THE OPENING SCENE
1st April 1923 Melbourne Australia
Frank A Dennie entered the editorial office. He had an appointment to see me, at the time a lowly journalist on the local newspaper. He must have turned heads when he’d walked down the street, not only because of the warmth of that day, but as I recollect, he was wearing a dapper three-piece suit in a muted brown check the likes of which I’d never seen before, complete with contrasting gaiters that covered his brightly polished shoes. When Frank was shown to my corner desk, I rose to greet him with my out stretched arm. Instinctively with one hand he removed from his head his crumpled felt hat while simultaneously with the other firmly gripping my hand.
The Royal Southern Singers were a black jazz assemble that had newly arrived to tour Australia. Tonight, was their first concert as an assemble at the Tivoli Theatre downtown and I was interviewing one of the quartet. Looking at this now seated man, he didn’t look particular black to me. Sure, there was something but if anyone had asked me, I’d have said that this man was more Chinese than negro. His skin for a start was white, as white as mine, and also his hair was practically straight, perhaps with a slight wave. He’d heard these people could now straighten their hair. If it had been it was good. But the thing that really stood out to the seasoned reporter was Frank’s eyes, they looked almost oriental. That’s one type of race now quite common in these parts, there was no mistaking the eyes.
“So, you’re a negro band?” I asked.
Dennie instantly smiled broadly “Yes we are.”
“You don’t look black, if I may say so?”
“My father was born with lighter skin as was I, but his parents and my mother I can assure you were definitely black.”
I looked down slightly in embarrassment pretending to read my scant notes, quickly changing the subject, “Your band has just started a tour of the Australia Tivoli circuit?”
“Yes, our ship docked in February.”
“Oh, a while back then, what have you been doing in these last few months?”
“As it was some time before we were officially booked anywhere as a group, I’ve been keeping myself busy, just last month I played at a benefit concert for old soldiers that had served in France at the Front.”
“How admirable, did you serve yourself?” said the reporter sceptically.
“Sure did, I served with the ‘Old Eighth’, the 370th American Infantry during the war.”
“So, you were on the Front line yourself?”
“Sometimes, but mainly we entertained recuperating troops.”
“Yes, that’s right. I guess the jazz we played was probably the first that many had heard.”
“Do you think Australia is ready now for jazz? Is that why it took you so long before getting bookings?”
“I think Australia is ready, you closely follow the European trends. Anyway, we didn’t come here on spec, we were booked already on the Tivoli circuit before we set sail from England to perform around your beautiful country, but of course as we had no way of knowing exactly when we would arrive, we played safe and didn’t book ourselves anything too early. Tonight, is our first performance here.”
“Well I’m sure all our readers will wish you every success.” Consulting my notes to refresh my memory. “One thing I must ask you about, is when the band sang for Britain’s King George V.”
“Oh yes, the band was ‘commanded’ to sing before His Majesty. Robert Wilson, Joseph Covington, Crescent Rosemond and I were just the Southern Singers then, when we were honoured to perform before him at Buckingham Palace, afterwards he personally granted us the use of the title Royal, so that’s how we became the Royal Southern Singers.”
“Oh, I see, which Royalty were there?”
“King George and most of his royal family, but the most unusual thing was the number of children who had been invited to hear us from palaces for miles around.”
“What did you sing?”
“Mainly a melange of negro melodies.”
“Oh, what does that sound like?”
“Well they were mostly old-time negro songs.”
Referring to my notes again.
“I’m told something unusual happened at the end of the show?”
“I don’t know how unusual it was, but the King spoke right out loud directly to me saying he’d expected to hear ‘Hitchy Koo,’ which he’d apparently had never heard.”
“You played that song for His Majesty?”
“That was the thing, we couldn’t. The band didn’t know it.”
“So, what happened?”
“It was complete luck, a young man who had been sitting in the audience stepped forward and offered to play the song on the piano for the King …”