Harold Blair AM 1924 – 1976
- Harold Blair AM 1924 – 1976
Harold Blair AM 1924 – 1976
Harold Blair 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.
Blair worked hard, and not only at his music studies: he learnt foreign languages and improved his general education. In 1946 he impressed the American baritone Todd Duncan, the original Porgy in the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess; Duncan was touring for J. & N. Tait, and suggested further study in New York. In November 1948 Blair made his operatic debut at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne as the stuttering clown Vaschek in Gertrude Johnson’s National Theatre Opera production of The Bartered Bride.
He sang in recital, at Hector Crawford’s al fresco Music for the People concerts and in oratorio – including a 1948 Messiah under Bernard Heinze (‘The Aboriginal tenor Harold Blair impressed by the feeling he introduced into his singing.’). There was also a tour of Queensland for the ABC. In 1949 Blair married Dorothy Eden, a fellow singing student, and graduated with honours.
A multitude of radio appearances and a national concert tour financed his departure for New York, where he paid for his studies at the Juilliard School of Music by cleaning offices and working as an assistant choir master. He was offered the role of the Kralahome in The King and I, but could not get the necessary clearances; nevertheless, he had the distinction of being the first Aboriginal to appear on American television. The ABC engaged him to return home for a 1951 concert tour. Marjorie Lawrence, John Brownlee, Irving Berlin and Charles Moses were at his March 1951 Farewell Concert at New York Town Hall.
Back in Australia Blair was featured at the Princess in Melbourne in Irene Mitchell’s An Aboriginal Moomba – Out of the Dark, Australia’s first professionally-staged all-Aboriginal production. The ABC tour was less agreeable, in spite of a memorable Gala Jubilee Concert in Melbourne, when he shared the stage with Marjorie Lawrence, Peter Dawson, Beryl Kimber and conductor Joseph Post. The rigorous tour strained his voice, garnered less-than-flattering reviews, and a subsequent contract dispute precluded him from taking professional engagements for three years. Nevertheless, he sang for charity and continued his studies with Katherine Weilaert, who also trained Marie Collier and Lauris Elms. At the same time he taught part-time at the Melba Conservatorium.
In 1956 Blair’s first – and only – commercial recording was released, and he played the outcastCrooks in Hanna Pravda’s production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for the Union Theatre Repertory Company. The following year he conducted an Aboriginal choir on the inaugural transmission of Melbourne’s GTV9. In 1958 Robert Helpmann cast him in the small role of Obadiah Lewellyn in J.C. Williamson’s production of Noel Coward’s play Nude with Violin, for its season at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne.
Blair spent 1959 in Europe, singing in concerts and representing Australian Aboriginals at Moral Rearmament conferences. Back home, with work scarce and a family to care for, he ran a suburban service station. In 1962 George Miller entrusted him with the title role in a light-hearted spoof of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Bowl Music Hall in Melbourne, which gave him a chance to sing some American spirituals. After that he managed a milk bar, and worked briefly as the superintendent of a South Australian Aboriginal mission. He also founded the privately funded Harold Blair Aboriginal Children’s project, providing Melbourne holidays for mission children. In 1964 he ran as a Labor candidate for the State Legislative Assembly seat of Mentone, but lost on preferences to the sitting member. In 1967 he taught music for the Victorian Education Department.
In July 1973 Blair sang in the first opera staged in the Sydney Opera House Opera Theatre – the NSW State Conservatorium’s production of James Penberthy’s Dalgerie, which was presented some four months before the venue’s official opening.
Harold Blair worked tirelessly for his people, though his approach was out of step with today’s attitudes. He was uncomfortable with militant initiatives such as the Aboriginal Tent Embassy; nevertheless he bridged the gap between protection and self determination and proved that, with encouragement and determination, nothing need be out of reach.
Harold Blair was made a Member of the Order of Australia in January 1976. He died on 21 May that year.
In 1995 the ABC screened Harold, a documentary on Blair’s life written and directed by Steve Thomas. It was complemented by a CD of all the surviving examples of Harold’s singing.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Alan T. Duncan: ‘Harold Blair’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 13
Kenneth Harrison: Dark Man, White World, Novalit, 1975
Harold Blair at the piano