Chapter One – The Sixties
Rugby, England 1962: To this six-year-old boy at the start of the sixties, the world still seemed a big place. Australia was a far-off exotic land and at school we were shown canned peach labels, originating from that sunny remote continent. Musically, we heard antipodean novelty songs like Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport and A Pub With No Beer, but a new voice was now emerging on the radio with a lush smooth tone and a nice line in yodelling…Frank Ifield, who was born 19 years before me and a mere 19 kilometres away in Coventry, before his family returned to Australia. More about him later! For me, other events were already unfolding that would hold greater significance in hindsight than they did at the time. The following year a classmate was leaving school as her family were emigrating to Australia, and I was drafted to entertain at the afternoon farewell party with my fellow seven year-olds. I had picked up some Beatle tunes by ear and played them on a plastic clarinet, reportedly well enough to convince a passing teacher that I had some musical talent worth nurturing. The Beatles gave a Royal Command Performance in front of the Queen Mother in 1963 and I held the microphone of our Dansette reel-to-reel tape recorder up to the TV set. Years later, recalling what I’d captured, I retrieved the tape only to find that in a later, but very brief infatuation with Manchester United, I had taped over it with the commentary of the Red Devils becoming the first English club to win the European Cup in 1968. Doh!
Grandma Howe’s youngest child, my Uncle Peter, was only 15 months older than I was, so we spent a bit of time together as kids and Gran took us to see The Rolling Stones at the Granada Theatre in Rugby in the mid-sixties. My only recollection is that Mick Jagger wore green checked trousers … outrageous! I was more a Beatles-boy than the Stones and I had a plastic Beatles four-stringed guitar which was a bit of a toy compared to the wooden six-string real guitar that Peter owned. If only I still had my “toy” guitar and my miniature Dalek; both items are now highly collectible. Yes, I was one of those children peeking from behind the sofa when Doctor Who first went to air in 1963 and I watch it to this day. I also watched Gerry Anderson’s ‘Supermarionation’ series Fireball XL5, a precursor to Thunderbirds, and years later I would do much work with Don Spencer who had a hit with the theme song from that show and would go on to become a major Australian Children’s Entertainer.
A friend of mums showed me how to hold down the chords to She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain on those four nylon strings, but it never really sank in and neither did much that Edgar Moore showed me when he gave me two lovely shiny harmonicas. Later when I had an inkling of how music worked I managed to tootle God Save The Queen and Rule Britannia; not because of patriotism, but because of their easy melodies. What I really wanted to play was the theme from the television show “Z Cars” which Edgar would play to impress me. He was a local harmonica champion and, with his good wife Elsie, had become a family friend after appearing at Hillmorton Ex-Servicemen’s Club. My Dad was the Social Secretary of the club, booking the talent and calling the bingo. To this day I can’t say 42 without intoning it as ” Four and Two…Forty-Two!” Meanwhile, a revolution had taken place on the airwaves: My earliest radio recollection was hearing the show ‘Music While You Work’ on the BBC Light Programme while having my hair cut at the barbers; The Bluebell Polka by Jimmy Shand still transports me back to that time (it was a hit before I was born, but still played a lot). While the BBC was still coming to grips with the pop music phenomenon, Radio Luxembourg’s English-language evening broadcasts, which were intentionally beamed toward the British Isles, had done much to popularise rock ‘n’ roll. Soon the off-shore, so-called ‘pirate’ stations like Radio Caroline and Wonderful Radio London would continue the charge. In August 1966 we went on a family holiday to the east coast seaside town of Skegness. The English summer weather was predictably uncertain (the gale-force wind that hampered my Dad’s ability to erect our tent featured prominently in my “What I did on my school holiday” essay that year) and we we’re rained out of our canvas dwelling. As we sloshed around the site, every radio set taunted us with the two biggest hits of the week, They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-haaa by Napoleon XIV and (everybody sing now…we all live in a) Yellow Submarine by The Beatles!
Soon, some weary travellers would return to England; my Uncle Bob (pictured left), Aunty Ann and my cousins Ruth and Lynne arrived back from Singapore where Bob had been stationed as a male nurse in the British Army. This was exciting for the ten-year-old Robert, currently going through a phase of being fascinated by all things military. I had even sent away through the mail for a glossy colour brochure about Army life, cleverly deducing that if I didn’t tick the box marked ‘Yes, I am over 18’, that I probably wouldn’t get an reply.
I got more than an reply; Mum answered a knock at the door only to find a Recruiting Sergeant looking for Master Robert Howe. “You can’t have him” she wailed, “He’s only ten!” Twenty years later I would often play the part of a soldier in telemovies and this photo (right) comes from the set of ‘Army Wives’. As you can see, I’m quite proud of my imaginary rank.
Those venerable institutions the Cubs and Scouts, awarded me with every merit badge except two: the Entertainer and the Cook. The first was due to a technicality in my choice of repertoire and the second was denied, quite rightly, because I nearly poisoned myself at camp. Ironically I would go on to become not only a professional entertainer, but also chief cook in our home! As you can see from this picture (right), I was already out-of-step and marching to the beat of a different drum!
At Abbots Farm Junior School, Mr Proudlock taught me to play the recorder, kindly indulging me in the bad habit I had already started with the plastic clarinet of playing with my hands the wrong way around. The following year Mr Gilbert encouraged several of his students by making us tapes of Benjamin Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. His good lady wife was a violinist in a Birmingham Orchestra so we were privileged to enjoy a field trip to see her at work…my first classical concert!
Meanwhile, to distract me from becoming the youngest soldier in Britain, my mum followed my teacher’s advice and bought me a second-hand, but rather nice clarinet and some lessons from the local Reverend. I didn’t apply myself to the instrument as well as I should have and once I discovered that I could sometimes trick the good Rev. into thinking I had been practising my lessons when I hadn’t, I’m afraid it was all downhill from there.
Around 1967 I created my first short arrangement, Grieg’s Morning from Peer Gynt, and conducted my ensemble at Parent’s Night, only to receive an encore. We had to play it again as it was the only piece we had prepared. Hooked on applause at an early age! Roy Pickerill beat the side drum, Ann Purcell the triangle, Steven White the xylophone, and Jan Lappworth the glockenspiel while Mandy, Pauline, Jane and Penny all played recorders.
I took the first melody on clarinet and then conducted with what used to be my magician’s wand from my failed Scout’s Entertainer’s Badge attempt. Holding the whole thing together was a young David Hales on the piano. It was to the version that he had learned at piano lessons that I had added all the other instruments. I never heard of my fellow musicians again until 29 years later when I learned that David had gone on to be a soloist with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra!
The little musical theory that I did learn at that time became the basis for a whole career. So began a musical journey for me, soon to be followed by a physical journey at 13 years of age when my mother brought me to Sydney in that distant land of Australia to make a new start for us…a brave, and indeed, very wise choice on her part.