"THE BEAT GOES ON"
(Sorry - this page is still under construction!)
Southern Comfort in full flight at the Cat & Fiddle, Balmain, Wed. 26 Nov. 2003
(L-R) Andy Anderson, Gary McDonald (obscured by music stand), Phil Eizenberg, Bobbi Marchini, Dave Ovendon
FLASHBACK ... to a sreet corner in Kings Cross one day in 1969. An aspiring young singer from Tasmania called Roberta Turnbull -- or Bobbi, as everyone came to know her -- had only recently arrived in Sydney. Bobbi had left Hobart with $100, her guitar and a few spare clothes crammed into her oversize guitar case. She had found work singing in a wine bar. She was hoping that something better might come along. Bobbi was on her way to lunch when she ran into an old friend from Hobart; as it turned out, that chance encounter would change her life.
The friend she met that afternoon was John A. Bird, a muso she had known from her youth in Hobart. John's band had just been offered a residency at one of the top venues in Sydney -- The Cheetah Room. It was run by "prominent Sydney businessman" Sammy Lee and it had flourished since the 50s as The Latin Quarter, but Lee was caught up in the vicious gang wars of the late Sixties and after an infamous shooting murder in the club, Lee closed it for a time and reopened it under a new name.
1969 was the height of the "R&R" era, when planeloads of American servicemen were flown into Sydney every few days from Vietnam for "rest and recreation" leave. The influx of cashed-up GIs looking for a good time created an entertainment boom in the inner city, and Sydney's clubs, bars, casinos and brothels were doing a roaring trade.
The Cheetah Room was an American-style nightclub in Goulburn St, Sydney, opening in the evening and staying open until the early hours of the morning. The club offered food, drinks and entertainment most nights of the week.
Southern Comfort had just been hired as the house band at The Cheetah Room and John was in desperate need of a good singer to front the group, so when he met Bobbi on the street that afternoon he immediately invited her to audition.
After she had auditioned, Sammy gruffly passed judgement in typically hard-bitten fashion: "Da fat chick can sing but she's gotta lose some weight". Three weeks of intensive rehearsals followed and by the time they opened at The Cheetah Room, Bobbi had lost the required weight -- mainly, she reckons, thanks to the near-starvation diet of cabbage soup served up by the club's Chinese cook.
It was a gruelling gig, as residencies commonly were in those days. Southern Comfort were required to perform four nights a week, six hours a night, from 9pm to 3am; they played 45-minute sets with a 15-minute break each hour, every hour for six hours straight. Predictably, they were soon a tight and accomplished act who could tackle almost anything from jazz standards to the Small Faces to the latest sounds from Stax. There were several lineup changes over the months -- original guitarist Phil Eizenberg (brother of Company Caine bassist Arthur Eizenberg) left and was replaced by Gary "The Toad" McDonald and their original bassist was replaced by Phil Cogan, thus reuniting Gary, Phil and Dave, who had worked together in several earlier bands including the Richard Wright Group (1966). The final piece of the puzzle was 'Hair' cast member and former Missing Links frontman Andy Anderson (aka Andy James), who came in as second lead vocalist. The pairing of Andy and Bobbi would create one of the most dynamic vocal duos of the day.
The Cheetah Room gig lasted about eighteen months and over that time the members of Southern Comfort became a family. There was lots of partying and carousing, and some wild, occasionally hair-raising times, but for all of them it was a periiod that forged lasting friendships and turned them from a bunch of talented amateurs into a tight unit of seasoned professionals. Bobbi succinctly describes her Southern Comfort days as her "school".
When the Cheetah Room residency ended, Southern Comfort hit the pub circuit, but the group didn't survive long and they went their separate ways. Andy moved on to other groups, left Australia for a time, then returned and moved into acting, with great success. John Bird also had success, joining Greg Quill's pioneering roots-rock group Country Radio. Bobbi joined supergroup Duck with John Robinson (ex Blackfeather) and then embarked on a successful solo career. Now married and known as Bobbi Marchini, she soon earned a reputation as a "singer's singer" has many notable credits as a session singer and even representing Australia at the International Song Competition in Athens in 1973. One of her last projects was the female trio The Hooter Sisters, with her close friends and sisters in song, Alison MacCallum and Janice Slater.
But by 1976 the work opportunities were dwindling and Bobbi was facing the unpalatable prospect of eking out a living on the club circuit. Her personal life was also in turmoil, her marriage was on the rocks and she knew she had to get out. Eventually she made the momentous decision to leave Australia. She travelled for several years, during which time she met her future husband, a native of the Greek island of Zakynthos. They later married and settled in Zakynthos, where they established a successful tourist accomodation business.
For more than twenty years Bobbi kept a low profile, only returning to Australia for one short visit in 1980. After leaving Australia, she never sang professionally again. She might have remained in Greece for good, but the Internet and a series of happy coincidences brought her back in contact with her old friends.
About three years ago, I received an email about MILESAGO; the author had recently found the site and liked what I had written, particularly some of my comments in the Overview page about female singers. To my amazement, the email was signed "Bobbi Marchini".
Only a few weeks later, I was forwarded an email by my esteemed colleague Glenn Roberston, who maintains the great "Crabsody In Blue" AC/DC website. Glenn had been contacted by a woman from Melbourne who was in search of Bobbi. I replied to Glenn, saying "Guess what? Bobbi just got in contact with me!" so I forwarded the message to her. I didn't know if it was bona fide or not, so I left it with Bobbi to deal with. As luck would have it, the lady who wrote to Glenn was none other than Bobbi's long-lost cousin.
That was the start of a regular correspondence between us, and as much as email allows, we became good friends. We discovered we shared an interest in the life and work of the brilliant American physicist Richard Feinman and Bobbi very kindly sent me over a copy of his book, as well as a precious cassette with copies of some of her recordings, most of which had never been commerically released.
FLASH FORWARD ... to late 2002 and another stroke of luck. My wife won a prize in a competition which enabled us to take a trip around the world. We were planning to visit Athens to see friends, so I contacted Bobbi and let her know we'd be in the vicinity. With typical generosity she invited us to come and stay with her on Zakynthos.
While we were planning the trip, I had the good fortune to witness another memorable return home, the Sydney concerts by the great Greg Quill and Kerryn Tolhurst. At Greg's final Sydney show I was introduced to Greg's former bandmate, John Bird, as well as Gus McNeil and Chris Blanchflower.
I mentioned to John that I was in contact with Bobbi, and to say that he was thrilled by the news is an understatement. He was over the moon. It turned out that most of the members of Southern Comfort had been back in contact for some time and were be getting back together at the impending wedding of Andy Anderson. Only Bobbi was missing and they hand't been able to find her -- until now. Within a day they were all in contact again, and they have kept up a voluminous daily correspondence ever since.
My family and I arrived on Zakynthos in October 2003 and spent an unforgettable week as guests of Bobbi and her husband. She was very excited, more than a little bit nervous and very pre-occupied with preparations -- although this didn't stopped her from looking after us like royalty! By the time we arrived, all the arrangements were in place for her trip to Australia and to my delight she told us that there was even going to be a reunion concert with her old bandmates. She had been supplied with a complete setlist and had been hard at work getting the voice back into shape and rehearsing the songs.
Bobbi left Zakynthos the same day we did, and although we were sad to leave, we looked forward to meeting up again back in Sydney and getting to meet the rest of Southern Comfort.
The next few weeks were a wonderful homecoming for Bobbi. She went to Hobart and met many old friends from her childhood days. In Melbourne she was spoiled by her cousin Barbara and she spoke by phone to her old friend Alison MacCallum. Then she headed up to Sydney, where she spent the next week renewing old frienships, reminiscing, wining and dining, and rehearsing solidly with the band.
During that week John Bird contacted me, and he and his partner Sue generously invited us to their beautiful home in Balmain on the Sunday; there was going to be a gathering and a rehearsal for a select group of friends, and we were very honoured to be included. We spent a blissful afternoon and evening, listening to the reunited Southern Comfort run through their set.
The 'classic' lineup of the band was all there -- Bobbi, Andy, Gary, John, Dave and Phil, plus the group's original guitarist Phil Eizenberg. Although he was not able to come to that rehearsal, Bobbi told us that the missing seventh member, the legendary Bernie McGann would be there on the night. From what we heard that rainy Sunday, it promised to be a great show
The following Wednessday evening I arrived at the Cat & Fiddle in Balmain full of excitement. Many old friends and relations were there, including Dave Kain and Arthur Eizenberg. I'd only just sat down to enjoy a beer before the start of the show when I realised to my horror that I'd left my camera at home. I made a mad dash back to Newtown and back over to Balmain. I was sorry I missed the first few numbers, but I was very glad I had the camera and I got back ust in time to hear them ripping into one of their Cheetah Room staples (and a favourite of mine), P.P. Arnold's classic " (If You Think You're) Groovy".
It was a wonderful and truly memorable evening. The band played as if they had only taken a weekend off and my hat is off to these great players, who never let the beat falter for a second. Special mention must also be made of honorary Comfort members Sue Bird and Pat Cogan (whom Bobbi cheekily dubbed "The Slutettes" for the evening). They performed very impressively, both in support of Bobbi and on the solo numbers they sang.
Southern Compfort regaled the delighted audience with many samples of their old repertoire; one highlight was an incredibly funky rendition of Sly & The Family Stone's "Sing A Simple Song" -- they were really cooking by this stage! All the old favourites were there, including "Piece Of My Heart" and "River Deep, Mountain High" (a number Andy has been doing since the days of Running Jumping Standing Still), Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody To Love" ... the years melted away as Bobbi -- still looking and sounding great -- wowed the crowd with her commanding voice and stage presence.
Andy Anderson, too, gave us more than a glimpse of what a true master he is. It's almost 40 years now since he stunned Sydney audiences and created a rock legend as lead singer of the fabled Missing Links, but time has only improved him. He looks great, still sings up a storm, thumps a mean conga, has a a truly dynamic stage presence and is as funny as a fit to boot -- his delivery of the second verse of "River Deep Mountain High" in the broadest ocker accent had everyone in fits.
Another special highlight was the all-too-brief appearance of Bobbi's dear friend and colleague, the great Janice Slater. Illness has kept Jan on the sidelines in recent years, so it was a double pleasure to see her up on stage belting it out one more time with her old buddy. Onya Jan!
The elusive Mr McGann was there, impassively brilliant as always, ripping out superb solos and bolstering the arrangements with his inimitable playing. Phil Eizenberg peeled off some fine solos, as did "The Toad", and as the band went through its paces, the looks on the faces of audience and band alike said it all. It was all smiles ... and probably a few tears too.
People were up and dancing from early on, and by the end of the night a joyous conga line was threading in and out of the tables as the band went out with their last number, Sonny & Cher's classic "The Beat Goes On", which they spun into a superb medley that including the perennial "Fever".
Then, suddenly, it was midnight, and time to go; the lights came up, and after the thank-you's and farewells we wandered out into the rainy night knowing we'd seen something really special. I feel incredibly lucky and truly honoured to have played a small part in making it happen, and I'm thrilled to have been able to see it come to fruition and to have been allowed to be part of it.
It only remains to extend my profound thanks to the wonderful Bobbi Marchini for her friendship, her hospitality and her continuing enthusiam for MILESAGO. Many thanks are also due to John and Sue, Gary, Andy, Phil and Pat, Phil E., Dave "The Bloke" Ovendon, Bernie McGann, and all their friends, who made us feel so welcome and part of their special group of friends.
Do you remember the Cheetah Room? Did you see Southern Comfort?
(UNDER CONSTRUCTION - PLEASE CHECK BACK AGAIN SOON)
Photos from the rehearsal on Sunday 23 Nov. and the Southern Comfort reunion show on Wednesday 26 Nov. 2003.
[Click on the thumbnail to see a larger version]