Harold Blair AM 1924-1976

Harold Blaire

Harold Blair

Harold Blaire was born to a 14-year-old unmarried Aboriginal girl at Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve, near Murgon in Queensland, probably on 13 September 1924.

In 1945 he was one of the first Aboriginals to perform on national radio: his appearance on Australia’s Amateur Hour.

 

The tenor who made a difference

On 10 November 1998 Cameron Thompson MP made his maiden speech to Federal Parliament
as the first Member for the newly created Lower House seat of Blair in Queensland. He said, ‘Blair received its name from the celebrated Aboriginal opera singer, Harold Blair, who won recognition across the world but never forgot his upbringing. Harold Blair grew up in the small community of Purga near Ipswich. His life took him to the great concert halls of the world, but even at the height of his career Harold Blair was a regular attraction at the old town hall in Ipswich. All members must take a leaf from the book of life as lived by Harold Blair. This is the House of Representatives and each member arrives courtesy of a community of electors whose hopes and dreams we must always place first. We must fight on their behalf, we must show leadership on their behalf, and always we must remember that our neighbours will be the judge when we give account of work done on their behalf.’

Harold Blair had an unlikely start. He was born to a 14-year-old unmarried Aboriginal girl at Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve, near Murgon in Queensland, probably on 13 September 1924. His mother gave him the surname ‘Blair’ in gratitude to the white family that befriended her. A few months later the boy and his mother were moved to the Purga Salvation Army Mission near Ipswich. When he was 15 Blair worked on a dairy farm, filling any empty hours listening to recordings of Richard Crooks and John McCormack on a wind-up gramophone.

In 1944 his friend, union leader Harry Green, arranged for him to audition for the Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence, who was singing in Brisbane. She advised him to study singing seriously. In 1945 he was one of the first Aboriginals to perform on national radio: his appearance on Australia’s Amateur Hour, broadcast from the Lyric Theatre in Brisbane, won him a record number of listeners’ votes and, it was said, Aboriginal inmates of faraway Fremantle Gaol celebrated as they ‘listened in’.

A group of trade unionists, academics and musicians formed a Harold Blair Trust to sponsor his career, but his lack of education precluded his enrolment at the State Conservatorium in Sydney and the University of Melbourne Conservatorium. Eventually, on Margaret Sutherland’s recommendation, Blair was accepted by the Albert Street (‘Melba’) Conservatorium in Melbourne.

Biographical references

Alan T. Duncan: ‘Harold Blair’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 13
Kenneth Harrison: Dark Man, White World, Novalit, 1975