I once spent about a hundred million hours poring over old issues of Australian music magazines of the 1940s and 50s. I was looking for that Holy Grail of rock’n’roll writing: the secret history. Maybe some kind of eccentric funky outsider from the old weird Australia, who played, say, a beat-up Stratocaster, or some uber-twangy steel guitar or something. I never really found her.
But there were names that kept coming up. One was jazz pianist Jim Somerville. He first appears during World War 2 playing in the 2KY Swing Club Band. He was there at the legendary Booker T. Washington Club in Surry Hills, where a band of nervous young local musicians found themselves playing swing for crowds of African-American servicemen, who were stationed here at the time.
Jim Somerville turns up as the author of ‘how to’ pieces – how to play boogie woogie, how to play jazz piano. And then right after the war it’s reported he’s composing ‘ultra modern’ piano scores and orchestral pieces for the radical New Theatre. He’s right there when television arrives in the mid 50s. And so through subsequent decades, Jim Somerville is regularly listed in what’s-on columns, appearing in clubs, pubs, theatres, and at recitals. In the 1990s the white-haired, patrician Jim Somerville is house pianist at David Jones Department Store.
In the early 2000s my drummer friend Richard tells me I should meet this old guy he knows, Jimmy Somerville, a strong union man, living legend — he remembers everything, Richard says — including that famous night during the war when tenor player Merv Acheson shot a bloke on stage at the 2KY Radiotorium over a missing shipment of illegal whisky. Jimmy was there, Richard says, picked up the still hot spent shell. I meant to, but never followed up.
A few years ago when I moved to the Blue Mountains, I met a new neighbour, Phil Somerville, a professional cartoonist. Yeah. Jimmy’s his dad. Later: Jimmy’s happy to meet and have a chat. So I schlep down to Mollymook, where Jimmy’s retired.
He’s a gracious old hipster, generous with his story. Which is, he grew up in a middle class family on the North Shore, studied piano with Joan Hogg, went to the Conservatorium of Music. He did a little acting, and quickly gravitated to Bohemia – which back then was just maybe a hundred people, into jazz, literature, art, and a certain amount of free-ish love. A small but influential cohort. Young Jimmy shares a flat in the Rocks with soon to be famous artist Cedric Flower. The building is full of musos, artists, queers and odd bods. It’s known sort of affectionately as ‘Buggery Barn’.
Jimmy tells of one particular night during the war: he’s out on the town with two nice girls, but he has to pop into the Trocadero to do a half hour guest spot, playing this new boogie woogie thing that the jive dancers are so crazy for. He gets two quid, cash in hand. (A nice earn for then.) It was a special night for those three cool, young people, and I can feel the sweetness of it even now as Jimmy tells it. Later that afternoon he plays a meditative almost abstract piece, which sounds like it could be an Ellington-Strayhorn composition, or something more modern – maybe Bill Evans. I don’t know. With the late afternoon sun filtering in, the feeling-laden music, the moment is complex and subtle.
Later I get more bits of story from Phil. Like how in the early 1950s Jimmy was doing a nightclub act with a ferocious young pianist who had an incredible sense of time, named Marcia Nasser – a refugee from the unhep boondocks of Far North Queensland. Two baby grand pianos on stage, face to face. Jimmy and Marcia fall in love. Get married, have Phil. Marcia keeps playing. They have another kid. She still keeps playing. After three she quits, but never stops missing the muso life. Jimmy remarks many times over the years how he never really understood time, ‘implicit rhythm’ he calls it, until he met Marcia.
Jimmy died in 2018. There were articles, eulogies. The jazz world is literate and knows how to record its own.
Another name, all over the music press back then, even more ubiquitous: Herbie Marks. Piano accordion player. A typical item from 1955: ‘Herbie Marks sure knows what teenagers like – hamburgers and jive, and both are in plentiful supply every Saturday afternoon at Stones Milk Bar’… but I didn’t give it much attention. It was the dead opposite of the funky secret history I was seeking. And you know, piano accordion.
There’s a terrific guitarist I know, a mate of a mate, lives in Katoomba, named Len. We become Facebook friends and I see his last name is Marks. Yeah, he tells me, Herbie was his dad. By then, just a couple of years ago, I’d become a lot more interested in that world that had gone, unrecorded, unlamented, while we had all been looking the other way. Lenny fills in some story about his dad.
Herbie Marks was born in 1923 in Rooty Hill, then a rough little whistle-stop to the west of Sydney. Herbie’s father was a cross-eyed, four foot eight tailor, who made kilts. His mother a silent film actor. But times are hard, and at five years old Herbie’s on the boards, playing mandolin, billed as the ‘Boy Wonder’. He goes on to play professional piano accordion right through the 30s and 40s – any style, doesn’t matter. I’d long been interested in Tex Morton, the founding figure of early Australian hillbilly music, whose records, it is said, regularly outsold the biggest overseas stars, including Bing Crosby. Those old 78s, a mix of originals and covers, feature some nifty picking, Tex’s freakishly virtuosic yodelling, and assured singing. Sometimes there’s a steel guitar, and harmony vocals – all of which I’d noticed. Somehow though I’d deleted from my memory the ever-present squeezebox on those old sides. That was Herbie. He’d have only been in his mid-teens then, but was already a seasoned studio hand.
In Britain after the war he cuts ‘St Louis Blues’. Perfectionist Herbie hates the recording – tells Columbia, please lose that rubbish. He takes a ship home. Arrives broke. He needs a car so he can work. Goes to the bank for a loan. Dubious manager says, well, we’ll have to look at your balance. Huh? There’s enough there to buy a house. Columbia had released ‘St Louis Blues’ while Herbie was on the slow boat home, and now it’s top of the Hit Parade.
So he buys a house, in suburban Earlwood. He has the first few bars of ‘St Louis Blues’ made into a fancy wrought iron fence. An accordion motif for the gate.
He marries, has a family. It’s the 1950s and mighty rivers of coins are flowing through poker machines in suburban clubs. It’s the golden age for variety entertainers. The Herbie Marks Trio is right there. As well as the trusty squeeze box, Herbie plays a thundering boogie woogie piano. He does film soundtracks on the side. High brow low brow, doesn’t matter. (You can see him here playing a rollicking bit of faux folk music.) He releases album after album, and their titles read now as a compendium of easy listening pop trends of the day: South of the Border, Music for Romance, Herbie Goes Hawaiian, Broadway Hits, Love From Rome, The Spirit o’ Scotland. Here Come d’ Boogie Man: the Powerhouse Piano of Herbie Marks, An Enchanted Evening with Herbie Marks, Theme from The Last Tango, Music for your Simcha.
Herbie mostly dodges television, though, figuring he can keep working his act in person, one club at a time, virtually forever. But perform a single spot on a popular TV show and a few million people are suddenly pretty much done with you.
Most nights Herbie plays wedding receptions, dances, masonic dinners, whatever, at Amory’s Function Centre at Ashfield. He sells his records on the side – he may have invented the merch table. By day he lounges around the house in paisley pyjamas, tinkering with electronic keyboards, making things.
Herbie remarks to a journalist in 1979, actually, he introduced rock’n’roll to Australia. And that might just be true.
Jimmy Somerville was of the Protestant ascendancy: a conscientious, perhaps somewhat entitled champion of modernism and progressive politics. Herbie’s from a line of gutsy Jewish people, working the tougher fringes: stitching kilts for bagpipers, playing the squeezebox at beer and prawn nights. Not much scope for self-conscious auteurism there. But both men end up in pretty much the same place, doing whatever it takes, hanging in there through an era when musicianship as a real profession virtually disappeared. They each raised families, put bread on the table. Neither one ever had a straight day job.
Herbie died in 1980. On stage. At the Newcastle Workers Club. It completely passed me by at the time, of course, but now the image of Herbie smashing out that last piano boogie woogie at Newcastle Workies seems as noble an exit, in its way, as a fallen Viking warrior sailing to Valhalla on a burning longship.