John Farnham AO
- John Farnham AO
John Farnham AO
John Peter Farnham was born in London on 1 July 1949 and grew up in Dagenham, Essex.
When he was 10 he and his family migrated to Australia.
In 1965 he joined a popular band called Strings Unlimited. They made the state finals of Hoadley’s Battle of the Sounds, and cut some demo recordings.
His first single, a catchy novelty called ‘Sadie, the Cleaning Lady’, released in November 1967.
Entrepreneur Kenn Brodziak remembers his 1971 production of the British musical Charlie Girl: ‘I didn’t want to do Charlie Girl without [the London stars] Anna Neagle and Derek Nimmo. When we got to the stage where both were available we decided to speak to Darryl Sambell [John Farnham’s manager]. Darryl’s philosophy for his young star was to make him an all-round entertainer, capable of singing, dancing, stage and TV work. He quickly saw that a hit musical would extend the appeal and experience of his young star. [So the show] had three stars, but there was a magic chemistry between them. In fact, Anna and Derek thought John was marvellous. He just adapted to it. He didn’t have a big ego or anything like that. He was a natural and he enjoyed the work. He was always very conscious of the public and its fans. He did have a talent for stardom, and I put particular emphasis on stardom. You can have talent and not be a star. He happened to have both.’
Ironically, only four years before, Brodziak’s bright new star had been an apprentice plumber, helping to install air conditioning ducts in the entrepreneur’s Melbourne apartment.
John Peter Farnham was born in London on 1 July 1949 and grew up in Dagenham, Essex. He was still in short pants when he began entertaining at charity shows. When he was 10 he and his family migrated to Australia. He left school when he was 16 and started his working life as a plumber’s apprentice. With a group called The Mavericks he sang at local dances. In 1965 he joined a popular band called Strings Unlimited. They made the state finals of Hoadley’s Battle of the Sounds, and cut some demo recordings.
Farnham was spotted by a young accountant, Darryl Sambell, who became his first manager. Regular appearances on the Kommotion TV show led to Farnham recoding a singing commercial for the airline TAA. This in turn led to a recording contract with EMI. His first single, a catchy novelty called ‘Sadie, the Cleaning Lady’, released in November 1967, hit number one on the Australian charts and sold 180,000 copies – the largest-selling single by an Australian artist of the decade. There were soon more hits. He won a Logie as ‘Best Teenage Personality’ in 1968. The following year he was crowned ‘King of Pop’ for the first of several times. The year 1969 also brought two big hits, ‘One’ and ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’, and Farnham’s first ‘book show’: that Christmas he took the title role in Stadiums Ltd’s pantomime Dick Whittington, which played short, hectic Festival Hall seasons in Sydney and Melbourne.
Kenn Brodziak’s big, bright musical Charlie Girl was next. An enormous success, it established Farnham as far more than a teenage pop idol. It was also where he met his future wife, Jillian Billman, who was a dancer in the show. In 1972 the Sun newspaper’s ‘likeable English migrant’ was Melbourne’s ‘King of Moomba’. In 1973 he co-starred with Colleen Hewett in another musical for Kenn Brodziak, Pippin. The following year he and Hewett made It’s Magic, a musical series for ABC TV. In 1975 Farnham appeared in a dramatic role in an episode of the Crawford police series Division 4. Two years later he and veteran comic Maurie Fields shared top billing in a TV comedy series called Bobby Dazzler. In 1980 ‘Johnny’ Farnham was teamed with ‘Debbie’ Byrne for another ABC TV musical series, Farnham and Byrne. For a short while they ran a restaurant called Backstage in Spring Street, Melbourne, next to the Princess Theatre. In 1980 Farnham joined Olivia Newton-John, Paul Hogan, Kelvin Coe, Roger Woodward, Helen Reddy and a galaxy of other Australian stars in a gala Charity Concert at the Sydney Opera House in the presence of HRH Queen Elizabeth.
From 1981 until 1984 Farnham replaced Glenn Shorrock as lead singer with the Little River Band. This was a move from pop and middle-of-the-road into rock. They released three albums, but it was not a particularly fruitful association, but Bullamakanka, a film in which Farnham had a small role, was a total disaster. By now, Farnham was being managed by Glenn Wheatley. Together they devised a new solo career for Farnham, starting in 1986 with a new album, Whispering Jack. It sold more than one million copies, and remained the number one album on the ARIA Chart for 27 weeks. It also had the distinction of being the first Australian-made CD. The featured single, ‘You’re the Voice’ was a hit in several European countries, as well as in Australia.
Next came the hugely successful Jack’s Back tour. It remained Farnham’s biggest grossing tour for 15 years. In 1998 Farnham toured with Olivia Newton-John and Anthony Warlow in an arena concert called The Main Event. The ensuing album went multi-platinum. The next year he celebrated his half century with a tour called I Can’t Believe He’s 50. Joining him were Kate Ceberano, Ross Wilson, James Reyne, Merril Bainbridge, Human Nature, and Nana-Zhami, the band formed by Farnham’s son, Robert.
At Christmas 1999 Farnham appeared in the Tour of Duty concert in Dili for the Australian troopsserving in East Timor. The line-up included Kylie Minogue, Doc Neeson, Gina Jeffreys, James Blundell, The Living End and the RMC Band. In 2000 Farnham and Olivia Newton-John sang ‘Dare to Dream’ at the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games. In 2001 Farnham, Olivia Newton-John and Anthony Warlow were reunited for the Queensland Federation Spectacular, which was spectacularly staged at Kalkadoon Park in the outback town of Mount Isa.
In 2002 Farnham embarked on what he said would be his last major tour – a gruelling journey covering six states, seven capital cities and 28 regional centres where Farnham performed in a 4000-seat air conditioned tent. He broke Australian touring records, performing with his 10-piece band from November to June 2003 – 89 shows and more than 210 days on the road. The final concert, at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, was telecast by Channel 7.
In 2003 Farnham was inducted into the ARIA Hall Of Fame. In 2005 he joined veteran Tom Jones for 10 concerts around Australia. He also released a new jazz-oriented album, I Remember When I Was Young: Songs from The Great Australian Songbook. In 2005 Farnham featured in Grease – The Arena Spectacular. In 2006 he performed at the Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Symphony and at Hamer Hall in Melbourne with the Melbourne Symphony. In 2006 Farnham toured with Fleetwood Mac singer Stevie Nicks. He was also part of the Closing Ceremony of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
Through his long career, ‘Whispering Jack’, ‘The Voice’ or just plain ‘Farnsey’ has received numerous ARIA and other industry awards. In 1996 he was made an Officer in the Order of Australia, recognising his ‘service to the Australian music industry and to charitable and community organisations, particularly those relating to youth.’ In 2000 his ‘outstanding service to contemporary music’ was rewarded with a Centenary Medal. And in 2004 Live Performance Australia presented this ‘likeable English migrant’ with the James Cassius Williamson Award, recognising his contribution to Australian performing arts excellence.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Clark Forbes: Whispering Jack – The John Farnham Story, Hutchinson Australia, 1989
Ian McFarlane: The Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop, Allen and Unwin, 1999
Noel McGrath: Noel McGrath’s Australian Encyclopaedia of Rock, Outback Press, 1978