It Ain’t Necessarily So (G Gershwin/D Heyward) and Que Sera Sera (Livingston/Evans) and Shakin’ All Over (F Heath) and Tell Him I’m Not Home (T &B Bruno/Bellini) – Normie Rowe and the Playboys 1965
Normie Rowe (1947) the former Post-Master General apprentice technician from Northcote (Melb) with the long Prince Valiant hairstyle, had responded to his employer’s ultimatum to “cut it or quit” in 1964, by deciding to become a professional entertainer, with the guarded approval of his parents Bert and Connie. He was discovered by Melbourne DJ Stan Rofe who saw him perform at the Lou Toppano Music School and arranged for him to get gigs at local dances and appear on current TV shows including Teen Scene and the Go!!Show. Rofe invited Ivan Dayman, Sunshine Records supremo, to see the young singer perform at the Preston Circle Ballroom, EMI had already passed on Normie, but Dayman was convinced he would be a future star and told Festival Records of his latest discovery. Above L-R – Stan Rofe, Normie with parents Bert and Connie, and Ivan Dayman.
Festival saw the potential and signed him up via their independent Brisbane outfit Sunshine Records, and Dayman was quick to feature Rowe in his many dance venues around the country – Cloudland in Brisbane, Op Pop City and Bowl Sound lounge in Sydney, Mersey City (Festival Hall) in Melbourne and Swinger in Adelaide – and Normie soon replaced Tony Worsley as the main Sunshine show attraction, as Worsley had been Dayman’s favorite up to that time. Below L-R – Melb. discos, Catcher, Berties, Sebastians.
In 1965 Melbourne was on a brink of a cultural/musical renaissance, it still mattered whether you lived north or south of the Yarra, your salary still came in a pay packet, decimal currency and 10 o’clock closing for pubs had yet to be introduced, but the Beatles had toured Australia in 1964 and unleashed previously unseen levels of fan hysteria. Sydney had dominated the local music scene until this time but Johnny O’Keefe’s legendary Six O’clock Rock had been cancelled, replaced by the formally-attired boredom of the Bryan Davies Show, O’Keefe’s Sing, Sing, Sing had come and gone, Brian Henderson’s Bandstand continued with its schmaltzy format and unhip superannuated roster of Festival artists like Col Joy, Judy Stone, Sandy Scott, and Warren Williams, and Billy Thorpe’s praiseworthy It’s All Happening had been cancelled after only one season.
When the Go!! Show debuted on Channel O in Melbourne in 1965 and discotheques began to mushroom throughout the CBD and suburbs, the time was right for one Norman John Rowe to emerge and claim the crown as the new King of Pop. Melbourne embraced the concept of live music venues and dance promoters quickly moved to capitalize on a burgeoning baby boomer demand for entertainment in a capital city where poker machine-obsessed Leagues clubs simply didn’t exist.
It was Stan Rofe who suggested that Rowe’s debut song should be the rather unlikely choice of a show tune from the musical Porgy and Bess, Rofe had an extensive collection of imported records, courtesy of his mates amongst Qantas cabin crew, and he was confident that Rowe’s edgy tenor voice would do justice to that show’s signature song, It Ain’t Necessarily So. In 1935 George Gershwin’s three act opera Porgy and Bess was based on the 1926 novel entitled Porgy by DuBose Heyward, which had been a sensation when first released, fusing as it did classical opera with Broadway musical, and setting the musical in the fictional all-black town of Catfish Row, in Charleston, South Carolina. The opera told the story of the disabled beggar Porgy’s attempts to rescue the beautiful Bess from her twin dependency on her violent and possessive lover Crown, and the sleazy dope-peddling character Sportin’ Life.
It Ain’t Necessarily So was sung by Sportin’ Life in the musical and these are the lyrics that Rowe used, without the Creole patois, and out of context in respect of the arc of the story integral to the original work by Gershwin, yet it does work very well as a stand-alone song too, as Rowe proved.
The song had previously been given the beat treatment by several UK bands, in 1963 a Liverpool beat group Ian and the Zodiacs included their version of the song on a compilation album which also featured Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, The Merseybeats, and The Mojos, entitled This Is Merseybeat in 1963 which became the template for the Normie Rowe record. The Honeycombs had also released an album version in 1964 and the Moody Blues had included a version of this song on their album, The Magnificent Moodies in 1965, but this was not released until after Rowe’s record had charted.
The local version was produced for Sunshine Records by the renowned Pat Aulton (above) at the Bill Armstrong’s Telefil studios in St. Kilda (Melb), Aulton would be the go-to producer for Norme Rowe throughout the 1960’s in Australia producing such hits as It Ain’t Necessarily So, I (Who have Nothing), Que Sera, Sera, Tell Him I’m Not Home, Breaking Point, Pride and Joy, and Shakin’ All Over. Aulton was one of the early producers to achieve overdub enhancement, by using army blankets to ensure amplifier isolation and so produce a resonant separation of sound, these were the early days of sound production ingenuity. Below The Playboys – Rear L-R – Bill Billings (lead guitar), Graham Trottman (drums/pecussion) Phil Blackmore (organ/keyboards), Front L-R -John Cartwright (rhythm guitar), Neil McArthur (bass)
A haunting organ accompaniment from Phil Blackmore, resounding bass guitar by Neil McArthur, and accomplished percussion from Graham Trottman, which included the resonant tremelloe/vibrato effect of a handheld woodtone block, helped to create a moody, brooding beat classic. Rowe’s powerful and affecting vocals were supported by a backing choir including the Four Kinsmen, Marcie Jones and Pat Carroll, which lent a spiritual feel to what was a potent and soulful mix, it was a gospel-inspired song that stood out in a sea of Beatles wannabees. As the song was a surprising choice as a debut single for Normie Rowe, Bill Duff of Sunshine Records was unsure of its potential and famously ordered only an initial pressing of 50 records, but the gamble paid off and it was a hit. The Catholic church-owned Sydney radio station 2SM banned the song as sacrilegious and thus created notoriety around the record’s release, airplay was limited in Sydney as a result, but the song was a big hit and charted #5 nationally.
The song and the opera of which it is an integral part has always been controversial, Gershwin had originally wanted to premiere the musical at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, but the management stipulated that they would only use white opera singers in blackface. Gershwin rightly protested that this was not only racist, but demeaning, and would reduce a powerful work of drama to mere caricature. African – Americans have also claimed that Porgy and Bess promoted negative racial stereotypes because it focused on the violent behavior, drug-dependence and misogynism of black men.
The song became the title track on Rowe’s debut album in 1965 which charted #2 nationally and at Stan Rofe’s suggestion again, he followed up with a dramatic cover version of Ben E King’s I Who Have Nothing, which took him back into the top 10, as Normie Rowe staked a claim to being the top male singer in the country. His fans were mostly young teenage girls and Normie was barely eighteen and enjoying their adulation, when in September ’65 he appeared in the Redfern Court on charges of carnal knowledge of a girl aged 13, and was bailed for £100, but the charges were subsequently dismissed. He would also become engaged to Marcie Jones, lead singer with the Cookies during the 60’s although they would never marry, and he also fathered a child in Melbourne in 1965 who has remained anonymous ever since. Below L-R – Marcie Jones, Marcie and Normie, Marcie and the Cookies – L-R Beverley, Margaret, and Wendy Cook, and Marcie Jones.
But Rowe was quick to vindicate his backers and proceeded to storm the charts in 1965 with no less than four top 10 hits – It Ain’t Necessarily So #5 in May, I (Who Have Nothing) #9 in August, Tell Him I’m Not Home #3 in November and Que Sera Sera which was his first national #1 hit in September.
Like his contemporaries Normie’’s early hits were beat covers of existing songs, and Que Sera Sera was no exception, having been lifted off an early Searchers album, but it had a previous life as a Doris Day standard performed by her in the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Man Who Knew Too Much, where it won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1956.The Normie Rowe version of the song has a gritty garage rock feel to it and is reminiscent of one of the earliest examples of this genre – Louie, Louie (Kingsmen) and the Beatles frantic cover of the Isley Brothers hit Twist and Shout. There were also two previous beat versions of this song which influenced this record, the High Keys (US ’63) and Earl Royal and the Olympics (UK ’64) which both included the whistle inserts that were ultimately incorporated into Rowe’s recording.
Ivan Dayman had connected his charge up to ace producers Pat Aulton and Nat Kipner and made him the star of the travelling Go!!Show starring Normie and featuring other Sunshine artists – Peter Doyle, Marcie Jones (Normie’s romantic interest and fiancee at the time), Tony Worsley, Mike Furber, the Librettos, and the Playboys.
Que Sera Sera was backed with a great cover of the Johnny Kidd and the Pirates hit Shakin’ All Over, guitarists Billy Billings and John Cartwright delivered a resounding set of riffs over Phil Blackmore’s febrile organ flourishes, which was a great addition to the original guitar-based version of the song by Johnny Kidd. Despite having a heavy sinus cold on the day of the recording Normie certainly delivered, and shook his kneebone, and his backbone and his thigh bone to great effect at live performances of the song. The record was a genuine double A-side smash which became the biggest-selling record of 1965 with sales in excess of 100,000, spending 28 weeks in the national top 40, and beating out the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and the Seekers in the process.
Tell Him I’m Not Home continued the onslaught on the charts by Normie Rowe and was a belting cover of a former hit for US soul singer Chuck Jackson in 1963. Jackson was the former lead singer of the Del-Vikings and would have his biggest hit in 1962 with another Tony and Brenda Bruno song Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird). Jackson’s version was soulful and used strings to advantage, while Normie’s was more earthy and rocked with a great call and response chant and the Playboys driving rhythm section, it charted at #3 nationally and was the 13th biggest-selling record of the year
1965 was a stellar year for the new King of Pop Normie Rowe, he had taken four consecutive singles into the top ten and would repeat this success in the following year with four more top ten hits; he also took two albums into the top five in 1965, It Ain’t Necessarily So, But It Is Normie Rowe (#2) and Normie Rowe A Go Go (#3), Normie Rowe virtually owned the local charts in 1965, only eclipsed by the Beatles.