by Tim Harding
I was the leader and manager of the Australian Cotton Club Orchestra for 20 years from 1986 to 2006. (The band is still going, under different management). The Orchestra was a 12-piece big band (including a singer) playing jazz, swing and popular songs from the 1930s and 40s.
During this time we played hundreds of gigs, mainly at high society functions in 5-star international hotels in the Melbourne CBD. 99% of the time we were well paid and treated, usually eating the same food as served to the guests in our own large dressing room etc. But there were a few gigs where we were not as well treated, and I think it may be cathartic to get them off my chest in this memoir.
One of the worst ones was for an AFL football club, where a couple of drunken players tried to sing with the band. One of them got up on stage, pushed our singer aside and insisted that we play some current pop song that we had never heard of. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, and not a single club official tried to stop him. (I gather that these players are treated like gods and nobody ever says no to them, including women). We started playing one of our usual songs that the football player had never heard of, so he eventually staggered off stage and back to his table. To add injury to insult, the club wouldn’t pay us for about 3 months, and then only because we threatened legal action. After that particular gig from hell, we resolved never to play for a football club again. We were always previously engaged whenever a footy club rang us.
Another gig from hell was when we shared the bill with a cowboy on a horse. Yes, that’s right, he brought his horse inside the hotel and up the stairs to the ballroom where we were playing. He and his horse galloped towards us and leaped onto the temporary stage. Some of our quicker-witted musicians fled for their lives, whilst the rest of us stayed riveted to our seats in shock, with the horse prancing and rearing on the stage making us almost seasick with the rocking motion. I thought the stage was about to collapse!
The cowboy then reached into his saddle bags and handed out the musical parts for some country song that we had never heard of before, let alone seen the music for, or rehearsed. But being professional musicians (except for me) the band played it OK and the cowboy sang along with us, still seated on his horse. Then without a word of thanks or acknowledgement, the cowboy and his horse leaped off the stage and galloped around the guest tables at high speed. I was horrified that if even one drunken guest had got up from his table at the wrong time, he or she could have been trampled to death by this horse.
One gig not quite so bad was at a leading 5-star hotel where they tried to serve us stale sandwiches for dinner that had obviously been left over from lunch time. We sent them back to the kitchen saying they were unacceptable. The hotel refused to serve us a proper meal (which was in our contract with the booking agent) so we rang and ordered pizzas to be delivered from outside the hotel. Hopefully, the hotel management were embarrassed at the sight of pizza deliverers marching through the reception area and ballroom of the hotel. Needless to say, we refused to work at that hotel (or for the agent who booked us) again.
At other posh society functions we were occasionally approached by tipsy female opera singers who wanted to sing with the band. For the sake of both their reputations and ours, I tactfully tried to explain that our musical arrangements were in the wrong keys for their soprano voices, which was probably at least half true.
Earlier in our career, we played in various pubs in the suburbs of South Melbourne, Richmond and Hawthorn. Here we were paid less and received no meals or drinks, but we were playing up to 3 or 4 nights per week gradually improving our repertoire and becoming better known around town. Whilst we didn’t do ‘door deals’, staff collecting entry fees told me that plain-clothes policemen and women used to ‘flash their freddies’ and get in free. Publicans and bandleaders like me were happy to have police present in case there was any trouble. Although we would also get the occasional ‘dontcha know who I am?’ VIP who could easily afford the modest entry fee and was less welcome.
We often played with a female vocal trio named Rhapsody in Red, and their pianist also became our pianist. We recorded a CD album with them, although it was not our best one, in my view. Everything seemed to be going well until the girls suddenly demanded a much higher fee which priced themselves out of the market, and that was the end of that.
We didn’t have much trouble playing in pubs; although I do remember one muso who got out his trumpet and started playing along with us uninvited. If he had asked us, we might have let him take an ad lib solo or two (he said he couldn’t read music). One or two audience members asked me “Can’t youse play any rock ‘n roll?”. My usual answer was “Do you go to a French restaurant and order Chinese?”.
Another guy insisted that we play a tune that was not in our repertoire (unlike small groups, it is not possible for big bands to ‘fake’ a tune – the music needs to be pre-arranged). This guy would simply not take no for an answer, and he used to follow us around the pubs harassing me between sets (the pubs had no dressing rooms). Fortunately, some burly band members and sometimes audience members (but not the plain clothes police) realised what was happening, and used to stand between me and this guy for my protection. If it wasn’t for their help, I would have seriously thought about hiring a bodyguard because I suspected that my harasser ‘had a kangaroo loose in the top paddock’ as we say in Australia. (Police tell me that threats of violence should always be taken seriously).
We had the occasional gigs in pubs where the staff played Muzak over their PA whilst we were playing. I remember one where the publican turned the lights off (we are a reading big band). So we had to stop playing mid-tune until they turned the lights back on again. I don’t think that these minor incidents were malicious – just lack of attention to detail.