I was born in Australia and, for my first twenty-two years, lived with my family in a large flat, part of a rambling, old building named Ulleswater, in North Sydney, New South Wales. From our back window we looked across to the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
I was educated at North Sydney Demonstration School and North Sydney Boys High School. I used to walk to and from my high school each day for the five years I studied there. It afforded me an opportunity to get to know my environment intimately and appreciate the changes it was undergoing. The route I walked followed the building of the new Warringah Expressway. The latter was changing my suburb forever by cutting it in half. Familiar shops, houses and streets disappeared in its wake, along with friends.
Music played an important part in my childhood. Often of an evening my father would play along to his 78 rpm recordings of favourite music with his flute, clarinet and saxophone. Some of these recordings included “In A Monastery Garden”, negro spirituals such as “Old Black Joe” and Massa’s In The Cold, Cold Ground”, Bing Crosby ballads and Gene Autry songs like “Mr and Mississippi”. Songs heard on the radio that come readily to mind include “Marianne”, “Love Letters in the Sand”, ‘How Much is That Doggie in the Window” and “Bimbo”. My parents bought the Christmas novelty song “I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas” one year and another favourite they purchased was “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”, our version being sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford. The majority of these recordings were by American performers.
Mr Hanney, a professional musician, lived across the street from us. I spent about four years trying to learn to play the violin under his instruction. Despite his generosity, talent, patience and kindness, the violin was never going to be my instrument of choice. I played or rather ‘scratched’ my way as a second violinist in the school orchestra each week, and sang in school and church choirs.
My primary school choir had a varied repertoire of songs and competed seriously in the yearly Sydney Eisteddfod performances. Some segments of songs I still recall are: “There was a brooklet bubbling, where darting in and out, no care at all him troubling was merry Master Trout” and “I sing because I love to sing, because instinctive fancies move, because it hurts no earthly thing, because it pleases one I love”. Those “instinctive fancies” had our primary school minds in a quandary. Religious songs like “Creation’s Hymn” (“To God eternal, the Heavens utter glory”) were also in the repertoire. One year our choir was involved in the ABC’s singing radio programme for schools.
At night I would often rock myself to sleep singing songs to myself. In my early teenage years I had the good fortune to win a transistor radio in a colouring-in competition. Coming with an earpiece, it gave me the freedom to listen to popular music on the “Top Forty” radio stations whenever I so desired.
Besides the Saturday afternoon races coming from the radio in the flat immediately underneath ours, sometimes Stan would play his banjo. Stan lived with Joyce and they had a large collection of popular music. They owned some of the first 45 rpm recordings I ever heard. Joyce used to invite me down to listen to some of them. I remember hearing Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” when it was just released in Australia, along with Fabian, Paul Anka, Guy Mitchell, Bobby Darren and other names now long forgotten. Johnnie Ray was Joyce’s all-time favourite American crooner, so I heard quite a lot of him too. Like my father, Stan and Joyce obviously gained a tremendous amount of pleasure from music.
Stan and Joyce regularly attended concerts at the old Sydney Stadium at Rushcutter’s Bay. One Friday evening they were kind enough to take my brother and me to see the American performers Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, “the female Elvis Presley” and the Australian singer Johnny O’Keefe. We had seats close to the stage, which revolved continuously during the performances. This was in 1957 when I was still in primary school.
My main memory of the evening is of Little Richard shedding about half a dozen different coloured, lightweight suits during his performance. The Stadium was also used for boxing matches and as a concert venue it was pretty rough and ready. The only other time I was ever again in the Stadium was some ten years later. That time it was the venue for an anti-Vietnam protest meeting.