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Normie Rowe AM (born Norman John Rowe on 1 February 1947) was the preeminent male solo star of Australian pop music in the 1960s. Known for his bright, edgy tenor voice and dynamic stage presence, many of Rowe's most successful recordings were produced by Pat Aulton, house producer for the Sunshine Records, Spin Records and Festival Records labels. Backed by his band The Playboys, Rowe released a string of Australian pop hits on the Sunshine Records label that kept him at the top of Australian charts and made him the most popular solo performer of the mid-1960s. Rowe's double-sided hit "Que Sera Sera" / "Shakin' All Over" was one of the most successful Australian singles of the 1960s.

Between 1965 and 1967 Normie was Australia's most popular male star but his career was cut short when he was drafted for compulsory military service in late 1967. Rowe's subsequent tour of duty in Vietnam effectively ended his pop career, and he was never able to recapture the success he enjoyed at his peak.

Biography

Early life: 1947–1964

Normie Rowe was born in Melbournemarker. He was drawn to music early in life. He began singing with his local church choir in Melbourne while at primary school. Normie was hooked on rock & roll even before his teens, and Col Joye became one of his early idols and inspirations. Normie took up guitar and formed his first amateur band, The Valiants, while he was in high school, at Northcote High. They performed once a month at Alphington Methodist Hall. He concentrated on singing, and made his first stage appearance as a lead vocalist in a music school concert, aged 14.

By luck, the show was compered by top Melbourne radio DJ Stan Rofe. Stan was impressed by Normie's talent and arranged for him to work with local dance promoter Kevin McClellan. He began performing regularly at Melbourne dances and discos, backed by instrumental groups like The Thunderdbirds, The Impostors and finally The Playboys, who became his permanent band until 1967.

After leaving high school in 1963, Normie had joined the PMG (the Commonwealth telecommunications department later split into Telstra and Australia Post). Normie worked as a trainee technician, but in late 1964 his long hair became an issue with his employers, and in the face of a "cut it or quit" ultimatum, he left the PMG to become a professional entertainer. Working on the Melbourne dance circuit, he became a popular attraction and it wasn't long before he was picked to become a regular on Melbourne pop TV shows like Teen Scene and The Go!! Show. According to music historian Ed Nimmervoll, EMI apparently had the chance to sign him but turned him down, claiming that he couldn't sing. He was signed to a recording deal with the independent label Sunshine which included a management deal with the Ivan Dayman organisation.

Sixties stardom: 1964–1966

Normie's first single, released in April 1965, was a brooding 'beat' arrangement of Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So" (from Porgy & Bess) a choice suggested by Stan Rofe. It was a Top Ten hit in most capitals (#6 Sydney, #1 Melbourne, #3 Brisbane, #5 Adelaide) , even though Sydney pop station 2SM (then owned by the Catholic Church) banned it because of its supposedly sacrilegious lyrics.The inspiration for Normie Rowe's version was apparently a 1963 version by UK band Ian & The Zodiacs. Some references cite the course as a version by The Merseybeats, but that band never recorded "It Ain't Necessarily So". The name of the Ian & The Zodiacs' album This Is Merseybeat has apparently been confused with the name of the band The Merseybeats.

Normie's first LP was released in July. His second single (also apparently discovered while trawling through Rofe's vast record collection), released in August, was a cover of Ben E. King's "I (Who Have Nothing)". It became his second Top 10 hit (#10 Sydney, #4 Melbourne, #23 Brisbane, #6 Adelaide).


Although Normie's third single, "I Confess" / "Everything's Alright" was apparently withdrawn before or soon after release, the next single became the biggest hit of his career. The A-side was a cover of "Que Sera Sera" (best known from the Doris Day original), which was given a 'merseybeat' treatment (in the manner of The Beatles' "Twist & Shout"). Paired with a powerful version of the Johnny Kidd & The Pirates' classic "Shakin' All Over", the single became a double-sided #1 hit in most capitals (#1 Sydney, #1 Melbourne, #1 Brisbane, #1 Adelaide ) in September, charting for 28 weeks and selling in unprecedented numbers—rock historian Ian McFarlane reports sales of 80,000 copies while 1970s encyclopedist Noel McGrath claimed sales of 100,000, and it is reputed to be the biggest-selling Australian single of the 1960s. Normie scored another first in October by having three hit singles in the Melbourne Top 40 simultaneously.

An oft-repeated story that the whistle used in the arrangement was an innovation by the record's producer appears to be unfounded because very similar arrangements, complete with whistle, had been recorded on earlier versions by Earl Royce & The Olympics (UK, 1964) and by The High Keys (USA, 1963).

Rowe's success continued through late 1965 and into the first half of 1966, during which time he scored another three consecutive Top Ten singles. "Tell Him I'm Not Home" (Nov. 1965) -- a cover of a song originally recorded by Chuck Jackson in 1963—was a Top 5 hit in most mainland capitals, reaching #4 in Sydney, #2 in Melbourne, #1 in Brisbane and #2 in Adelaide. It was followed by his version of Bacharach & David's "The Breaking Point" (b/w "Ya Ya", Feb. '66) which became his second double-sided hit, making the Top Ten in all mainland capitals, peaking at #8 in Sydney, #2 in Melbourne, #1 in Brisbane, #9 in Adelaide and #2 in Perth.

"Pride & Joy" (June '66) was also Top Ten in most state capitals . This single is also notable for its B-side, a cover of "The Stones That I Throw", written by Robbie Robertson, a song originally recorded in 1965 by Levon & the Hawks, later known as The Band. Mid-year he joined The Easybeats, Bobby & Laurie and MPD Ltd on "The Big Four" national tour that played to huge crowds around the country.

United Kingdom: 1966–1968

Normie was by this time the most popular solo performer in Australia, so in August 1966 he left to try his luck in the UK. In preparation he revamped the Playboys lineup. Several members opted to stay in Australia for family reasons, so Rowe replaced them with bassist Brian Peacock and guitarist Rod Stone, both from the ex-New Zealand band The Librettos, which had recently split.

Arriving in London ahead of his band, Rowe engaged on Ritchie York as his London agent, and began to record with producers Trevor Kennedy and John Carter, using the cream of London's session musos, including Big Jim Sullivan, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, famed drummer Clem Cattini and vocal group The Breakaways. The sessions produced several strong new recordings including "Ooh La La", "It's Not Easy", "Mary Mary", "Turn On The Love Light" and "Can't Do Without Your Love". Despite his absence in London, Rowe's run of chart success in Australia continued—his next single, "Ooh La La" / "Ain't Nobody Home" (Nov. 1966) was another double-sided Top 5 hit in most capitals, reaching #2 in Sydney, #1 in Melbourne and Brisbane and #4 in Adelaide.

Up to this time there was no national pop chart in Australia, with most pop radio stations and newspapers in state capitals and major cities publishing their own competing charts. However, on 5 October 1966 Go-Set magazine, which had been launched in February, began publishing its first weekly national Top 40, compiled by Ed Nimmervoll. "Ooh La La" / "Mary, Mary" debuted at #6 on the new Go-Set chart on 7 December 1966, and reached #1 in the 21 December chart, becoming Rowe's first official national #1 hit. It stayed at #1 for two weeks before being briefly supplanted by The Easybeats' "Friday On My Mind" on 4 January, but returned to the top for the next two weeks. "Ooh La La" reportedly even made it into the lower end of the British Top 40.

While "Ooh La La" was at #1 in Australia, Rowe's next single, the ballad "It's Not Easy" was also climbing the chart. It debuted at #17 in the Go-Set chart in the last week of December 1966, and reached the Top 10 in the second week of January. Through the end of January and into February, Rowe achieved a 'first' for an Australian popular recording artist by having two of the top three singles simultaneously for three consecutive weeks. Rowe worked in England for ten months and toured with acts including Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity, The Spencer Davis Group, Kiki Dee, Gene Pitney and The Troggs. High hopes were held for a British breakthrough, and in the early months of 1967 the pages of Go-Set featured predictions of his imminent UK stardom, but it never materialised.

The new Playboys lineup arrived in London in December; Normie flew home for Christmas, which coincided with the release of "It's Not Easy" / "Mary Mary", and he returned to England in January. In March 1967 the group embarked on a tour of the UK supporting The Troggs, Gene Pitney and Sounds Incorporated. The same month, Phil Blackmore left the group for family reasons and returned to Australia; he was replaced by English organist Trevor Griffin. Rod Stone left in mid-'67 (returning to Australia, after which he joined The Groove and he was replaced by former Adam Faith sideman Mick Rogers. At the end of 1966 Normie Rowe was voted Australia's best male singer in the inaugural Go-Set Pop Poll.

Meanwhile, The Playboys secured a one-off single deal with Andrew Loog Oldham's Immediate Records label, releasing the single "Sad" / "Black Sheep RIP" in August. Written by Brian Peacock, "Sad" is now considered a 'freakbeat' classic and has been widely anthologised, appearing on the British collection Chocolate Soup For Diabetics Vol III, Raven Records' Kicks and Rhino's Nuggets II. In June, Normie Rowe & The Playboys travelled to North America, supporting Roy Orbison on a US tour, and along with The Seekers he represented Australia in performance at Expo '67 in Montreal. He returned to Australia in July, where he appeared as a special guest at the national finals of the 1967 Hoadley's Battle of the Sounds.

Rowe had more national chart success in late 1967 with the Graham Gouldman song "Going Home" (b/w "I Don't Care") -- assumed to be about the Vietnam War, but really about a migrant’s return to Australia from Britain -- which debuted at #22 in the Go-Set chart in late April and stayed in the national Top Ten until the end of May, peaking at #7 in the second week of May. "Sunshine Secret" / "But I Know" , and another single, "Turn Down Day" charted in Melbourne. But in September 1967 any questions about his career future were dramatically stalled when he received his call-up notice for national service.

National Service: 1968–1972

Normie was inducted into the army in February 1968, although he continued to perform part-time (albeit with a regulation short-back-and-sides army haircut). At least one TV appearance has survived of Normie with the army "do", performing "It's Not Easy" on Uptight. He also began working with a new backing band, Nature's Own, who also regularly backed Johnny Farnham and other members of the Sunshine roster. His only charting record during this period was the ballad "Penelope", written by former Playboys member Brian Peacock.

Every move of Normie's basic training at Puckapunyalmarker took place in the full glare of the media spotlight. He was shipped off to Vietnam in January 1969, and he served his tour of duty there with distinction, rising to the rank of Corporal and was Crew Commander of his own armoured personnel carrier. He was discharged from the army in February 1970. His Vietnam experiences left a deep impression on him, and since that time he has worked extensively on behalf of other Vietnam veterans.

Normie had one last minor hit in May 1970 with the song "Hello", written by Johnny Young, and he released an album of the same name. (It was revealed many years later that Young's song "Smiley", a major hit for Ronnie Burns in 1969, was written about Normie). The Hello album marked the end of his Sunshine contract, although the label had been taken over by Festival several years earlier after it got into financial problems. Normie signed to Festival in 1971, for whom he cut three singles. "Que Sera Sera" was re-released in January 1971 and on March 6 he married his girlfriend Sue Powlesland.

Unfortunately, his national service stint had effectively ended his pop career, and Normie was never able to recover the momentum and mass popularity he lost because of being enlisted. In his absence, Ronnie Burns and Johnny Farnham had taken over and Farnham was now the new King of Pop. The strong anti-war sentiment of the period affected him, and like many Vietnam vets, Normie suffered considerably because of his service, and regrettably, many people took out their anger about the war on veterans. Normie himself has said that he was treated like a pariah by the very people who had been buying his records and screaming at his concerts only a couple of years before. One of the people Normie remembers fondly from this period, who stuck by him and gave him encouragement in tough times, was Meteors drummer Stewie Speer. Normie remembers that Stewie would often wear "King Normie" and "We Love Normie" badges on his jacket.

Post-success: 1972–2000

Although his pop career was now effectively over, Normie was able to fall back on the training from his dance hall days and he began to concentrate on the club and hotel circuit, and on TV performances, where he became a popular attraction on variety programs like The Don Lane Show and The Mike Walsh Show. He continued to record through the '70s, '80s and 90s. He swtiched to the Astor Records label in 1975 and had considerable success with the single "Elisabeth", which won the Best Song category at that year's Tokyo Music Festival.

In the 1980s Normie began to expand his career into acting and musical theatre. He studied at the Sydney's famous Ensemble Theatre and took roles on stage and TV, including an extended role in the TV soapie Sons & Daughters. In 1987 he won great acclaim in his central role of Jean Valjean in Cameron Macintosh's Sydney production of the musical Les Misérables.

Among other musical roles in the '80s and '90s, he played the lead role on the recording, and in the world premiere concerts of a new Australian musical, Cyrano de Bergerac, which he helped develop, played Daddy Warbucks in Annie, Freddy Trumper (the American) in Chess, and Juan Peron in Evita. One of the highlights of his career was his appointment as a Member of The Order of Australia (AM) for services to Vietnam veterans, the entertainment industry and the community. Normie has had a long association with many charity and community groups, with his major concern being the welfare of children. He is a long-serving member of Variety Clubs of Australia, for which he is now a National Ambassador, and he has won several awards for his work with them, including 1996's 'Heart and Soul of Variety' award.

Normie remained a popular attraction at clubs, corporate functions and on the "rock-&-roll revival" circuit in the 1990s. He also kept up regular appearances on TV variety shows. This led to one infamous incident in 1991 that briefly took him back into the headlines. During a forum on republicanism on the Midday Show with Ray Martin he was involved in an on-air melée with Sydney talkback-radio host Ron Casey. Notorious for his highly controversial comments on immigration and other issues, Casey enraged Normie with his remarks and punches flew on both sides.

Current status: 2000 – present

Normie has also had to endure other public hardships, including family problems involving his teenage daughter, which resulted in a great deal of intrusive and unwelcome publicity, and the end of his marriage to his first wife, Sue. In October 1979 Normie's son, Adam John Rowe, died after being accidentally knocked down by a motorist while he was riding his bicycle home from his school fete when he was 8 years old. In 2002, Normie won national acclaim for his performances in the successful "Long Way To The Top" concert tour.

Normie's most recent album, Missing In Action, includes his own version of "Smiley".

Rowe portrays a former Prime Minister, Harold Holtmarker, in the telemovie The Prime Minister is Missing, which was first broadcast on ABC TV on 23 October 2008.

In 2009 Rowe participated in a video interview that is on display in The Shrine of Memories World War II memorial in ANZAC Square, Brisbanemarker as part of an installation art titled Enshrining the Vestiges - Speaking Stones by artist Natalie Billing.

Discography

Singles

Release date Single B-Side Catalogue Notes
April 1965 "It Ain't Necessarily So" "Gonna Leave This Town" Sunshine QK 951
June 1965 "I (Who Have Nothing)" "I Just Don't Understand" Sunshine QK 1069
September 1965 "I Confess" "Everything's Alright" Sunshine QK 1075 Single withdrawn
September 1965 "Que Sera Sera" "Shakin' All Over" Sunshine QK 1103
November 1965 "Tell Him I'm Not Home" "Call On Me" Sunshine QK 1158
March 1966 "The Breaking Point" "Ya Ya" Sunshine QK 1238
June 1966 "Pride & Joy" "The Stones That I Throw" Sunshine QK 1344
November 1966 "Ooh La La" "Ain't Nobody Home" Sunshine QIK-1565
December 1966 "It's Not Easy" "Mary Mary" Sunshine QK 1605
April 1967 "Going Home" "I Don't Care" Sunshine QK 1731
1967 "I Live In the Sunshine" "Far Beyond the Call of Duty" Sunshine QK 1817
June 1967 "Sunshine Secret" "But I Know" Sunshine QK 1820
October 1967 "Turn Down Day" "Stop to Think It Over" Sunshine QK 2008
May 1968 "Penelope" "Lucinda" Sunshine QK 2238
August 1968 "Break Out" "Born to Be By Your Side" Sunshine QK 2493
October 1968 "Walking On New Grass" "Open Up the Skies" Sunshine QK 2596
March 1969 "Just to Satisfy You" "Drinkin Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" Sunshine QK 2819
June 1969 "You Got Style" "Don't Say Nothing Bad (About My Baby)" Sunshine QK 2890
May 1970 "Hello" "Home To Stay" Festival FK 3614
1970 "Rockhampton Happening" "Rockhampton Happening" RCA Custom ZHLM 0371 Recorded with The Jugband
1971 "Border Song" "Come Hear My Song" Festival FK 4363
1972 "Glory Road" "Over to You Now" Festival FK 4633
1973 "Rings" "Come Hear My Song" Festival FK 5146) ARIA Singles Chart peak: #52
1974 "Higher And Higher" "Willie and Laura Mal Jones" Festival K 5575 ARIA Singles Chart peak: #93
1975 "Harbour for My Song" "That's the Way I Am" Astor A 7253
1975 "Good Morning Good Morning" "If You See Her" Astor A 7257
1975 "Elizabeth" "Little Ray of Sunshine" Astor A 7265


EPs

Year Month Title Catalogue
1965 October It Ain't Necessarily Rowe Sunshine QX 11056
Normie Rowe Sings "I" Sunshine QX 11068
Que Sera Sera Sunshine QX 11110
November Shakin' All Over Sunshine QX 11131
1966 Tell Him I'm Not Home Sunshine QX 11138
Call On Me Sunshine QX 11139
Pride & Joy Sunshine QX 11182
The Stones That I Throw Sunshine QX 11187
1967 February Ooh La La! It's Not Easy Sunshine QX 11250
July Going Home Sunshine QX 11277
August Normie's New Four Sunshine QX 11295
November Turn Down Day Sunshine QX 11406
1968 Penelope Sunshine QX 11488


Albums

  • 1965 - It Ain't Necessarily So, But It Is Normie Rowe (Sunshine released July 1965 QL 31734/Calendar re-release late 1965 R 66-73)
  • 1965 - Normie Rowe a Go Go (Sunshine QL 31802)
  • 1965 - A Wonderful Feeling (Sunshine QL 31871/Calendar R66-335)
  • 1966 - Normie's Hit Happenings (Sunshine QL 32198/Calendar R66-553)
  • 1966 - So Much Love From Normie Rowe (Sunshine QL 32144)
  • 1968 - Everything's Alright (Universal UP 768) (Compilation of Rowe's first two LPs)
  • 1969 - Normie's Top Tunes (Universal)
  • 1970 - Hello (Sunshine L 25093)
  • 1973 - Normie Rowe's Greatest Hits (Harlequin L 25138)
  • 1974 - Come Hear My Song (Summit SRA 250152)
  • 1975 - That's the Way I Am (Summit)
  • 1975 - Normie's Hit Tunes (Summit SRA 249 9020)
  • 2000 - The Early Anthology (Festival D46111) Double CD


References



Biographical references:
  • Ian McFarlane: Australian Encyclopedia of Rock & Pop (Allen & Unwin, 1999)
  • Noel McGrath: Australian Encyclopedia of Rock (Outback Press, 1978)
  • Ed Nimmervoll: HowlSpace website -Normie Rowe


Discography references:
  • Vernon Joyson: Dreams, Fantasies and Nightmares from Far Away Lands: Canadian, Australasian and Latin American Rock and Pop, 1963-75 (Borderline Books, 1999)
  • Rate Your Music - Normie Rowe


External links




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