Bob Howe - My Musical Life

Chapter Three – The Mid-Seventies

There were still plenty of newspaper ads to answer. First I would try out for a band being formed by a singer who called himself Buddy Lincoln. A couple of underwhelming gigs eventuated, but more significantly I would become lifelong friends with fellow ad-respondent and bassist Mick Holack, who also decided this wasn’t the band for him. Before I left, Buddy took me to the Crystal Palace Hotel in George Street, Sydney to see Kevin King’s band play with Kenny Kitching on pedal steel guitar. As it happened, American star Don Gibson was in town and his guitar player Marvin Lennear had come down to sit in with the band. He and Kenny played a boogie tune, swapping solos and then trading fours, twos and eventually short licks in the call and answer style of jazz bands. Both were masterful players and I had never seen such exciting picking at close range. Singer Desree Crawford was sitting in on bass and Buddy introduced me. It was her (then) husband Max’s birthday so we were invited back to their place for a musical party. Guitars were passed around and I have no recollection of what I might have played, but perhaps being on a high from what I’d seen earlier that evening, I played something that must have made an impression. Desree and Max, known onstage as The High Chaparrals, were going to be one of the opening acts for Slim Whitman when he toured Australia in January and there was spot open for a bass player. It didn’t seem to bother them that I didn’t own a bass and they offered me the gig!

business cardBefore that time would come around, I would go for an interview from another ad; this time a full-time job as a Public Relations and Promotions officer with Australia’s largest independent record label Festival Records. I went down to their building in Pyrmont that not only housed their offices, but also a vinyl pressing plant and a state of the art recording studio. General Manager Jim White interviewed me and I think my combination of clerical experience and musical knowledge (plus the size of my personal record collection) swayed him in my favour and out of 300 applicants he offered me the position. With the bravado of youth, I tempted fate by asking if I could delay my start for two weeks while I went on tour with Slim Whitman. Jim cocked a disapproving eyebrow in my direction, but by a stroke of luck for me, Slim Whitman recorded for United Artists, a label that Festival distributed. Probably for that reason, Jim agreed to my bold request. As it happened, my participation in the tour fell through and the uncertainty of being a musician was highlighted for me, just as I began a career on the other side of the fence as a member of the music industry, early in 1975. The people I met during the next two years would resurface time and time again throughout this story, some often and some only recently (as I write) after over 30 years. Those at Festival Records included Jim White (General Manager), Meryl Gross (senior executive), Phil Matthews (Manager, Festival Publishing), Gil Robert (Promotions Manager), Martin Erdman (house producer), Warren Barnett (Mastering Engineer) and Ian Hook (PR and ‘the knowledge’).

As a kid in England I remember we had a handful of 78rpm discs; Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets that still played despite a large crack in the shellac, and parodies of Rock Island Line and Heartbreak Hotel by Stan Freberg. Later I had a couple of EPs and one LP that were sound-alike versions of Top 40 hits. Music largely came from the radio and later on, television shows like ‘Juke Box Jury’ and ‘Ready Steady Go’. Now in Australia, we had an old portable mono record player and I began collecting in earnest; first finding hidden treasures on the bargain table such as a 45 of Nina Simone singing Young, Gifted and Black and an EP of Josh White singing four blues tunes. Next it would be second-hand LPs starting with Abbey Road and then more Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Monkees. When I first started work I bought a stereo player and joined a record club that had new releases on offer every month. Now I was working for a record company and they were paying me to listen to records…I was in heaven! My job had previously been done by Peter Karpin, who would become a major player in the industry and whose many accomplishments would later including signing the band Men At Work to Sony Records. Peter had been promoted within Festival at this time to promotions manager of local artists. My actual job then, was to promote the overseas artists that we represented and service the newspapers and all but the top three radio stations with the new releases each week. Crime of the Century LP coverThose top three stations, 2SM, 2UW and 2UE were handled by my immediate boss and his method of success seemed to consist of nothing but very long lunches with the program directors. I had my hands full with everyone else and with pushing up to a dozen new titles each week; everything from The Magic Organ plays the Songs of Broadway (get that one to 2CH, young Bob), Fats Waller jazz (take this to Dick Hughes at the Daily Telegraph) and Crime of the Century by Supertramp (rush that one down to 2JJ). I would later have breakfast with Supertramp, but not in America as their later hit album would suggest, but at the hotel where they were staying in Kings Cross. I remember their saxophone player John Helliwell was the joker in the pack that morning.

ABC Radio, the national broadcaster, had pioneered the concept of playing album tracks on Australian radio with a late evening show called ‘Room To Move’ hosted by the deep voice of Chris Winter. Tina TurnerThis lead to the formation of 2JJ (Two Double Jay), the first 24-hour serious rock music station for Sydney, years later to become the national Triple Jay. They were exciting days, taking the latest LPs to them as the new format emerged from what seemed like hippie chaos. Who else would play Brian Eno and John Cale alongside Skyhooks and Ariel. As I dashed from station to station I would be changing music mindsets while at the same time changing t-shirts as I dashed from gig to gig. As RAM, one of the local rock magazines noted, Festival had so many artists on tour in the summer months, we would need to keep a supply of the various promotional shirts in the car to wear at the appropriate moments. I met many great stars, some fleetingly, but they left great impressions; holding the hand of Tina Turner at the airport as she and Ike departed Australia, riding in a cab with Cheech and Chong and wondering how they got through customs considering their reputations, watching the girls in the office come to a standstill as we walked Leo Sayer through at the time of his first album, and being offered drinks by Roy Orbison in his dressing room at the Sydney Opera House – a true gentle soul. I didn’t carry a camera back then, but Rolling Stone photographer Violette Hamilton surprised me with this candid shot of me with blues harmonica legend Sonny Terry, backstage at Sydney Town Hall, when he was here on tour with his long-time musical partner Brownie McGee.

Below left: Bob Howe and Sonny Terry – photo by Violette Hamilton
Bob Howe and Sonny Terry - photo by Violette Hamilton

Around this time I was still making the odd appearance in the folk clubs and various venues as a solo singer and I also put my slide guitar skills to good use for a few gigs with Doug King and the Aloha’s at Cahill’s South Seas Trader restaurant. Mid-1975 I received a phone call from a singer named Don Denman who told me that Bill Kelly had suggested me as a guitar player for Don’s band. I hadn’t met Bill at that time, but he would become an important part of my story later on. For now, it turned out he was passing on Desree’s recommendation and I did join the Denman 4, soon to be renamed Country Road. We played many weekend gigs, including several at the Katoomba RSL Club in the Blue Mountains. I recall many cold early mornings, driving my Volkswagen home, down the mountain through thick fog. We also played often at Redfern RSL Club, a job that also required us to back a guest artist. Since none of us at the time were particularly experienced at sight-reading music, the agent Wally Nash would join us on piano and lead us through the artist’s spot.

My first demo recording studio experience was playing on some songs written by my new friend Mick Holack at Ross McGregor’s ‘Homespun’ studio. Later in the year Mick would invite me to join in with his band Merribuck for a live rock gig…a chance to play loud and wild! The gig was at the notoriously rough Sydney dockland pub called The Welcome Inn, in Sussex St, Sydney. It was known locally as ‘The Buncha’ for reasons that we won’t go in to here! Mick was on bass and vocals, Tony Cargnelutti powered us along on drums, Peter Larson was the band’s outrageous guitarist and Glenn Braithwaite sang and played flute. The repertoire was mostly the band’s original songs with a few covers including Velvet Underground’s Rock and Roll and my own feature number, the Rory Gallagher arrangement of Messin’ With the Kid.

Mick, Bob and Peter rehearsing...
(Above:) Mick, Bob and Peter rehearsing.
(Below:) some LIVE audio from the night…

Peter Allen LP coverFor my ‘day job’, I used to drive around in my VW Beetle, which was easier to park in the city than the company station wagons, which were considerably longer vehicles. To this day Jim White likes to remind me of the day I collected Peter Allen and his partner from the airport, squashed them into my Beetle and then to make things worse, refused to let them smoke. I don’t remember them complaining about the lack of star treatment but perhaps it was the shock, or jet lag. Peter appeared at the Hordern Pavillion in Sydney, opening for another Aussie-made-good-overseas, Helen Reddy. His performance that night was an outrageous wake-up call that he was a musical force to be reckoned with and a star ascended.

I was already an avid concertgoer before I joined Festival. I vividly remember a classic triple-bill at the Capitol Theatre beginning with Band of Light, the La De Das and finally being pinned to the back wall by the brute force that was Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs. Many of my favourite shows were (and still are) at the old Hordern Pavillion. I was in the front row and showered in dry ice for Queen, caught a rose for my date thrown by Shirley Bassey, was moved by Rory Gallagher’s blues and I still have a piece of plastic pick-guard shrapnel from the guitar that Ritchie Blackmore destroyed on that stage. A few years before, I had witnessed newcomers Sherbet win the Hoadley’s Battle of the Bands but now, for the first time ever at the Hordern, I had to retire to behind the safety of the glass windows in the Executive section. I had survived the sheer volume of Billy Thorpe but nothing could prepare me for the sound of screaming of young female Sherbet fans in 1976.

programme coverOn a more sedate note, but perhaps more significantly to my story, back at Festival plans were afoot to send a company delegation to Tamworth for the relatively new Country Music Awards of Australia – the Golden Guitars. Festival Records’ Advertising Manager, Ron Atkinson and I flew up to attend the awards presentation and a few other events including an industry seminar. Young and brash, I addressed the seminar with the notion that perhaps a category for country-rock was something to be looked at and that surely a record like Richard Clapton’s Girls On The Avenue could be considered as country. This was not received warmly! At the gala awards presentation, two acts from our stable received gongs; Cowboy BBob the session manob Purtell took out the Best New Talent (at the age of 40) and Heather McKean won Best Female Vocal. Heather was married to Reg Lindsay and her sister Joy McKean was married to Slim Dusty. Reg and Slim had come from similar musical beginnings but by now Reg represented the modern Nashville-influenced sound, where Slim was undisputed king of the traditional sound. Reg had in fact gone as far as to record an album in Nashville, that Festival had released the previous year. He had a few tracks leftover and was recording two more sessions to complete his next album to be called The Travellin’ Man. For some reason he was missing a lead guitar player for the last session, but producer Martin Erdman had learned there was a guitar player disguised as a PR man in the building. My presence was requested and I had to front up to Jim White again, this time to ask permission to play in the studio. He was fine about it as long as I took a day’s leave without pay from my regular job – he wasn’t going to be paying me twice!

I had played on a couple of demo recordings for friends, but never in a studio like Festival with its top-of-the-line Neve mixing desk and a 24-track recorder. On another day, producer Richard Batchens and Richard Clapton called me in to listen to a track from the album Main Street Jive that would be the follow up to Clapton’s Girls On The Avenue. This song had a reggae styled break in the middle for which no one had come up with a decent solo. I listen to what Richard himself had played on the track and then they handed me a Gibson Les Paul goldtop electric guitar. I had a couple of goes, but nothing brilliant sprang forth. Others also tried, but the record was eventually released with what I believe was Richard’s own part still intact. Four days later, on 25th May 1976, I played my debut professional session and met Reg Lindsay for the first time. The session was produced by Martin Erdman and featured Reg’s regular band member Pee Wee ClarkC. B. Radio single on pedal steel guitar, along with session players Milton Saunders on piano and, from the jazz-rock fusion band Crossfire, Greg Lyon on bass and Doug Gallacher on drums. I finger-picked on the song Johnny Foster (The Travelling Showman) but my instrument was set aside when Reg handed me a 1930 Gibson acoustic to play. It was harder on the fingers than my own guitar but the sound it made was far superior. Reg had written the song about the true-life character Johnny Foster who ran tent shows that had given exposure to a wide variety of acts. Just a few years later, Slim Dusty would record a cover version of this song! I played electric on two other tracks and everyone seemed happy – I was to be on a real record! I was called back the following time that Reg recorded, for the topical single C.B. Radio and I took to lurking around the studio end of the building if I wasn’t busy. My own office was a badly painted cuTravellin' Manbby-hole with poor sound equipment, yet the studio was a clean magical wonderland of polished wood and hi-tech equipment.

When The Travellin’ Man was released (in August) it featured an elaborate cover and an inner sleeve with credits and photos. This was quite remarkable for a local non-pop album and especially for Festival. They had often used a cost-cutting device at the time of having a colour photo on the front of the sleeve and the same photo in black and white on the back cover. Sometimes their ideas needed some fine-tuning; I drove a young Graeme Connors to a photo shoot for his first LP (which was produced by legendary American singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson). The album was entitled And When Morning Comes, so the initial concept was a simple colour portrait of Graeme with a spotlight behind the background screen to represent the rising sun. When it was printed, the cover was nowhere near stylish enough to represent the quality of the music within, so it was sensibly recalled and subsequently replaced with a long shot of Graeme taking a morning stroll along a beach.

I did my first radio interview that year: ABC Radio broadcast a Sunday morning show aimed at the national youth market, entitled ‘Sunday Comics’ and hosted by Tony Howes (no relation). Program 41 in the series was aired on 8th February 1976 and as quoted on the cue sheet for the program, included ‘chatter about the Pop world’ with three record company Promotions/Public Relations Officers: Terry Westcombe (EMI), Anne Wright (RCA) and Bob Howe (Festival). I would often cross paths with PR people from other companies as we did our rounds of the radio stations and newspapers. We had a friendly rivalry, but would also sometimes swap records for professional curiosity and personal enjoyment. This would require some clandestine meetings and the exchange of plain brown paper parcels. It wasn’t until much later that I realised that this went on all the way up the food chain, including the managing directors (although presumably they weren’t so furtive about the practice).

Here are some excerpts from the radio show… 

At Festival I was writing many press releases, and delivering them with the new LPs to the press, including the leading Sydney music paper RAM (Rock Australia Magazine). As I got to know editor and founder Anthony O’Grady, he responded to my creative desires by offering me a chance to become a record and concert reviewer and later a feature writer.RAM logo We decided that although I would be totally impartial as far as the company origins of any record went, it would be prudent to use a nom-de-plume while I was still working at Festival. Hence I became Howard Roberts in print (not a reference to the famous jazz guitarist, merely a reversal of my name, Robert Howe) and on the occasion of a country music review, Hank Roberts. Read some excerpts here…

Diana TraskDiana Trask had been a successful Australian singer in the sixties and gone overseas to further her career to great acclaim, initially with the Mitch Miller Show. Now she was dubbed ‘Miss Country Soul’ and had a huge hit on the American DOT label, Oh Boy (The Mood I’m In). She was on tour back in Australia just as the nation was to vote on a new national anthem. Waltzing Matilda was odds-on favourite to win and as Diana did a stirring rendition in her live show, her manager set up a session at Festival Studios to record it in the hope it might be nicely timed for maximum exposure. I was called in to play acoustic guitar and soon learned that this arrangement began with just the guitar and Diana’s voice for all the verses in a row. Only after that did the band come in for the choruses and slowly build to an enormous crescendo. When I say band, it was a mini-orchestra that would sound like a full symphony when double-tracked. We began the recording and it was in a key that proved troublesome for my still green fingers. I stumbled over a few notes and a pause in the proceedings was called. It was decided that since all the brass and woodwind and percussionists were hanging around waiting and being paid by the hour, the end of the song should be recorded first and then we could go back and complete the first part.Waltzing Matilda single I also gleaned that Milton the piano player was asked to stay back as well and I sensed that if I didn’t cut it, he would play the guitar part on piano instead. In between takes of the orchestral ending my mind was racing but by the time it came to record my exposed introduction I had figured out a way to play my part using a ‘capo’ and the guitar sounded fine, much to everyone’s relief, especially mine. We cut a short and a long version and they came out on either side of a single 45rpm record but meantime the referendum had been held and our new national anthem was to be…Advance Australia Fair. To this day, debate still rages as to whether that was the right choice, but that’s how the votes were counted.Ray Burgess

There would also be the occasional gig that came from being in the right place at the right time at Festival Records. Pop singer Ray Burgess was booked to appear at West Tamworth Leagues Club in October 1976, when his guitarist/musical-director Doug Jansen became unavailable. I was drafted in and flew on his airline ticket (security was looser back then), learning Ray’s songs backstage just before the show. As well as having hits with songs like Touch Me and Gloria, Ray was also the host of popular youth culture program, ‘Flashez’ on ABC television. They had a rather well-made lapel badge of their logo which I wore a lot. One day I was delivering some promotional material to Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, host of the number one television pop show ‘Countdown’. Although broadcast on the same station, Molly must have perceived ‘Flashez’ as a rival and on spying my badge, half-jokingly threatened to throw me into the hotel pool.

Reg LindsayTwo months later, Doug Jansen (a busy man) was booked to play for the Reg Lindsay Show in the town of Orange. Anne KirkpatrickHe was playing for Johnny Farnham the night before and a scheduling change made it look like his flight wouldn’t get him there in time, so again I was drafted in as a replacement. Although by then I knew Reg and Heather McKean from the recording studio, this would be my first live show with them and I was keen to impress. It was arranged that I would meet their young niece, singer Anne Kirkpatrick (the daughter of Slim Dusty and Joy McKean) who was part of the show, somewhere near the suburb of Parramatta, in order to travel the rest of the way in Anne’s car. We drove to Orange and only had a very short time to grab some dubious food at the club bistro before showtime and then on to the stage. As the show progressed I began to feel quite unwell and by the time Reg introduced the band, he turned around to find me missing in action! I remember being driven back to Sydney by Anne and feeling very under-the-weather. Not the impression I had hoped to make at all.

Back at Festival Records, work continued at a heady rate and the touring artists continued to arrive; J.J. Cale was so laid back that he was onstage with his band at the Capitol Theatre for two songs before I realised he was there; at the Town Hall Melanie Safka lead the throng as we sang along and swayed to Lay Down (Candles in the Rain), Leo Kottke enthralled me with his mastery of the 12-string acoustic guitar and The Chieftans gave Irish traditional music a new life. At the Hordern Pavilion, Joe Cocker was pure emotion, Gene Pitney revived the soundtrack of my youth, and Freddy Fender brought Tex-Mex to Sydney. Amongst his entourage Bob, the young executive at work!was a large man whose main job was to distribute frilly ladies’ knickers emblazoned with the title of Freddy’s latest album, Are You Ready for Freddy? I also discovered jazz around this time as I had to promote small quantities of imported titles from the Blue Note and Prestige labels. I learnt that Horst Liepolt was “the man” and that his recommendation was priceless, being the leading Jazz promoter in town. Horst also ran his own label (’44’ distributed by rival company Phonogram Records) and he introduced me to the music of many great acts that he booked for The Basement nightclub including Galapagos Duck and guitarist Peter Boothman.

Rita Jean Bodine was another visitor – a soulful singer who had recorded two marvellous albums for the 20th Century label, Sitting On Top Of My World and Bodine, Rita Jean. She came to town and played a magical season at a night club in the centre of Sydney, backed by members of Crossfire, singing her own songs and those of Lowell George (of Little Feat). I was becoming more determined to concentrate on playing music myself and to leave Festival to strike out on what I knew was my real calling. Rita and her manager offered to help me with contacts should I pursue the option I was considering, of moving to Los Angeles to try my hand as a studio session guitarist. Luckily, in retrospect, bureaucratic red tape scotched that idea. My teenage bravado would not have been enough to make that plan a success at the time! Instead I would set my sights on the U.K. for 1977. Festival Records GM, Jim White, thinking that I’d need a back-up plan, kindly wrote me a letter of introduction to Peter Hebbes who was running their London office. That letter remained folded neatly in my luggage for a long time and never used. I didn’t meet Peter until many years later, back in Australia. Bob Howe, Rita Jean Bodine, Noel Brown

Bob (left) and Festival’s marketing manager Noel Brown (right), present Rita Jean Bodine with a plaque to commemorate her Australian visit.

There were the local Australian artists too, even though I didn’t work directly with them, our paths still crossed. The only time I met the legendary Johnny O’Keefe was at a small but expensive lunch the company threw for him to celebrate a milestone (possibly 20 years with the label). I remember ‘The Wild One’ as he was known, telling the most risqué jokes I had ever heard in mixed company! On another occasion, the office was disrupted by an enormous dog that turned out to belong to Daryl Braithwaite of Sherbet who was visiting the company headquarters.

Festival had been distributing Michael Gudinski’s Mushroom label which had recently come in to its own in commercial terms, with the Skyhooks album Living in the 70’s going gold. The follow-up Ego is Not a Dirty Word was released in 1975 and the Melbourne-based Mushroom appointed a Sydney representative, Donna Jacobs, to be stationed in an upstairs room in the Festival building.

Spaces - photo by Violette Hamilton It turned out that Donna was also a budding singer/songwriter and we decided to form a folk duo and called ourselves ‘Spaces’. With her songs, including some Carole King Tapestry album cover versions, my folk/country/blues repertoire and a batch of new originals that I had just recorded on a demo tape in the Festival A&R office after hours, we launched a Wednesday night residency at the Journey’s End wine bar in Forbes Street, Woolloomooloo.

The booking was initially for three weeks but stretched to three months as we attracted a good crowd and understandably, many industry bods. Rolling Stone Australia magazine described us as ‘young and talented’ and Donna as having a ‘distinct and attractive style of her own’.

Pictured left: The Rolling Stone article included this photo by Violette Hamilton, captioned
‘Spaces: Woolloomooloo drawcard’.

As the year drew to a close and we both left our day jobs, I was packing for full-time music in the U.K. and Donna headed off to an Israeli kibbutz. Our final show coincided with my twentieth birthday and it was a big night at the Journey’s End. The photos below show me sporting a new short haircut and my favourite black Uriah Heep t-shirt. Fellow folk troubadours Lee Williams and Allan Caswell came and sang, guitarist John Syrett joined Donna for some songs and ‘Merribuck’ band members Mick Holack and Tony Cargnelutti joined me for some electric power trio blues that shook the place up. The girls from Festival brought cake and streamers and it was a great send off for us both.

Happy Birthday and Farewell...
Happy Birthday and Farewell…
Bob, Tony, Mick
…Bob, Tony and Mick
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣      

After all these years…

Kenny Kitching and Bob Howe in 2007
Kenny Kitching & Bob 2007
Mick Holack and Bob Howe 2007
Mick Holack and Bob 2007
Bob Howe and Martin Erdman 2009
…with Martin Erdman 2009
Annie Wright and Bob Howe 2009
…with Annie Wright 2009
Peter Hebbes and Bob Howe
Peter Hebbes, Xmas 2009
Anthony O'Grady and Bob Howe 2009
…with Anthony O’Grady
Warren Barnett and Bob Howe 2009
…with Warren Barnett
Bob Howe and Ray Burgess
…with Ray Burgess 2009
Peter Larson, James Burton and Bob Howe 1984
Peter Larson, James Burton,
Bob Howe, Boston 1984
Bob Howe, Jim White, Martina McBride, Meryl Gross 1999
Bob, Jim White, Martina McBride,
Meryl Gross 1999
Leo Sayer and Bob Howe in 2009
Leo Sayer and Bob in 2009
Ian Hook and Bob Howe in 2013
…with Ian Hook in 2013

Previous Chapter                                                                                           Next: 1977 – full-time music, to England and back…


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