Early Sydney part5


KEY PLAYERS ON THE SYDNEY COFFEE LOUNGE SCENE

 

Malcolm J. Turnbull

 

PART 6

 

Two artists came into open conflict with Carter over money; Don Henderson in the lead-up to the Troubadour, and Alex Hood when  the club was at its height. Aware that “the folk thing was coming” and that there was a need to protect potential coffee lounge singers from exploitation, they both helped found the Association of Sydney Folksingers. Realistically, the Association recognised that paying full Union rates to performers could well send folk clubs to the wall; nonetheless it was keen to ensure a degree of fair play. Henderson has recalled:

I was voted the delegate to go and talk to [Carter] … and he told me to get fucked. And I said “You can get fucked because no-one will ever work in your fucking club. It won’t even open”. He said “we’ll see”, and the first [sic] person he signed up was my wife. We were estranged by then, of course.

Hood remembers:

I had a falling out with Jim Carter … over money … he was paying what he thought he could get away with to various performers. And the thing was really going very well. I subsequently found out, or I was told, that the whole thing had been set up with “funny money” … That’s what I heard … The other artists wouldn’t support me in what I was trying to do because they were afraid they were going to lose work. It’s the old thing. Here’s me trying to be altruistic and stand up for people like Declan Affley who were getting ripped off. 

    We finally had a meeting with Actors’ Equity and we had to have a compromise … I didn’t get the complete amount of the back money that was legally owing to me, but we arranged a compromise deal … Jim paid this amount.

[Alex Hood, NLA Interview]

    Carter was Sydney’s first and most successful folk entrepreneur, the “nearest thing to a mastermind” in the industry. He was by no means alone. In his analysis of ‘The Folk People’ for the Bulletin, Charles Higham cited as Carter’s main competitors “a man called Murphy” and 18 year old Michael Darby. Murphy, who ran Binky’s Burgers at the Central Station end of Elizabeth Street, opened the Gas Lash in the building next door in August 1964. Decorated with Martin Sharp’s “snaggle-toothed fauna” and featuring a “natural earth floor” and thatched ceiling, the Gas Lash offered a mix of folk (ethnic and otherwise), jazz and Victoriana. It failed to survive beyond a couple of months; by the end of the year it was advertising in Oz Magazine and elsewhere as the Gas Lash discotheque.  

    Darby, son of a famous radio personality-turned-politician, established the Folk Attick in a Kings Cross tenement early in 1964. (Calypso and blues specialist Jan de Zwaan got his start there. Other artists included Shane Duckham, Peter Parkhill and Bob Hudson). Charles Higham described the venue as

… tall, ancient, and dark, lit only by the ultra-violet glow bathing the singers and thin, guttering candles in wine-bottles, most of the customers crouched furtively on stairs out of earshot of the performers but silent just the same, and a singer in each room, surrounded by bodies, crammed solid.

Within months of opening the Kings Cross club,  Darby had established Folk Atticks at Surfers Paradise and in Melbourne. “Most of my customers are in the low income or no income brackets”, he recognised.

They’re school-kids, or young students, who want a night’s entertaiment for five bob. I can get 700 in at a squeeze. I pay some of my singers 45 pound a week. As well as singers in each room, I’ve got one out on the terrace for soft songs – no microphone, no neighbors’ complaints, get it? I serve percolated coffee, lots of people come and help in the kitchen. [Bulletin, 14 Nov 1964] 

    Darby’s dalliance with the folk scene did not last long. Jim Carter took over the Folk Attick early in 1965, and renamed it the Folk Terrace. Other venues which emerged between 1963 and 1966 included The Folksinger, which succeeded The Flying Dutchman in Elizabeth Street (and which headlined Gary Shearston). Chuck Quinton, playing English songs and blues, accompanying himself on 6 and 12 string guitars, was resident performer at the Fountain in Pitt Street, while Margaret Kitamura (and subsequently Sean & Sonja, The Sowers, Bob Reynolds and Greg Butler) were prominent at El Toro. (El Toro was listed as offering folksinging on Saturdays as late as August 1966). English-born blues singer, harmonica player and guitarist Shane Duckham was the first folksinger to perform at Maxim’s, a “very bohemian” coffee lounge at Palm Beach which attracted “kids with no shoes, torn jeans and sunglasses”. (Duckham first started playing at the Barrelhouse and Blues Club in London, in a group with Alex Korner and Cyril Davis. After emigrating to Australia, to join his parents, he became involved in the Perth folk scene before “taking the plunge” in Sydney, where he worked for a time with Dutch Tilders, played in the group The Offbeats, and performed solo at the Folk Attick and the Troubadour). Danny Spooner, who also played there for a time, remembers that Maxim’s inspired Larry King, a left-handed guitarist from Tasmania, to write a song (to the tune of ‘Little Boxes’), which included the sentiment: “See the beatniks down at Maxim’s – all individuals, all look the same”.

    A couple of  local hopefuls, calling themselves Frances & John, persuaded the owner of the Black Poodle in Chatswood to hire them on Friday and Saturday nights in the second half of 1965. (Frances and John also played intermittently at El Toro). The Greenwich Village, in Anzac Parade, Kensington, offered live poetry-readings, quietly emphasised the performance of Australian material, actively encouraged audience-members to take the stage, and boasted the talents of Bob Reynolds, a Canadian singer-guitarist who spent a year or so in Sydney before resuming his travels to South Africa, and Declan Affley. The Castaways at Crow’s Nest teamed such big names as Hood, Henderson and Shearston with Larry King, the New World Trio, and interstate acts like The Twiliters, The Wesley Three and Irene Petrie.It also gave impetus to the careers of The Lincoln Trio and The Kinsfolk, two of the best of the transient Seekers/ Kingston Trio/ PP&M-derived ensembles which were an inevitable by-product of the folk boom.

    Led by trainee business executive Brian Tonkin (the other members were Sean Flanagan and Gary Pearson), The Lincoln Trio unselfconsciously created a U.S. collegiate-style singing act, complete with matching icecream jackets, and specialising in upbeat arrangements of old favourites like ‘O’Reilly’s Daughter’, ‘Queensland Drover’ and ‘Midnight Special’. The trio recorded a single for RCA (‘Wimoweh’ b/w ‘Go Lassie Go’) before disbanding when Tonkin’s firm sent him overseas. The Kinsfolk was a family act (formed after its members saw Peter Paul & Mary at the Sydney Stadium in 1964), grounded in church and gospel music. Work in Sydney coffee lounges (they also appeared regularly at the Copperfield) led to appearances on national TV shows like Bobby Limb’s Sound of Music, tapping into the lucrative middle-of-the-road Twiliters/ Wesley Three market. Marion Begbie, an infant teacher, featured on vocals, celeste and recorders; brothers Richard (a theology student) and Ross (a teacher) played guitars and banjo and another brother Tim (a university student) sang and played bass. Although their influences were readily apparent in performance, arrangement and choice of material, The Kinsfolk were skilled and well-trained professional musicians, as evidenced by two creditable LPs they recorded for RCA, Ain’t That News (1968) and For Tomorrow (1970).

   

Among the artists who appeared at the Pigalle, a tiny venue which functioned for a couple of years (1965-66) in Church Street, Paramatta, were Danny Spooner, Doug Ashdown, Margret Roadknight, and newcomer Mike McClellan. Spooner was then combining solo singing with membership of a bluegrass band called the Warrenbungle Mountain Ramblers! (Another member of the group was dobro-player Gary Greenwood). Ashdown, a leading performer on the Adelaide scene, debuted at the Carter clubs and the Pigalle just as folk-rock was making its presence felt.  He cites Sydney and the new Dylan as the impetus for his “going professional”:  “I was sitting in a sleazy hotel in King’s Cross with Phil Sawyer when I heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ on the radio and I said ‘That’s it’”.   

    Roadknight, who had become friendly with Prof Alex Bradford and other cast-members of the American folk-pageant Black Nativity during its Melbourne season, had acted on their suggestion that she join them in Sydney and try her lack within that city’s folk-club network. Bradford’s well-meant attempt to negotiate a ‘good deal’ for her with Jim Carter (10 pounds an appearance) backfired and resulted in her being barred from (paid) performing at any of the Carter venues. Accordingly, Roadknight spent a rather lean ten months in Sydney before returning to Melbourne (and Traynors, etc) at the end of 1965. She remembers that her stay coincided with the first series of a now-legendary satirical TV show; at 6’4” and fond of wearing flowing capes and big black hats, Roadknight found herself, not infrequently, pointed out by Sydneysiders as Mavis Bramston. 

    McClellan (b. 1945) was a young teacher, recently graduated from Armidale Teachers’ College where he had learned guitar while singing pop tunes with the college band. Occasional trips to Sydney, and Peter Paul & Mary’s renditions of Dylan songs, had alerted him to the folk boom:

Shearston was building a reputation. Jim Carter was building audiences … I looked in on the periphery … Paul Marks was pivotal for me. His singing of traditional blues songs by Big Bill Broonzy, etc., blew me away. The guitar really got me and the interplay between voice and guitar. Marks was not only a very convincing singer, with a lovely voice and great phrasing. A lot of singers were trying to do that stuff. Others were often pretty inept. [He] had the sense of feel about the blues that gave them life and vitality.

    On crutches after a football injury, McClellan made his folksinging debut on an Open night at the Troubadour. (“I remember the difficulty of negotiating the stairs to go down. It took a fair bit of courage, struggling with the guitar as well”). Performing at the Last Straw and the Pigalle soon convinced the young enthusiast that his first musical love  – much as he loved the form – was not his true metier.

I came into this environment … with a fairly naive assumption that I could actually do the blues … Looking back, it’s somewhat embarrassing … Vocally I was clearly unsuited … a middle-class white boy trying to sing the blues. I’d absorbed the technicalities … But I realised I had not absorbed the history of the music  … Graham Lowndes walked in one night and I realised I didn’t have the voice for it at all.

    McClellan played for a while with Lowndes and Derek Robinson as the respected Currency Blues Band (“Gary Shearston gave us our name. He said we were pioneers”) but, as a soloist, he was moving increasingly into writing and performing his own songs. Records by American guitarist Doc Watson and, in particular, balladeer Tom Rush, were his chief influences:

The Circle Game LP was pivotal. It had the first recorded versions of songs by Jackson Browne, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell … I suddenly started to find that the things I was interested in weren’t getting much [airplay] … Not much was happening in singer-songwriting here. Even Shearston was still mainly a traditionalist … I was never accepted by the traditionalist folkmusic movement, and the folkmusic movement in general. A lot of people said I was too slick. There was always that element of cautious approach to what I was doing.   

    McClellan would give up teaching for full-time music after winning a heat of the TV quest New Faces and taking up the offer of regular work on the variety program Sound of Music (to the dismay of some in the folk establishment). His first LP, Mike McClellan, released on Col Joye’s ATA label in 1972, heralded his arrival as one of the country’s leading (and enduring) singer-composers.

    Also featured at the Pigalle in 1965-6 were the John Gordon Trio, Brisbane-ite Shayna Karlin (nee Bracegirdle), visiting Irish group The Leprechauns, Vicki Reiner, The Green Hill Singers, Bob Reynolds and Alex Hood. The Leprechauns (Sean, Liam and Mick) were former skiffle and modern jazz musicians who had reverted to folksinging and acquired a solid reputation in their native Belfast before spending several months in Sydney. Hood is credited with having persuaded the Pigalle’s co-owner Frank French to stage folksinging – and with organising the performing rosters there. French, a former jazz enthusiast (“a big band man at heart”), would continue to host informal folk-meets at his home on Sydney’s outskirts after the Pigalle closed. Arguably the most influential Sydney promoter/organiser after Jim Carter, French would re-emerge later in the decade and reactivate PACT Folk as a platform for the new breed of singer-songwriter.

    As for Jim Carter himself: – his involvement in folkmusic failed to survive much beyond the boom. Yet while he is remembered sardonically by some of the performers of the era, others recall him with considerable warmth. Writing at the time, Edgar Waters observed that singers and audiences alike were in the debt of Carter, et al, for having taken a gamble on folkmusic.

Jim Carter and his fellows have been paid, of course, in hard work by the singers and in hard cash by the audiences. But … it is realised that they helped to stimulate interest in folk-song and helped to improve the quality of the singing, at the same time as they helped themselves to an honest quid … I, for one, am prepared to give them a word of thanks as well as an occasional five bob.

[Australian, 20 Feb 1965]

Don Henderson – notwithstanding their early stand-off over pay-rates – later paid tribute to Carter as “a terrific bloke, a fair man and a unionist … He knew the situation. Probably when it came that he could pay, he paid”. On principle, Carter never formally employed Henderson, but he did give him carte blanche to use the Troubadour at any time as a “permanent platform” for his new songs.[NLA Interview] “Jim Carter was very fluid provided people presented themselves well [and there was] a certain amount of decorum”, maintains Marian Henderson. “He was always fair with me. Jim was our Father Christmas”. Gary Shearston, in particular, has always disputed claims that Carter was, first and foremost, an opportunistic businessman. Maintaining that a lot of patrons took advantage of the size and informality of the Troubadour “by not paying”, Shearston once insisted: “I’ve been in with Jim Carter … from the start and I know he was interested in folk music years before the boom started”. More recently, Shearston has elaborated:

I have heard on occasions – and it makes me very annoyed when I do hear it … some “slagging” of Jim Carter and his role in the whole thing. Jim Carter, before he opened that club, had probably the best private collection of folkmusic records, and blues, in Sydney. He had been a lover of the music for years before he even thought about opening the club. Before he opened the club he went to … London to see Les Cousins and all the folk clubs in England, to get the feel of them, the ambience, to see the way it went, you know … and came back to Sydney and all he could afford was that tiny little shoe-box called the Troubadour in New South Head Road … set it up and then came up and knocked on the door to see if John Sellers would open the club for him ….

    Jim, actually, in that tiny little place, virtually supported about ten performers over a period of about two-and-a-half years … at some considerable struggle for himself  … Marian, Alex, myself, Tony Morrrison … Chuck [Quinton], Martin Wyndham-Read, Brian Mooney, Tina Date, Lenore Somerset whenever she came up from Melbourne, Paul Marks … and then all the Johnny-and-Jill-come-latelies … It was as a result of that that we ended up doing the Just Folk program on Channel 7, which was supposed to have run for 13 episodes and ending up running for 26 … He spawned a lot of good things – he was the instigator of the Newport Folk Festival … copying the name and all that, but nevertheless that was a great event in Sydney … [in that] bloody great circus marquee down there ….

[Gary Shearston, NLA Interview]

 

[continued … ]