Olive & Eva: Pioneering Aboriginal Recording Artists

The Australian National Film & Sound Archive is a priceless jukebox of Australian music history. Among their many treasures, one the collector in me finds particularly pulchritudinous, is the mastertape of four recordings made in the mid 1950s by Olive & Eva. Who are Olive and Eva you might ask? It’s a great question that for a long time couldn’t be answered by Google or Wikipedia. Author Clinton Walker recognised their importance in his seminal book Buried Country, however details on their lives and careers have been few and far between.

Olive & Eva were pioneers of the Australian record industry who released just four songs on two discs for the Prestophone label in 1955/56: Old Rugged Hills, Rhythm of Corroboree, When My Homeland Is Calling, and Maranoa Moon. They were the first commercially available records by an aboriginal Australian act and represent the headwater for a rich river of indigenous artists who have followed them. The background to these recordings frame a compelling vignette certainly worthy of wider circulation.

An aspect that fascinates me is that none of the four songs were written by either Olive or Eva. Nor were they cover versions of the pop hits of the day. Rather, they were composed by Grace O’Clerkin, a talented singer, guitarist and poet. Mrs Conn, as she was known by many in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, felt an affinity with the aboriginal communities around Redfern and La Perouse. Coalescing through music and a shared love of the Australian bush, the three enjoyed a friendship that nurtured their individual talents and made history in the process.

To learn more I spoke to Eva’s younger sister Maisie Cavanagh. I later made contact with Val Weston who told me a great deal about the life of her grandmother Grace O’Clerkin. The two conversations helped illuminate the lives of their respective family members and provide a deeper sense of their relationship.

Eva Mumbler

“Eva was interested in the guitar but you know she never really played an instrument. But of course it wasn’t even just Eva singing at the time, it was Eva and her brothers.”

Maisie Cavanagh

Eva Bell (later Eva Mumbler) was born in Orange in 1938, the third of six children. Her family lived at Erambie Mission just outside Cowra in New South Wales. They loved playing music.

Maisie Cavanagh: “I guess , when you’re living in situations like living on a reserve on a mission, and you’re isolated from being able to get involved in other things that you might want to be getting involved in, you know people become very creative in terms of playing violins and guitars and so my grandfather used to play concerts. They’d organise dances and he’d play the piano accordion and somebody else would play the guitar and my uncle used to play the gum leaf and so they had their own little orchestra. My mother grew up with that.”

“There was always the radio of course, back then we always had music. We always bought records, so there was always that. We’d have people come and we’d have sing songs on a Sunday. You know, we’d sit around and have sing songs, and have yarns and things like that. That was a real common thing with aboriginal people. If it wasn’t at our place this Sunday then it would be at someone else’s place.”

16 year old Eva Bell. Photo courtesy of the Mumbler family.

Eva was eight when the family moved to Sydney.

Maisie Cavanagh: “My dad never lived on a reserve, so he didn’t’ take lightly to living at Erambie and he wanted to get his family to Sydney for all the sorts of reasons that many families moved to Sydney – employment, better education, better housing.”

“Coming to Sydney, we moved to Redfern. Redfern was not like it is today. There was only a very small number of families, I would say about five, and people would come and stay with their extended families until they got their own accommodation. I never met anyone who had private accommodation in country towns like Cowra for example. They either lived on the reserve or camped out in the bush. They found it very difficult to go through real estate and get accommodation.”

“Eva was interested in the guitar but you know she never really played an instrument. But of course it wasn’t even just Eva singing at the time, it was Eva and her brothers.”

“Gordon, my second eldest brother, if you closed your eyes and he sang, you would think that  it was Tony Bennett.  He sounded so much like Tony Bennett. And of course the eldest brother Ted, he had a beautiful voice. I remember as a young child hearing him sing as a soprano . He just had a beautiful voice.  Even after his voice broke he was still a very good singer.”

Olive McGuiness

“Olive’s family were very musical, they were some of the best musicians that I have ever heard in my life.”

Maisie Cavanagh

Two years her senior, Eva’s cousin Olive McGuiness also grew up on Erambie Mission and loved music.

Maisie Cavanagh: “Olive’s family were very musical, they were some of the best musicians that I have ever heard in my life. There was another family called the Williams’, she was related to them and we were related to them also, but she was closely related to them, and they were very, very good musicians. In fact, when Charlie Perkins first came to Sydney he set up an organisation called the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs and he had the family play at their gatherings.”

In the early 1950s, as a young teen, Olive left Erambie and moved to Sydney.

Maisie Cavanagh: “A lot of young aboriginal women back then would come to Sydney to get employment in private housing.  You know they’d become housemaids in private housing. Live in help. She came to Sydney and stayed with us until she found employment.”

Olive and Eva in Sydney. Photo courtesy of the Mumbler family.

Singing In Harmony

I remember my mum saying oh we need to get ready early or we won’t get in the door, cause it would be packed out.

Maisie Cavanagh

Sunday evening gatherings, known as sing-songs, were an important and popular aspect of the social life in the city.

Maisie Cavanagh: “[The sing-songs] might be in Redfern or they might be in Alexandria, it might be in Newtown. You’d know through the grapevine that they’re having a sing-song over in Newtown on Saturday or Sunday night. I remember my mum saying oh we need to get ready early or we won’t get in the door, cause it would be packed out.

“I think it was just one night at a sing song at home they asked Olive and Eva to sing a song together. (It was) some pop song they sang together. Everyone realised they both sound really good. When you named a song they would work out how to best sing it for their ranges. They had this real sixth sense when it came to each other’s singing ability”

“It was about that time when Olive was staying with us and they’d been singing on a couple of occasions, mainly at our place, and then Mr & Mrs Conn came one night and heard them.” 

Grace O’Clerkin

“She could play just about any stringed instrument. Banjo, mandolin, violin, she even had a go at the zither once.”

Val Weston

Grace O’Clerkin was born in 1901 and grew up in Queensland. She moved from Townsville to Sydney in around 1947 and set up home in Union St, Erskineville.

Maisie Cavanagh: “O’Clerkin was her last name but all the aboriginal people used to call her Mrs Conn. Her husband was a broad Irishman and his name was Cornelius O’Clerkin, so it was his nickname they used to call her by – Mr & Mrs Conn.” 

Mr & Mrs Conn (left and right) with daughters Phyllis (centre) and Valmae (front). Photo courtesy of the Weston family.

Val Weston: “Her house was like an old shop. It wasn’t a shop anymore you know but she lived in it. She could play just about any stringed instrument. Banjo, mandolin, violin, she even had a go at the zither once. I think she could play a little bit on the piano as well. Very talented she was. But the Hawaiian guitar, yeah, that was her specialty.”

In her younger years Grace had been inspired to write away for a Hawaiian guitar and sheet music after hearing her boss playing Hawaiian records in the workplace.

Val Weston: “She played it with picks and a steel. The first time I saw it, it was, just a dark reddish colour, and then in the 40s she sent the body away. Somebody was going to cover it with ah, well she called it nickel plate. When she got it back it just looked like a silver guitar. It was great. And I have it here and it’s still got a little dint in the back of it, I don’t know where she bumped it on something. So when she lived out at Yarra Bay, which is now called Phillip Bay, of a Sunday you know she would walk down to La Perouse and sit up on the grassy bank near the beach and play music and she would end up with a big crowd around her.”

Grace O’Clerkin wasn’t just interested in playing other people’s songs on the guitar either, she was always working on lyrics and melodies of her own.

Val Weston: “She’d sit most of the day writing. All she did was write. Lyrics, poetry or she’d be ruling up music sheets or something. In later years she wrote all her own music, even lined it up you know, she had a special pen with so many points on it that she could just rule the lines for the music to go on.  Yes she did a lot of music writing, manuscripts and that.”

“It was hard in those days to get any  Australian music out there because, well the only ones they were interested in was hillbilly stuff. But she didn’t write that. They were Australian Bush Ballads, I think that was what she called them. Some were funny and some were nice, I loved them all ”

Mrs O’Clerkin’s songs also made a big impression on Maisie and her friends and family.

Maisie Cavanagh: “Her music and her lyrics were incredible. She had this all steel guitar that she played on her lap and it sounded like an electric. And she was good. She was very good. I’d say that she was the best female guitarist I’ve heard in my life. She was just incredible. And the music that she wrote, a lot of it was uncanny because she was writing about aboriginal things, so she really had a feel for aboriginal people.”

Grace (centre kneeling) & her daughter Phyllis (Stella) between Chaplin and saxophone. Photo courtesy of the Weston family.

The O’Clerkins quickly became friends with their neighbours and before long they were an integral part of the suburban social music scene.

Val Weston: “Every Sunday night we used to go across the road to an aboriginal lady and play music at her place. But the crowd became so big that we had to take it back to Grandmas place because she had a bigger room. And every Sunday night we’d have music. The whole street used to go there practically and listen.”

Maisie Cavanagh: “When we had sing-songs at home in Alexandria, the non-aboriginal people who lived next door and across the road, they’d come over, or they’d be hanging over their fence. I think that these sings-songs in these people’s houses really started with Mrs O’Clerkin, because I could imagine that aboriginal people would have wanted to do that but been in fear of getting into trouble if you had a sing-song. But because she was having one in her house, then my mum and dad said we should have one in our place too. But they were the ones that really started it.”   

A teenage Jimmy Little and his brother Freddy were among those known to attend.

Over time O’Clerkin began sharing the songs she had been writing with a few of the regular singers who had been drawn to the gatherings.

Val Weston: “She had a couple of young aborigine boys who used to sing her songs. She used to take them around to different places and they’d perform. She had another boy, Eva’s brother, he had a beautiful voice as a child. He was about 12 I think. This was Teddy. Teddy Bell his name was. Oh yeah. Boy soprano he was.”  

Ted Bell was one of the first singers to perform Grace O’Clerkin’s songs. Though never recorded, he sang Old Rugged Hills at local events well before Olive & Eva.

Val Weston: “She was all for the aboriginal people. She had a very soft spot in her heart for them. Always tried to advance them. But in those days of course no one was really interested in aborigines performing, and that was a shame.”

Moving to La Perouse

“They were like celebrities amongst aboriginal people. Oh Eva and Olive are here, it’s going to be a good night now.”

Maisie Cavanagh

In the mid 1950s the O’Clerkins moved to the coastal suburb of La Perouse where they soon made new connections with the local aboriginal community, particularly through music.  

Maisie Cavanagh: “When she moved to La Perouse she would have her sing-songs there. The aboriginal people of La Perouse would all be there. We’d catch the tram and go out there, and not only us but others would catch a tram and go out there. She had this little place right on the side of Yarra Bay on the side of this little hill. You’d have to sit out in the yard because you couldn’t get in the door. It was a real gathering. It was a time when people would really come together and they were mainly aboriginal people.”

It was during this period that Olive & Eva decided to pay a visit to Grace. The duo had been practising harmonies for their own version of the Hank Williams song Your Cheatin’ Heart. Maisie joined them on the trip.

Maisie Cavanagh: “It was so good we all applauded. Then she took them under her wing and they were singing her songs. It was great. Eva and Olive they just came out to visit her one Sunday. Cause we lived out near the beach. And I think I was about 10 or 11 then. And I think Eva was 17. They sang a song for her and she loved it. Then they started singing her stuff when she taught them.”

As they practised and perfected new material their confidence grew and the O’Clerkins began looking for opportunities to play in front of new audiences.

Maisie Cavanagh: “It might have been a dance, a non-aboriginal dance. They were mostly non-aboriginal functions. I use to see the singer Harold Blaire and also Jimmy Little a couple of times at different functions.

Once their talents had been given wider exposure they quickly developed a following.

Maisie Cavanagh: “They were like celebrities amongst aboriginal people. Oh Eva & Olive are here, it’s going to be a good night now.”

The youth oriented newspaper Challenge announced a talent quest to be held across September and October 1954. Accompanied by Grace, Eva sang at the Randwick heat in September. Exactly which songs they played is unknown, but the performance was described in the Tribune newspaper as “moving”.

Eva at her Communion. Photo courtesy of the Mumbler family.

Australia’s Amateur Hour

“The night that they sang on the Amateur Hour, I think everybody in our street had their radio tuned in.”

Maisie Cavanagh

A pioneering radio talent show which had begun in 1940, Australia’s Amateur Hour was syndicated across the country via 55 radio stations covering both the cities and rural areas. Hosted initially by Harry Dearth and then later Dick Fair, it consistently drew huge weekly audiences, becoming a pop-culture phenomenon. In 1955 the top prize was £1000.

Olive and Eva entered. No doubt encouraged by their families, increasingly popular performances at local events and talent quests, not to mention Grace and Cornelius O’Clerkin.   

To win they’d need to impress listeners across Australia. Each heat and semi-final was decided by a combination of judges opinions and the number of popular votes chalked up via phone or mail in the weeks after each episode. Before their appearance Olive and Eva were justifiably nervous.

Maisie Cavanagh: “I remember Eva saying, when she heard this opera singer, her and Ollie were saying, oh my god we haven’t got a chance”

Though there is no first-hand record of their appearance on the show, there appears to be a strong chance that the song they sang that night was one of the four tunes they would shortly record for Prestophone. Whatever they performed it clearly went over well with those who heard it.

Maisie Cavanagh: “They won the Amateur Hour that night! It certainly wasn’t my little sock full of pennies that won it. I remember I’d saved tuppence or thrippence or something like that, that you had to put into the phone box. Course the phone box was on the next corner, you had to run around the block to go to the phone box. You had to call the station and tell them what number you were voting for. We just made so many phone calls that night.”

As a result, Olive and Eva were announced as finalists to appear at the Sydney Town Hall on Thursday 1st December 1955.

Performing alongside Olive & Eva were piano duettists Anne & Phillip Bracanin, soprano Margaret Goldstone, pianist Alexander Boettcher, piano accordionist Vina Loscar, vocal group The Four Brothers (Mick Beasley, Tiki Ticehurst, Ken Lloyd, & Tommy Whelan), banjoist Bruce Robinson, folk singer Fred Berry, tenor Greg Dempsey, and the Provost Brothers (Barry & Bruce).

The Four Brothers were also finalists in Australia’s Amateur Hour in 1955. Photo courtesy of Ken Lloyd

Unfortunately I’ve never been able to ascertain who ultimately won the contest that year, though I have spoken to a few who were there. Ken Lloyd of The Four Brothers confirmed it wasn’t them. He thought it might have been Margaret Goldstone. I also spoke to Phillip Bracanin who confirmed that he and his sister hadn’t taken the prize. He suggested it might have been Alexander Boettcher. It’s possible we will never know. What is important for this story however is that the momentum Olive and Eva gained throughout the competition resulted in their recording session.

Recording With Prestophone

“I don’t know how she did it but you know she put in all the extra bits as she went along with the song. She didn’t need accompaniment.”

Val Weston

Reginald (Rex) Shaw ran Prestophone Records from Pitt Street in Sydney. By the mid 50s the label had released discs by an array of popular local acts including bandleader Frank Coughlan.

Maisie Cavanagh: “My mother and Olive and Eva went into Sydney and we met a guy there and his name was Shaw. He wanted them to do some practice to see how they’d go. They only sang with Mrs Conn playing the guitar at that time. He wanted to see if they could sing with a quartet. Something other than the guitar.”

Their debut single Old Rugged Hills / Rhythm of Corroboree was released on Prestophone in 1955. The addition of a quartet was likely driven by a desire to broaden their commercial viability, however it meant that Grace O’Clerkin did not get to feature on the recordings.

Val Weston: When they made those recordings as I said they didn’t want her to play the guitar they had to use an orchestra. I don’t know if you heard of the song Rhythm of Corroboree, it was very powerful the way she played it. But on the record when they used the orchestra it just lacked something. It didn’t have any life in it. And I was a bit disappointed in that. And I think she was too. It was always nicer with the guitar. ‘Cause I supposed she wrote them for the guitar. And she played her own accompaniment on the guitar, I don’t know how she did it but you know she put in all the extra bits as she went along with the song. She didn’t need accompaniment.”

Despite any disappointment that may have been felt, as soon as the disc became available it was a hit with the local aboriginal community in Sydney.

Maisie Cavanagh: “They came home and it was really exciting. People came, like our family, our neighbours came in to hear it and put it on the radiogram. Awww it was, you know, we couldn’t believe it, we use to play them until we couldn’t play them anymore. You’d have to go get another needle, buy another needle. Yeah no, everyone was playing them. There weren’t that many but they were handed around to other people because there was that excitement. Because it was never heard of. Here was two people that you knew, that lived next door to you or you are related to them, and here they were on this contraption. There was certainly  that awareness that fancy that, you know here is Ollie and Eva, they made a record.”

Sadly, it seems that most of the copies that sold were snapped up by family and friends and then worn out through repeated plays on their home stereos. Few copies appear to have ever made their way to radio stations where they might have got a vital play or two that could have opened up further opportunities.

Maisie Cavanagh: “I haven’t heard anybody who has ever heard their record being played on radio. After the Amateur Hour, and after the record, I think they went for a little while  and then I think they started getting ready to settle down and get married. I think for Olive, well she’d been down in Sydney for a while, I think she just wanted to go back home, she was homesick.”

In 1956 Olive and Eva released their 2nd and final record through Prestophone: Maranoa Moon / When My Homeland Is Calling. Despite gorgeous harmonies, and more evocative songwriting from Grace O’Clerkin, the tracks failed to gain the wider public’s attention. It seems the pair stopped performing together regularly not long afterwards.

Keen to start a family, Olive moved back to Cowra.

However, Eva stayed in Sydney and continued performing publicly for more than a decade. She was one of two winners, along with mezzo-soprano Lorna Beulah, in the 1962 NADOC week Music Quest.

Eva could often be found singing at shows with the likes of Jimmy Little or the Silver Lining Band and was a regular entrant (and winner) of the many talent shows run by inner city pubs during the early 1960s. Eva didn’t stop performing until the birth of her third child at the end of that decade. One of her children was named Cornelius in honour of Grace O’Clerkin’s husband.

Val Weston: “In later years, when Eva got married she started giving guitar and ukulele lessons to some of the local kids and they were quite good too. Not singing but playing the instruments. Which is something I could never do. I just could never pick it up.” 

Beyond that the musical careers of Olive and Eva took a backseat, though whenever they found themselves in each other’s company at a family gathering they would sing together. Many Wiradjuri people of New South Wales still fondly remember them and their beautiful harmonies at get togethers.

Old Rugged Hills


Blue grey majestic, eternal they stand
Guarding the shores of my native land
Shelt’ring the valleys  where blue waters run
In adoration, kissed by the sun
Old rugged hills of Australia”

Old Rugged Hills (lyrics by Grace O’Clerkin)

Grace O’Clerkin continued to write songs and poetry until her death in 1964 at the age of 63.

Val Weston: “She had a very big funeral. The Premier of New South Wales sent a telegram of condolence. She had a lot to do with the aboriginal movement and she knew a lot of….she knew a lot of celebrities.”

“I remember when she got a Christmas card from Smokey Dawson. Lionel Long – he was a singer/actor. He wrote her a letter once. Jimmy Little visited once. But yeah, she did know a few celebrities. I think she knew Harold Blair.  He was an aboriginal tenor singer.”

Grace O’Clerkin. Photo courtesy of the Weston Family.

Following Olive and Eva’s recordings others, including Jimmy Little, began to perform O’Clerkin’s songs.

Val Weston: “I was really surprised to see Jimmy Little sing her songs on TV. Not many were interested in Australian music in those days. She tried so hard, you know going to all these record companies. But of course it was hard then. Nobody wanted to hear Australian stuff.”

When Eva sang in front of 3000 people in Sydney’s Martin Place to mark National Aborigines Day in 1962, one of the songs she chose was Old Rugged Hills.

Maisie Cavanagh: “It’s a very powerful song. It talks about you belonging, not just as an aboriginal person, but as an Australian. And it came long before I Still Call Australia Home.  It’s pitched that way. This is the land that you belong to.”

“You see aboriginal people have been conditioned to believe that we don’t have anything of value or beauty and non-aboriginal people have been conditioned to think that way about us, and we’ve been conditioned to think that way about ourselves. And so this person comes along and she writes these songs that have us thinking about ourselves and putting it in a way (or expressing it) how we feel. We have the emotion but we can’t express it about where we belong and what we belong to. I think that Mrs Conn’s music does that very effectively.”

Postscript

After many years searching I finally found a copy of Old Rugged Hills / Rhythm of Corroboree for myself. A photo of it appeared in my Facebook feed one day and a conversation with a collector in Sydney followed. He told me he was happy to see it going to an appreciative home. It now sits on a shelf alongside other groundbreaking records by indigenous Australian acts of that era including Georgia Lee, Vic Sabrino, Harold Blair, and Vicky Simms. There is a space reserved for Maranoa Moon / When My Homeland Is Calling.

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The podcast produced on Olive and Eva which features part of my interview with Maisie Cavanagh is below.

The Civic Symphony Orchestra and the first Australian LP

On the 6th July 1951 the Strings of the Civic Symphony Orchestra under Haydn Beck set up in the Great Hall of Sydney University and played selections by Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, Lotter, and Percy Grainger. Though almost forgotten now, the record capturing the performance that day deserves a place in music history as the first Long Play Microgroove album (LP) to be produced in Australia. Its story brings together celebrated musicians, visionary town councils, and a pioneering record label.

Long Play Microgroove Records In Australia

In 1951 some 400,000 Australians had gramophone players according to the Sydney’s Sunday Herald newspaper. Most of these players were geared to play the 78rpm discs that had been popular during the previous decades. Very few were capable of playing the new 33 1/3 rpm albums that were beginning to enter the market via manufacturers like Decca Records in the U.K. However, big things were envisaged for the burgeoning album market, mainly due to the fact that so much more music could fit onto a LP. For the first time, an entire movement of music could fit on one side of a record. 

But albums were generally hard to come by. In an intriguing coincidence, the Federal budget of 1951 announced a rise in sales tax on records to 33 1/3%, a rate which perfectly mirrors the playing speed of the new LPs. To fight inflation the government of the day also announced restrictions on the import of records. These conditions proved fertile for the rise of a local record industry with labels like Festival/Manhattan, Fidelity, and the Australian Record Company (ARC) all beginning operation in the 18 months that followed. But the first to get their LP operations off the ground was Diaphon Records.    

Diaphon Records

Diaphon began operation in 1951 as the Audio Photographic Record Company. It became Diaphon not long before issuing its first records. The original Diaphon offices were in Sydney at 24 Moore St, Roseville.

There is not a lot of information around about the early operations, but it appears that in 1952 the company’s General Manager was Mr W. Walter Hayum. Hayum was an American who graduated from Albright College in Pennsylvania in 1950 before traveling to Australia. He had been involved in radio while studying. After arriving in Sydney he wrote stories for the local papers, sometimes using a byline that read ‘an American journalist, now in Sydney’. While in Australia, Hayum was also involved with the early days of Festival Records, and in particular the recording of Ken Neville’s Tales of the Dreamtime records. He left Sydney in 1954 and became a senior executive with Epic Records during the mid to late 1950s.     

Diaphon was also home to a young Ken Hannam, who was Managing Director for a period in 1954. At the time Hannam was a regular on radio and stage around Sydney, but he later carved an international reputation as a film and TV director. Perhaps his finest moment was his work as director of the film Sunday Too Far Away, which helped establish the new wave of Australian cinema in the mid 1970s. You can read Hannam’s liner notes on several notable Diaphon releases including the original soundtrack recording of the Australian musical Reedy River.

Bringing Music to the Suburbs

In July 1947 it was announced that renowned violinist and conductor Haydn Beck would be leaving the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to lead the new Marrickville Municipal Orchestra. A story in the Sydney Morning Herald said “the appointment is regarded as the most striking venture in suburban music since the foundation of the associated music clubs.” The orchestra was to number around 30 players, most of whom would be professional musicians with a smattering of amateurs. The push came from a committee of citizens who whose goal was to decentralise concerts and provide good music at an affordable price for music lovers out in the community.

Bringing music concerts to smaller urban centres in an organised way was a concept initially pitched in the late 1920s by basso Oliver King, who established the first Music Club in Rose Bay. Through the Associated Music Clubs of Australia, King imagined a nationwide network of clubs that would essentially crowd source the funding to pay for instruments and performers fees. In this way top level artists would be able to visit venues outside their usual concert halls. More than a dozen clubs formed in New South Wales in the first year, and though mainly confined to New South Wales, the Association continued to grow over the following decade.

The Civic Symphony Orchestra

The Marrickville Orchestra’s first performance was Thursday 27th November at the Marrickville Town Hall. Recalling the debut concert by Sydney Musica Viva two years earlier, it coincided with a blackout across the suburb, though the Hall itself was not affected. Trumpet player John Robertson was the lead soloist. It was well reviewed though there were plenty of empty seats. Critics speculated that it was due to the blackout rather than lack of interest from the public. 

For the 1948 season Ashfield Council pledged financial assistance and the orchestra was renamed the Civic Symphony Orchestra. In March that year Beck said that he would take the orchestra to any suburban area of Sydney where a guarantee of 100 pounds could be provided. Despite a dozen well reviewed shows that year featuring highly regarded soloists like pianist Enid Strong, tenor John Fullard, and violist Richard Pikler, the Orchestra ended the year in the red. Funding from the councils had been 1100 pounds but the costs had been double that.

The same troubles came up in 1949. The Orchestra began the season with 375 subscribers. Across the year they featured highly regarded soloists including Joyce Hutchinson, soprano Eleanor Houston, and cellist John Kennedy (father of popular violinist Nigel Kennedy). There were efforts to involve 14 other councils to help split the costs. The idea being that they could rotate shows throughout the suburbs. Ryde council expressed interest, but they couldn’t find enough support elsewhere. A newspaper helped pay for a couple of shows at Sydney Town Hall, private sponsors chipped in a little, but all told it wasn’t enough. When the councils met at years end they were forced to withdraw funding.

Throughout these years Haydn Beck was frequently recognised as the driving force and a conductor of great skill. His selections for the concerts were regularly praised for having popular appeal without being condescending.

Haydn Beck

Haydn Beck is an inspiring character who appears to have been drawn to trying new things when it came to presenting music to the public.

Taught violin by his father in the New Zealand town of Wanganui, Beck was child prodigy who could play Bach and Gounod from memory as a 5 year old. He made his first public appearance at the New Zealand International Exhibition performing the Bach A Minor Concerto. He was labelled the “young Joachim”, and a “budding Paganini” in the local press.  

Frank Denton ‘Haydn Beck’ circa 1905, black & white photograph, 1965/1/5.  Collection of the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui. Gift of Mary Powell, Marjorie Marshall and Harold Denton, 1965.

While touring New Zealand, famed Czech composer and violinist Jan Kubelik invited him to play. Beck impressed him and Kubelik suggested he should travel to Europe to further his musical studies. 

With some 40 concerts already under his belt, the nine year old Beck travelled to Sydney in 1909 to help raise money for his travel to Europe. Works by Beriot, Elgar and Schumann featured in his debut show at the Sydney Town Hall in November. It was heralded a success in the papers and he subsequently played a string of shows, including appearances at the YMCA Hall, a garden fete in Rose Bay, and a Christmas eve show at Criterion Theatre before returning to Wanganui.

Over the coming years he occasionally wrote to the newspapers to inform the Australian public of his progress.  By April 1913 Beck had saved enough to travel to Brussels, accompanied by his father, to study at the Royal Conservatoire of Music under Cesar Thompson. His studies were interrupted by WW1 and he moved to the UK to complete his degree under Emile Sauret before returning home to New Zealand.

In 1920 the NSW State Orchestra toured New Zealand. They offered positions to several players including Haydn Beck while there. Beck moved to Sydney and in 1922 became leader of the orchestra at the popular Farmers Restaurant in Sydney. In 1924 he led the orchestra for the grand opening of the lavish Wintergarden Theatre in Brisbane. He stayed on for the next five years, providing musical accompaniment to the silent motion picture screenings during their halcyon days.

He eventually left in left in 1929 and became involved in the burgeoning radio industry. His broadcasts, most often with a string quartet, went out across the country as stations became networked and their content shared widely.

With an strong reputation behind him he was named Music Director for St James Theatre Sydney in 1935. He continued to play with various symphony orchestras around the country. In 1939 he joined the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for a tour of the Russian Ballet, he played with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and in 1940 he was named leader of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Making the first Australian LP

1950 was a quiet year of lobbying for the Civic Symphony Orchestra. Then in January 1951 they found additional money to get it going again. A series of shows were programmed and the first, featuring a young Joan Sutherland before she made her stage debut in Sydney, was a great success. Unfortunately the two that followed were scheduled on dates that pitted the Orchestra against other big shows in town and they failed to draw sufficient crowds. Haydn Beck announced his disappointment and surprise in public, noting several times that Sydney only had one full time orchestra while many European cities with fewer people supported three or four.

It was at this point that the Audio Photographic Company approached the Orchestra offering to make a record in the hope that sales would help provide much needed additional funding.

Once the first copies came off the presses, a public performance of the recording was given at the David Jones auditorium on Castlereagh St in Sydney on Friday 3rd August 1951. Despite this initial promotional activity, it seems there were delays before the record was readily available to the public. Reports in the Sunday Herald on 30th September 1951 said copies would finally be available the following week. These were pioneering days for pressing vinyl and Diaphon must have had trouble finding a manufacturer with sufficient supplies to undertake commercial production.

It received a modest level of coverage in the media. Those who did give it their attention were impressed by both the performance and the quality of the recording. Music critic Selwyn Speight said “the performance stands comparison with most recordings of this work available, and is certainly better than some of the early American LPs.” In an interview in 28th November 1951 Haydn Beck mentioned the records and said they were selling excellently. Unfortunately, however strong the sales were it was not enough to solve the financial predicament of the Orchestra.

Music By The People For The People

Late in 1951 Haydn Beck started talking to the trade unions as a possible way forward for additional funding. The Bank Clerks Union helped first. Then the Orchestra played lunch hour concerts for the waterside workers union. A Workers Symphony Concert was performed in early December 1952.

A correspondent for The Labor Call who attended that concert wrote “the formation and financing of a symphony orchestra, ‘by the people for the people’ would make not only Australian musical history but news for the world”.

In 1953 there were stories that Haydn Beck was leaving for Europe. In his absence the Orchestra’s organising committee was going to try and finance at least a permanent string section. But then the trail goes cold, and there is no further reporting on either Beck or the Orchestra after 1954.

Diaphon Continues To Break New Ground

A second Diaphon LP featuring the Strings of the Civic Symphony Orchestra was released in December 1951. This album featured works by Tchaikovsky – Serenade, Opus 48, and the Andante Cantabile. A third followed in 1952 with Introduction and Allegro for Strings by Elgar, and Simple Symphony by Britten. They were recorded by the Civic Symphony Orchestra along with the Musica Viva Quartet (featuring Robert Pikler and Edward Cockman who had both played with the Orchestra). This got a release in the U.S on Mercury, with the label saying they were very impressed with the recordings being made locally. Presumably this happened through connections that W, Walter Hayum had back in the United States.

Following its initial forays into classical recording Diaphon broadened its scope. Popular organist Wilbur Kentwell made several records for Diaphon. His 1952 album of Richard Rogers (DPW1) songs claims to be the first LP made by an Australian solo artist. In 1952/53 Diaphon recorded and released some of the earliest jazz LPs made in Australia by the Art Ray Quintet and the Rick Farbach Group.

Rick Farbach’s arrangement of ‘Poinciana’ (Simon/Bernier) from an album recorded by ‘Session for Six’ on Diaphon in the 50s, accompanied by images from his private collection with permission of his family.

As 7” 45rpm records became popular in the mid 1950s Diaphon released notable modern jazz sides by the Claire Baille Sextet and Don Burrows.

The label also recorded the Horrie Dargie Quintet’s Farewell Concert at the Sydney Town Hall.  Released in February 1953 it quickly became a best seller and went on to become the first Australian album to achieve ‘Gold’ sales status for sales in excess of 75,000 units. Finally, in mid 1953 just after the death of Joseph Stalin, Diaphon announced a deal with French label Chant du Mond that gave it the rights to release recordings of works by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Despite all this activity the label essentially disappeared around 1957 when it became part of the W&G distribution network.

A Place In Australian Recording History

The Civic Symphony Orchestra was a bold experiment led by a talented and innovative conductor. Haydn Beck and the councils of Marrickville, Ashfield, and Ryde saw a great opportunity to bring music to their constituencies, but their efforts were stifled by limited pubic interest and financial backing. However, their first recordings remain as testament to their vision, and as a reminder of the early days of the recording industry in Australia. Hundreds of thousands of LPs have been released in the 68 years since the release of the first Diaphon LP, but Haydn Beck’s debut record with the Strings of the Civic Symphony Orchestra deserves to be remembered as the first LP produced and recorded in Australia.