Pride and Joy (N Whitfield/Gaye/W Stevenson) and Breaking Point (B Bacharach/H David) – Normie Rowe and the Playboys and Ooh La La (M Keene/R Shaw) and It’s Not Easy (B Mann/C Weil) – Normie Rowe 1966
1966 was to be just as momentous as the previous year for Normie when he kicked off proceedings with two songs lifted off his third album, A Wonderful Feeling, and the first was Breaking Point, a Hal David/Burt Bacharach composition which had previously been recorded in the US by former Del-Vikings lead singer Chuck Jackson in 1961.The record was a solid up- tempo number and rocked a lot more than most Bacharach/David compositions.
Rowe’s vocals were a little overwrought, but the song resonated with the public and hit #5 in February and was quickly followed up by Pride and Joy in May. This was a former hit by Marvin Gaye and came straight from the Motown Hitsville USA heartland, written by Gaye who had his first top ten hit with this song in 1963, and two others, William “Mickey” Stevenson and Norman Whitfield, who were Motown songwriting royalty.
Whitfield would write many hits including Needle In a Haystack (an early Twilights record), Ain’t To Proud To Beg, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home), and Stevenson penned It Takes Two, Dancing In The Street, Devil In A Blue Dress/Good Golly Miss Molly, amongst many others. Rowe’s version revealed a maturing vocal style, and Pat Aulton’s production was first class, although Normie couldn’t boast having Martha and the Vandellas as his backing singers as Marvin Gaye did on his version, still the local support did a fine job, Pride and Joy charted at #8 and Normie would soon be heading for London in June to advance his career.
By mid-1966 Normie Rowe had notched up no less than six top ten hits including his first #1 with Que, Sera Sera, locals Pat Aulton and Nat Kipner had produced hit records for Normie and there had been no serious missteps so far in his career. Normie’s manager the irrepressible Ivan Dayman may have had his critics, financial management and accounting were not his forte, but his promotion of Rowe as the star of his Go! Show! /Sunshine Records musical collective had been sure-footed and calculated. Below- Normie Rowe’s fellow Sunshine recording artists L-R – Tony Worsely, Ross D Wylie, and Mike Furber.
The time seemed ripe for Rowe to spread his wings and test the international markets, but not in the clumsy way that previous Hoadley’s Battle of the Sounds winners had by optimistically jumping on a ship and arriving six weeks later unprepared in a fiercely competitive local music market where no concessions were made to Antipodean invaders. Below L-R Ritchie Yorke, Terry Kennedy, John Carter.
The attack on the UK market by Rowe was much more calculated, a London agent in Ritchie Yorke was engaged, journeymen performers and record producers Terry Kennedy and John Carter were retained, and the cream of London’s session musicians were assembled in the Polydor recording studios on Hampstead Hill – Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Big Jim Sullivan, famed drummer Clem Cattini and the vocal trio the Breakaways – the alumni for Rowe’s London sessions included past or future members of such legendary bands as the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin and the Tornadoes who had or would play on such hits as Itchycoo Park, Black is Black, Sunshine Superman, Out of Time, Ferry Cross the Mersey, Telstar, Daydream Believer and many others. Below L-R – Jimmy Page, Clem Cattini, Big Jim Sullivan.
Ooh La La was written by Robin Shaw (aka Robin Grimshaw) and Mickey Keene (aka Michael Wiltshire), who had previously written and composed I Will for the Nashville Teens and would contribute to such singles as My Baby Loves Lovin’ (White Plains) and Beach Baby (First Class). The writers had asked Rowe what his favorite music was and he replied “…one of my favorite songs of all time is When a Man Loves a Woman…”, (The Normie Rowe Story) the Percy Sledge soul classic, and to their credit Ooh La, La certainly has the cadences and horn lines of that famous Atlantic soul song.
The song emerged from these sessions as a fully formed ballad with Rowe delivering assured vocals and the backing and production standards were sublime, Normie had never sounded so mature and he delivered a nuanced performance. But this was a change in musical direction, lush, complex, sophisticated orchestration had replaced the more primal garage rock of Que Sera Sera and Shakin’ All Over and the urgency and pop sensibility of Breaking Point, Pride and Joy and Tell Him I’m Not Home – the young rocker sounded more like a Walker Brothers-style balladeer, albeit a very soulful one. Ooh La La was a moving break up song which ended with the emotional lyrical coda – “I don’t want you anymore…” it was a #1 hit in Australia and the 7th biggest-selling record of the year, but it was the last time that Normie Rowe would top the charts.
It’s Not Easy was written by Brill Building husband and wife team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, it had originally been intended for the Righteous Brothers as a follow up to the previous Mann /Weil smash hit, You’ve Lost That Lovin Feeling, the most played song in the history of rock music. But the Righteous Brothers turned it down because they were not prepared to work with the unpredictable and megalomaniacal Phil Spector again, but it would be easy to imagine the vocal parts that Bill Medley’s soulful bass-baritone and Bob Hatfield’s resonant tenor would have taken had they recorded this song. It’s Not Easy found its way to Polydor and the Normie Rowe London sessions, the Righteous Brothers recorded (You’re My) Soul and Inspiration, another Mann/Weil composition instead, and took it to a US #1, after giving it their own Spectorish makeover.
Rowe delivered a beautiful blue-eyed soul rendition of this love ballad, the lyrics and melody were perfect, cascading piano, a tympanic roll, and a surge of strings and drums, while the arrangement by Phil Dennys beautifully merged the contributions of the Ted Heath Band and the strings, woodwind, and percussion of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The backing singers were The Breakaways and The Ivy League, and collectively this assembled talent produced a #3 hit locally, and should have ignited Normie’s career internationally. An interesting fictional side bar to this recording was the imagined presence of Go-Between Robert Forster in the studio in London at the time, and his delight at contributing to the chorus by helping Normie take the song up an octave on the chorus, as “recalled” in his book The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll (2009), but alas Forster was only years nine old at the time.
Going Home composed by Graham Gouldman was another song recorded in the London sessions, which charted at #11 locally and was a fine single which also under-performed globally. Normie Rowe stayed in the UK for ten months and was briefly joined there by a re-constituted Playboys backing band. He toured the UK steadily in support of such acts as Spencer Davis Group, the Troggs, Gene Pitney, Julie Driscoll, and Kiki Dee, but made little impact on the UK charts and returned to Australia. Below L-R Getting a regulation haircut, Normie and Marcie Jones, Normie in Vietnam.
Rowe’s birth date had not been drawn out in the ballot which was how young men were conscripted for National Service, but in September 1967 the then Liberal government called him up in the hope that it would boost popular support for the war. He became an armored personnel carrier commander during the Vietnam war and served with distinction, attaining the rank of corporal, but he found adjustment to civilian life difficult as he battled PTSD and struggled to reignite his career as an entertainer in Sydney’s clubland. Eventually he carved out an impressive career in musical theatre – Les Miserables, Annie, Chess, and Evita – as well as television where he enjoyed an extended role on the popular soap opera Sons and Daughters. Below Left and Far Right Jean Valjean Les Miserables, centre Sons and Daughters.
Normie was married to Sue Polesworth 1971-80 and fathered two children with her, Adam (who was tragically killed in an auto accident when only 8 years old in 1979), and daughter Erin. He was subsequently married to cruise ship stewardess Joanne Whittle 1981-92 and they also had two children Bianca and Sammy. In 1991 Normie was involved in a highly-publicized physical confrontation with Sydney radio personality Ron Casey, on Ray Martin’s Midday Show, after Normie objected to Casey’s sneering putdown of Normie’s war service in Vietnam, during a “debate” about republicanism.
In the 90’s the singer then commenced a twelve-year relationship with Ansett flight attendant Jennifer Foote which ended in 2001. With two failed marriages, the departure of Jennifer Foote, and growing friction between Normie and his eldest daughter Erin, who was living on the streets and abusing drugs, and the overwhelming, undiagnosed emotional impact of PTSD and survivor guilt, which had all fed into Rowe’s growing alcohol abuse and career failure, led a clinically-depressed Normie Rowe to attempt suicide in 2001. But following proper diagnosis of his PTSD-related mental and emotional health issues, allied with appropriate therapy and medication, Normie was able to resume a productive working life, and to continue his support of fellow Vietnam vets, and he became a star on the rapidly-evolving heritage rock circuit in this country. In 2014 Normie married Penny Perrin, one of his backing singers, and they currently remain together.
Normie Rowe literally owned the local charts in the period 65-66 taking no less than eleven songs into the top 40, including eight top 10 hits, but a dubious conscription into the Army effectively ended his pop star career, even though he was crowned the King of Pop in 1967 and ‘68. Below L-R Normie and first wife Sue with children Adam and Erin, Normie with then-partner Jennifer Foote, and with his third wife Penny Perrin.
In 2005 Normie Rowe was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in a glittering ceremony that honored several other Aussie musical icons including Split Enz, Renee Geyer, Smoky Dawson, the Easybeats, Hunters and Collectors and Jimmy Barnes, and Normie turned back the clock when he joined the Melbourne rock trio the Living End in a rollicking version of his double-sided smash hit Que Sera, Sera/Shakin’ All Over.Below L-R – Crowning of KIng of Pop -L-R Rear Ronnie Burns, Johnny Young, Ross D Wylie; Front – Jeff Phillips, Normie, Jamie Redfern; Normie Through the Years, In Performance resplendent in Nehru -inspired Paisley Jacket.