup Hoedown Open House was in full swing. There I got to play with the Hired Hands, Auriel Andrew, Rod Williams, Arthur & Jewel Blanch and Dusty Rankin. Two days later I was with Terry Gordon and Rod Pickering at the Mr Juicy Sunshine Show in the Hands of Fame Park (little did I know that I would be back there again in that park one day, also under a totally different set of circumstances!) and I even got to belt out a tune or two of my own. The next day it was the 5th Annual Steel Guitar Convention, this time at the Treloar Park Tennis Club. There I played behind my band-mate Kenny Kitching, former band-mate Pee Wee Clark, and new friends Norm Bodkin and Benny Joyner.
The weekend finished for me with a solo spot on the Country Comfort’s Last Round-up at the Tamworth Town Hall. My E.P. Cowboy Blues had been nominated in three categories of the 9th Australasian Country Music Awards and Bob’s Boogie was named as a “Judge’s Selection”. Over the whole of that year’s awards, I had played on 21 of the nominations and produced 17 of them! Once again no trophy, but a whole heap of fun and as I left Tamworth, Bob’s Boogie (complete with my pedal-steel solo) was about to be number four on the Capital News Country Chart.
Out of the blue, an opportunity came along to enter the world of musical theatre…
Elvis – The Musical, devised by Ray Cooney and Jack Good, had originally opened in the West End of London on November 28, 1977 at the Astoria Theatre, a mere three months after the real Elvis passed away. It won the Best Musical Of The Year 1978 (Evening Standard Drama Awards) and was successful in the city and on subsequent regional UK tours. In 1981, Australian producer Graeme Willington brought the show down under, and it opened at the Capitol Theatre on 7th March. Playing the mature Elvis was Vince Eager, a powerhouse performer, who had made his name in the late fifties and early sixties as one of the stable of impresario Larry Parnes (other acts included Marty Wilde, Billy Fury and Georgie Fame). Vince went on to play in Elvis – The Musical for five years in the UK and Canada. Another UK performer Bo Wills, covered the Army and movie era,
while Australian newcomer J.J. McLean became the young Elvis (a role he would reprise in a later UK production with Vince and Bo). The ten-piece band led by English musical director Ian Milne, included two guitarists: I was hired to mainly cover the James Burton role (“pick one James”) while Phillip Stone ably covered the earlier Scotty Moore parts. Adding to that, a four male and four female chorus made a mighty line-up. The show was directed by Kevin Robinson and the choreographer was Leigh Chambers. The story of Elvis was told through his music and the show included 85 musical numbers.
As a lead-in to the show opening in Sydney, a promotional appearance was organised on the top-rating daytime television program, The Mike Walsh Show. All three stars of the show did a short number, accompanied by the band, and followed by an interview segment. I was happy to be featured musically, even though in keeping with my previous on-screen experiences, I was seen once again mostly in shadow, framing the main action! The producers created an excellent backdrop for our spot and the musical numbers successfully conveyed the excitement of the show.
By coincidence, Laurel Lee was scheduled to appear on The Mike Walsh Show the very same day, 3rd March 1981. One of her numbers was More Than I Can Say which had just been revived by Leo Sayer who took it to the top of the Australian charts. So, it was a quick change of shirts and I took my position seated in front of the Geoff Harvey band, waiting for the esteemed bandleader to count me in. I played the guitar solo as the mirror ball lit the set and, let’s be fair, nobody would have wanted to see my face anyway, not while while the gorgeous Laurel Lee was singing.
Previews for ELVIS began the next day and the show opened that weekend. It was my first experience of theatre discipline which in this case included nine performances a week: Monday to Saturday nights, plus two matinees. It was wonderful to be part of such an energetic show and to play those signature James Burton licks behind Vince and to have a feature alongside Bo (behind a gauze), playing acoustic guitar for Love Me Tender. I had signed up for the run of the show which was expected to include all the capital cities and then tour Asia. Around the same time I also received an offer from Johnny Chester in Melbourne who had seen me play during the Diana Trask tour. The guitarist from his band Hotspur was leaving, but I had to decline becoming his replacement, explaining that my contract with Elvis was open-ended. The musical opened to positive reviews and ran for its allotted six weeks in Sydney before transferring to Brisbane.
On Saturday 18th April I flew to Brisbane and took up residence at the Hacienda Hotel in Fortitude Valley. Elvis – The Musical opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Wednesday 22nd April. It was due to run until May 9, but a week earlier than expected, the season was cancelled. On Saturday 2nd May, the cast and crew had turned up to prepare for the evening show. A meeting was called and we all assembled to be told that there would be no show tonight and it was all over! It was also suggested that those of us holding return plane tickets might like to try and use them before the travel agent opened on Monday morning and discovered that the show had folded. Many fled straight from the theatre to the airport, while the rest of us collected our things and flew home on Sunday, the next day. It was an abrupt and disappointing end to a great show. There was also the matter of unpaid wages which the Musicians’ Union failed to recover. Still, experience was gained plus a specific lesson that would become relevant again in 1992. Also, being on stage when Vince Eager sang American Trilogy with the ten-piece band and eight backing vocalists is a memory that will last forever. I happily reconnected with Vince in 2010 after enjoying reading his early memoirs in Vintage Rock magazine. He is still performing and recording and fondly remembers our all-too-brief time together.
Despite having no alternate bookings in my diary, I was back gigging by the following weekend and two weeks later I would find myself unexpectedly living in Melbourne…