Turn the Page (R Seger) 1975 and Hollywood Seven (G Sklerov/H Lloyd) 1976 and Six Ribbons (J English) – Jon English (with Mario Millo) 1978
Jon English (1949) was born in London to working class parents Syd and Sheila, she was 25 and although 8 years younger than her husband, was a feisty, volatile and assertive person in contrast to Syd, who was gentle and non-confrontational. Jon would inherit the midnight shadow, raccoon eyes of his mother’s family, but temperamentally he was more like his father, who taught him to play guitar. The English family emigrated to Australia in 1961 on the SS Orion, and settled in the newly-minted migrant area of Cabramatta in south-west Sydney, which also happened to be the electorate of the local member, and soon-to-be Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, and his family. At Cabramatta High School he would form Zenith, his first garage covers band, and meet Carmen Sora whom he would marry in 1969. In the same year he joined Sebastian Hardie, a rock and soul covers band, where he would meet Mario MIllo, with whom he would collaborate later in his career, on his biggest hit Six Ribbons. Below L-R – Jon third from left top row, Cabramatta HS Rugby League team 1964, John and his wife Carmen, early days with Sebastian Hardie.
Sebastian Hardie worked the Sydney gig circuit and also performed as Johnny O’Keefe’s backing band until 1972 when Jon successfully auditioned for the role of Judas in Harry M. Miller’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, and his fellow cast members included a roll call of the pop stars of the era – Stevie Wright, John Paul Young, Graham Russell and Russel Hitchcock (Air Supply), and later Marcia Hines. Below L-R – JCS Australian Cast, Poster, Jon (Judas), Trevor White (Jesus), Michelle Fawdon (Mary)
English dramatically embodied the pivotal role of Judas in JCS and emerged as the star of the show; and would begin a close association with live theatre at this time, that he would sustain throughout his career. He also kickstarted his recording career in 1973 with his debut album, Wine Dark Sea, produced by G Wayne Thomas, from which the single Handbags and Gladrags was lifted for a modest #50 charter, but his husky vocals and dark good looks would soon propel his second record, Turn the Page into the national top 20.
Lifted from his second album It’s All A Game, which comprised mostly original songs by English, Turn the Page was written by US rocker Bob Seger, a story song inspired by an incident at a roadhouse in the US midwest, where he and his band mates were singled out for rough treatment by some unfriendly truckers. Once again Jon’s personal experience of touring country towns and enduring the threats of violence and “longhair” taunts of the locals, enabled him to inhabit this song, and imbue it with a gritty reality. He would also become a regular Countdown performer even though he was obviously more rock than pop, and he was joined on that show by other JCS alumni, Stevie Wright, John Paul Young and Marcia Hines.
English secured guest roles in local TV series Homicide, Matlock Police, and Number 96, usually in the role of a villain, and continued to guest as lead vocalist with Sebastian Hardie at Newcastle’s Savoy Club and the Kirk Gallery in Surry Hills (Syd), he also produced their debut album Four Moments, which was critically praised and climbed to #12 nationally in 1975. In 1976 Peter Rix became his manager and together they looked for his next single release, and as English was a fan of Stephen King’s novels, he was drawn to moody story songs, with an element of drama and theatricality, and he was about to find such a song, customized for his unique interpretation.
Hollywood Seven was originally written by Gloria Sklerov and Harry Lloyd for Terry Jacks who had just hit the charts with Seasons in the Sun, Sklerov recalls writing the song “At the time I was a staff writer for Garrett Music who had a sub-publishing arrangement with Polydor in Australia. They had asked me to write an urban story song and as I was on my way home on the freeway, I passed a motel called “Hollywood Eight” which intrigued me. I started to think about who might be checking in there. When I got together with Harry Lloyd, we discussed it and decided to change the name to “Hollywood Seven” because it “sang” better. We then plotted the story and it all came out to be like it was meant to. Terry Jacks passed on the song because of its dark themes, so it was sent out to sub-publishers for others to record. Below – Gloria Sklerov.
Sklerov and Lloyd were impressed with Jon’s version because he had used the synth riffs on the original demo, and Jon’s vocals were gutsy and convincing. The song had real suspense and dramatic tension as the aspiring starlet moved into the motel and is befriended by the narrator of the song, “She came in one night from Omaha, worn out/ She never could sleep on trains, took the bus to Hollywood/ Lookin’ for a room in the pourin’ rain/ With hair so blonde and eyes so brown/ She thought she’d take this town and turn it upside down.” But the young actress never realized her dreams of stardom, is forced to resort to prostitution to survive, as the ballad dramatically plots the deadly path that starstruck hopefuls are sometimes forced to pursue in tinsel town, “So she started bringin’ strangers home/ Just tryin’ to find a way to pay the rent… I found her there one mornin’/ She didn’t co-ome for coffee when I called/ She’d gone and brought the wrong one home this time/ There were crazy lipstick marks all over the wall…”It was the biggest hit for English to that time and charted #13 locally and was a surprise #18 hit in Sweden, and covered in the UK by the Minder’s Dennis Waterman.
It was the second song lifted off Jon’s third album and also the title track, and was recorded at the Armstrong Studio (Melb) and produced by Americans Rod Thomas and William Motzing.
He would follow up with his fourth album Minutes To Midnight in 1977 and the second song lifted from it would be the mid-tempo Rod Stewartesque Words Are Not Enough, written by Aussies Garry Paige and Mark Punch, which would become Jon’s first top ten hit when it climbed to #6 and charted for 22 weeks. Album cover, Cast Photo, Six Ribbons artwork.
The following year English would embark on a career-defining role in the TV mini-series Against the Wind and team up with his old Sebastian Hardie bandmate, multi-instrumentalist Mario Millo, to compose the soundtrack for the series. The thirteen-part series was written and produced by Bronwyn Binns of Crawford Productions, set in the late eighteenth century and based on the true story of convicted transportee Mary Mulvane, who was sent to the Australian colonies for seven years, during a period which covered such historical events as the 1798 rebellion in Ireland, the Castle Hill convict rebellion in 1804, and the1808 Rum Rebellion. English was screen-tested for the series and won the role of Jonathon Garrett, an illiterate, under-nourished convict who falls in love with Mary Mulvane, played by Irish actress Mary Larkin. Key locations in the shooting of the series included Old Sydney Town, Emu Bottom Homestead in Sunbury (Vic), the Montsalvat Artists’ Colony in Eltham (Melb) and Colac (Vic) which doubled as Ireland. Original plans to use a library of existing period music were jettisoned once English and Millo presented samples of their proposed songs, including Mary’s Theme, The March of The Kings of Laois, and the lilting, melancholy ballad Six Ribbons, to producers. Below – Jon and Mario Milla collecting their gold records for sales of the Against the Wind album, and single Six Ribbons.
The resulting album, Against The Wind Soundtrack was recorded and produced in 1979 by English and Millo at Alberts Windchase Studios in Sydney, and became an international hit charting #10 locally, #4 in NZ, #1 in Norway and #4 in Sweden, and sold a million copies.
The soundtrack evoked stirring memories of the series, and the music continued to resonate with fans long after the series had concluded, traditional folk ballads and more rousing jigs and reels reflected the on-screen narrative, but it would be the delightfully plaintive Six Ribbons which became the only single lifted from the soundtrack, and ultimately the biggest hit for English.
It was an acoustic guitar-based refrain with a sentimental, wistful, and slightly haunting air, heartfelt flute solos by Laura Chislett, and the exquisite blending of English’s husky vocals with the crystalline soprano of the backing singers, which imparted a medieval madrigal ambience to the song; as English proclaimed the depth of his love for his paramour Mary, by listing the gifts he would bestow on her if he were not just a poor common farmer – Tooralee, tooralie, all I can share/ Is only six ribbons, to tie back your hair”. Like all good “list” songs it resonated globally, but music mavens have however pointed out that while English sings about six ribbons he only specifies five – yellow, brown, blue, green, and red – and the Scandinavians had real trouble trying to translate the words “tooralee” and “tooralie” into English.
Six Ribbons also recalled the traditional folk song Greensleeves, and the Simon & Garfunkel hit Scarborough Fair, and like the album, the single was an international hit, charting #5 locally, #3 in NZ, #1 in Norway and #4 in Sweden.
In the late 1980’s John played the mad monk Rasputin in the musical of the same name, which inspired him to fulfil his ambition to write his own rock opera, Paris, based on the Trojan wars. His recording of Paris became the largest selling box set CD in Australia and the largest selling original Australian musical, winning an ARIA award for the best cast album. The artists featured on it included The London Symphony Orchestra, Barry Humphries, Doc Neeson, John Waters, Demis Roussos, Francis Rossi, Phillip Quast, Terry Donovan, John Parr and Harry Nilsson. Below L-R – All Together Now cast, Jon in Pirates of Penzance, Jon in HMS Pinafore.
Jon would continue to star in live music theatre including several revivals of Jesus Christ Superstar, Dad’s Army, the TV sitcom All Together Now, and numerous seasons of Gilbert and Sullivan musical comedies including, The Pirates of Penzance, HMS PInafore, and the Mikado, and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to The Forum.
He continued to record and had several other charting singles throughout the 70s and 80s, including Get Your Love Right (1979), Hit Town (1979),and Carmilla (1980),as well as the albums English History (1979), Calm Before the Storm (1980), and Beating the Boards (1982). John English was a gifted singer, actor, songwriter, and producer, his versatility across many different musical genres – live theatre, rock, pop, folk, rock opera, and musical comedy- was remarkable, he took seven singles, and ten albums into the ARIA Top 40 between 1975- 1984, and was a hitmaker internationally, yet some forty-six years after his debut hit Turn the Page, he is still yet to be inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. Below – Jon and Coralea Cameron.
Jon English sadly passed away in 2016, and was survived by his ex-wife Carmen, children Jessamine, Josephine, Jonathon and Julian, and partner Coralea Cameron.