Australian poet Les Murray has found his biographer in Professor Peter
Alexander — and what a story that is. Our Nobel Prize winning novelist and
dramatist Patrick White has won a worthy Boswell in David Marr. But who
will be sufficiently astute to write the biography of the most enigmatic
and talented of all? Painter and writer, actor and female impersonator,
baritone and falsettist, Satirist to the Age, the tender yet sadistic Mr
recent double CD of vintage 78’s, So Rare,
chosen by Humphries, his tender side is to the fore in his
treasuring of forgotten and lost musical masterpieces.
These are 78’s which were stored in new condition in at
least two Melbourne suburban garages by fastidious owners.
Sandy Stone characters, no doubt: collectors who hoarded
their fragile 10 inch circles for sixty or seventy years
knowing that within the spirals of their black yet golden
coins was held, in silent imprisonment, the Spirit of
Music, captured forever young. The two doughty knights,
who crept into those lonely sepulchres of sound and who
magically released the young princes and princesses of
Song into the sunlight were the veteran record producer
Bill Armstrong of Melbourne and his cobber Barry
1992 autobiography More Please Humphries recalls how he was paid by
E.M.I. to smash up 78’s made unsaleable by the arrival of the LP. There
were five boxes of ten inch Parlophones entitled When the Lighthouse
Shines Across the Bay featuring a monologue by the famous German actor
Conrad Veidt. It was Humphries’ first task, as reluctant Vandal, to hammer
one neat small hole in these perfect discs so that no artists’ fees would
need to be paid. As if in reparation Humphries has chosen this, the first
record he guiltily pulverised, for inclusion in So Rare.
German actor’s voice has timbre ripened by cigarettes, age and whisky and
his monologue, spoken against the ragged yet tuneful singing, conjures up
a picture of lonely sailors in some foggy seaport longing for the warmth
and love of their homes. A big hit of 1933 carries its lonely appeal
onwards into a new century.
most contemporary entertainers Humphries, from the beginning of his
career, turned to the show business creatives of the previous generation
as though this firstborn child from Melbourne was searching for older,
stronger brothers to show him the way. In London he sought out Mischa
Spoliansky, a popular composer of the Weimar period.
think of a Central European like Spolianksky as a damaged, starveling
survivor of a bombed out, war ravaged Europe, but here, in the detailed
booklet that comes with So Rare, is the beaming, ancient Mischa,
beautifully attired, seated at a grand piano with the elegantly tailored
Mr Humphries nearby. His 1932 song Tell Me Tonight is performed in
German by the magnificent, Hitler persecuted, Comedy Harmonists.
when ABC FM radio began playing the records of the Comedy Harmonists again
(my cousin Ella tells me they were on the radio “all the time” in the
forties and she loved them) I bought an imported CD of their music. Bill
Armstrong, using well preserved Melbourne acetates and working in his
studio to remove any crackles or hisses has restored the clean original
rich sound. In comparison the imported CD has surface noise and a drab
sound. Armstrong’s restoration of the forty-six 78s means that we now hear
the music more clearly and richly than it’s ever been heard before.
amusing and fairly frank autobiography More Please Humphries writes
of his triumphs and also of his alcoholism, depression and of his
destructive, sadistic behaviours. In 1962 or thereabouts I was in the
audience at the Macquarie Auditorium for A Nice Night’s Entertainment
— Barry’s first one-man show. Barry struck terror into his audience, even
those of us who made certain they didn’t come late! His satire was so
savage, his sexuality seemed indeterminate and he himself projected
insecurity and oddness. You felt he had a frightening inner rage and that
he was close to breaking out into destructive behaviour. Yet there was a
joy in seeing someone, for the first time, having a go at the materialism,
the aggressive philistinism, and the comfortable assumptions of
authoritarian, narrow minded middle Australia. His early shows in Sydney
were sold out and the LP’s did well — they had a taste of forbidden fruit
In 1968 I
saw a lank haired, sallow, plain looking chap get on the London
Underground at St John’s Wood. This fellow sat by himself, talking to
himself and shaking with laughter. He was in an inner world entirely —
perhaps creating an episode of the hilarious Private Eye comic
strip The Adventures of Barry McKenzie — and oblivious to all the
other people in the carriage. He seemed like one of those mad people
around London and going all the way downhill fairly rapidly.
or thereabouts, on a Saturday night, over the car radio, I heard Barry
give an interview to the ABC. If you have ever known Depression and,
really, who hasn’t, you would have recognised a person speaking from a
place where there is no hope. This was a bleak, abandoned cave Humphries
was speaking from where everything was burnt and wasted. Barry spoke of
his alcoholism and of his long term membership of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Indeed that connection with AA seemed the only torn fragment of hope he
could grasp at that time.
recovered and all of us have benefited from the riches of his inner world.
His satire became gentler and he relied on his wit, his ear for language
and the outrageousness of his characterisations. Indeed an intimidating
figure became a loved humorist — an essential part of the Australian scene
like Gough Whitlam or Les Murray.
1959 Barry was at an early stage in his journey. Arrived in London,
unknown, he sought out yet another established creative figure of the
previous generation. Humphries met Eric Maschwitz, head of BBC light
entertainment and lyricist of Room Five Hundred and Four and A
Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square. Maschwitz was friendly and helpful
to Humphries and forty years later he returns the favours. Both those
songs, in splendid wartime renditions, are on the CD. Vera Lynn’s 1941
Room Five Hundred and Four is poignant, giving a believable and
intimate glimpse of wartime romance and reminding us of how she is able to
hit a note in its perfect centre. Dame Vera, 24 when she recorded this
hit, is now in her 84th year.
Humphries’ positions in Melbourne had been that of elocution teacher to
housewives at the Greta Meirs School of Charm. What an extraordinary
position for the embryonic satirist but it is notable that on every record
chosen by Humphries, excepting the few by foreigners singing in
English, the diction is outstanding. Hildegarde’s 1937 So Rare has
a crystalline harp accompaniment supporting an effortless voice, floating
to the highest notes and having great beauty of diction. Humphries has
known Hildegarde since the 70s and in 1999 she was alive and well in New
York at the age of 93.
five songs by Hildegarde on the two CDs of So Rare, all recorded in
London in 1937, which reveal the technical as well as musical excellence
of that period. That the glamour of Hildegarde, forgotten for more than 60
years, has been brought back into the bright light of the present is one
of the triumphs of this collection.
baritone himself, Humphries includes several tracks by pianist-baritones.
Leslie Hutchinson and Turner Layton, both recorded in London, enjoyed
great popularity in their day. But try to tell them apart — it’s quite a
the gender bender, is at work in his choice of Noel Coward’s Mad About
the Boy and he includes the once banned piece of harmless naughtiness
Ain’t It Gorgeous — the old 78 was probably hidden in one of the
garages with a pile of yellowing Man magazines. Almost all the
recordings on the double album originated in London. The collection
indicates just how greatly pre-war Australia was dependant economically
and culturally on Britain.
seen a film by the enormously popular dancing, singing star of the
twenties and thirties Jack Buchanan, but the three records he made with
Elsie Randolph are light and witty with the bonus of having the piano
played by Ray Noble who leads the orchestra.
the great voices, selected by Humphries, belongs to an Australian,
Marjorie Stedeford, (1912-1959) who “made it” in London singing with the
top orchestras of the thirties. Her voice, deep like a man’s, is superb on
not for Barry Humphries and Bill Armstrong the glorious effortless singing
of Lucienne Boyer (1901-1983) and the youthfulness of Ann Lenner
(1910-1997) would remain lost and abandoned. And all of us would be the
poorer for not having heard the work of those hundreds of anonymous
musicians and arrangers whose meticulous and inspired playing now lives
choice of the songs and his friendship with many of the elderly composers
and singers, there is material for the future biographer. Let’s soon have
a thorough, truthful and scholarly biography of the greatest son of
Marvellous Melbourne — Mr Barry Humphries. In the meantime, give thanks to
Messrs Humphries and Armstrong and enjoy the gift of forty-six packages of
gaiety and delight retrieved for us from sombre, silent vaults of Time.
Like Parlophone, Regal
Zonophone was a popular brand of 78.
The So Rare two-CD
set catalogue number is 11-2 on the BAC label.