...she enjoys the creative and communicative aspects of lyric writing...
LA via the Cross
Jazz singer Catherine O'Brien was working her way up and down the East Coast when opportunity knocked. Invited to visit composer Bob Haggart in LA, she was left to finance the expedition herself. DERRICK DAVEY got the story.
Until 1996, Catherine O'Brien had been a singer of popular jazz standards and ballads around the clubs and piano lounges of eastern Australia.
But her career took a dramatic turn in 1994 when, by chance, she met 2MBS broadcaster Dick Hughes, who was playing piano at the Shakespeare Hotel in Surry Hills. This was the spark that led to a trip to the US and a meeting with Bob Haggart, the old Bob Crosby bass player, with whom she subsequently corresponded for the rest of his life.
Catherine O'Brien grew up in the Ovens Valley, Victoria, as the fourth in a family of six girls. Music was an important part of the O'Brien family and all the girls were taught to play the piano. Catherine studied classical piano from seven to fourteen, had various vocal coaches and taught herself to play guitar.
A series of accidents affected her ability to gain mainstream employment, but she had already developed an interest in jazz (trumpeter Clifford Brown was a particular favourite) and her introduction to the music business came when she got a one-off gig in the piano bar of the Hyatt Kingsgate in Sydney.
Since that night, years ago, she has sung and played the piano or guitar in restaurants and piano bars up and down the East Coast from Hobart to Cairns.
Until 1994 O'Brien had always sung other people's songs, but a visit to the Shakespeare Hotel in Surry Hills changed all that. The piano player was Dick Hughes, journalist, pianist and 2MBS broadcaster, who played two Bob Haggart compositions, 'I'm Free' (later with lyrics by Johnny Burke and retitled 'What's New') and 'My Inspiration'. The Bob Crosby Orchestra had recorded both in 1938.
O'Brien was intrigued by the music and, encouraged by Dick, put words to both tunes. She was given Bob Haggart's phone number, rang him and sang her lyrics to his music to him. He was delighted and invited her to visit him in Los Angeles.
This was the easy part.
With very little money, it took her two years busking in Kings Cross to earn sufficient to cover the trip's expenses. She wrote a sign on her guitar case: 'LA or BUST', later changed to 'LA or BUSK', which was to become the tide of her first CD (to be reviewed in Stereo FM Radio next month).
The trip to the US was successful. O'Brien met Bob Haggart and his music publishers and persuaded them to give her permission to use his music. She has sung and recorded her lyrics to Bob Haggart's songs, together with others by Bernie McCann, Keith Hounslow, Grahame Conlon and her sister Rosaleen.
These days busking is part of earning a living. It's still a challenge, though 'Some nights just bubble along nicely and everyone is happy. But mostly the evening is a cocktail of changing emotions,' she says. 'One has to be alert to danger. Then there are the physical demands of the weather. There is a certain amount of dehydration, exposure to rain, damp, humidity and cold. Though the nights are long and exhausting, I am thankful for the generosity and goodwill I have encountered.'
She confirms what many other jazz musicians say: that since the depression of 1987, the abolition of the expense-account rorts and the cancerous spread of poker machines, piano bar and restaurant jobs are harder to find and pay less.
But she enjoys the creative and communicative aspects of lyric writing and has written some 'social comment' songs that are yet to be recorded.
2MBS-FM Stereo FM Radio