Ian McFarlane Pays Tribute To A Great Australian Singer.
On Saturday 22nd June 2013, singer Wendy Saddington (aka Gandharvika Dasi) passed away, or left her Earthly body as she would no doubt have preferred it worded. She had been battling late stage cancer of the oesophagus and by all accounts was peaceful and looking forward to seeing her friends on the other side. Just prior to that, the close friends who kept her Facebook page had written: “Gandharvika has accepted the fact that she is soon to be free of this body and make no mistake, she is leaving with joy.”
This is highly symbolic of her embracement of a spiritual lifestyle. During the early ‘70s Wendy became a follower of the teachings of Prabhupada and joined the Krishna movement, or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) to be precise. She remained committed to this philosophy to the very end.
It’s important to reflect on this aspect of her life because perhaps it defined her even more clearly than her experiences and persona as a rock singer. Even so, with her passing the Australian music industry lost a beautiful talent. And there’s no doubt that she was one of the great Australian singers of the 1960s and 1970s. She was often billed as “Australia’s Lady of Soul” or the “First Lady of the Blues”. She wasn’t a technically brilliant singer, but that hardly mattered. She could belt out a blues number with such power and conviction that the stage could literally shake, or she’d hold back with such a soulful near-whisper that it could take your breath away. On top of that she could handle jazz-blues fusion or reggae with equal aplomb.
For the Australian music fanatic, it’s been a somewhat emotional time in recent months with the deaths of Wendy, Chrissy Amphlett, Yunupingu, Kevin Peek, The Angels’ Chris Bailey and Greg Quill. I have to say that, on a personal note, the passing of both Greg and Wendy has hit me the hardest. I didn’t know Wendy closely but I’d caught a few of her gigs over the years, plus I got the opportunity to interview her on a couple of occasions, once on Triple-RRR in the late 1990s and then in 2011 in the lead up to the CD reissue of her album Wendy Saddington & the Copperwine Live on the Aztec Music label.
Wendy was certainly an enigma in many ways. Enormously talented but it always seemed that whenever she got to a level of sustained success she’d shrink back and depart the scene. It’s almost as if success was anathema to her and she wanted to do things on her own terms. She was a strong woman but in some ways just too fragile to have succeeded in the cut-throat world of corporate rock.
Summing up Wendy’s career is no easy task. As one of Australia’s foremost soul / blues singers of the early 1970s she was very prominent on the live scene, yet her recorded output at the time amounted to just that one album and one single, ‘Looking through a Window’.
The mercurial Wendy received a lot of music press coverage and her numerous live performances presented her essence in a powerful way. She could be outspoken or introspective; she could be ambitious or spiritual; a mess of contradiction and not an easy persona for the public at large to latch onto. After all, here was the singer who declared at the time, even before her record had registered: “anyone who buys the album is an idiot and wasting their money”
Wendy told me when I interviewed her in 2011:
“I don’t hate the album as much now as I used to. I’m happy that it’s coming out on CD but it was never meant to come out as a record in the first place. It was only half of Copperwine and without Jeff it didn’t have the same impact. The first festival I sang at Ourimbah was wonderful, but all the other ones after that weren’t so good. I’ve had a very drawn out career and I’m not interested in talking much about the record. I’ve lived a spiritual life since then and that’s how it was meant to be. Hare Krishna.”
We have to accept Wendy’s emotions about the recording. Nevertheless, the album and single are important historical documents and glorious examples of artistic expression at its purest. With no commercial considerations at stake they remain timeless and pure. Wendy simply opened her mouth, heart and soul and allowed the universe to channel her music in whatever kaleidoscopic forms it so chose. Her music on a metaphysical level might well be summed up in the phrase “Let It Be…”
Here’s a brief overview of her career.
Wendy nominated her early influences as Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, Etta James, Odetta and Janis Joplin, plus American soul music in general (Stax, Atlantic, Motown) with a smattering of Mississippi delta blues.
Her first on-stage experiences came with fronting Melbourne blues-psych band The Revolution (circa 1967/68), followed by Adelaide pop-psych band James Taylor Move whom she joined in June 1968. The group had already made the move over to Melbourne, playing the usual venues of the day such as the Thumpin’ Tum and the Catcher discotheques alongside the likes of Andy James Asylum, The Vibrants, Chelsea Set, Bay City Union and The Groove.
The singer’s first appearance in Go-Set came in July, under the headline The Face of ‘68.
“WENDY SADDINGTON is her name. She is strange looking, but that’s how she likes to look. Her hair is a mess of spikes and curls. Her clothes are dark, tailored and butch, with a glimpse of frills and chiffon here and there. She sings like a white Aretha Franklin, loud, raucous, soulful and gutsy. She is 18 and has had two singing lessons in the year she has been singing professionally.”
James Taylor Move broke up December 1968 and Wendy linked up with members of The Beaten Tracks. The line-up comprised Warren Morgan (piano), Phil Manning (guitar), Murray Wilkins (bass) and Adrian ‘Ace’ Follington (drums). The band had relocated to Melbourne from Perth. Wendy suggested the new band name of Chain, as she was a fan of the Aretha Franklin soul classic ‘Chain of Fools’. The band became known as The Chain initially, sometimes billed as The Chain Featuring Wendy Saddington.
Warren Morgan recalled when I interviewed him recently:
“It’s worth pointing out that Chain was formed with Wendy. We were The Beaten Tracks in those days, late ‘68. Ross Partington, the singer, had left in Perth and we decided to take on a new singer and lo and behold it was decided to have a play with Wendy to see what might happen. When we’d first seen Wendy in James Taylor Move, we thought she was magnificent. That’s probably why we ended up with her as lead singer because we just liked her talent.
“Everyone said ‘okay this is going to be a band, what are we going to call it?’ Everyone put in a few ideas and it came around to Wendy and she just said ‘call it fuckin’ Chain’ (laughs). That was the quote. I remember it vividly because I nearly fell off my chair! So she named the band. It was just a very, very stark comment. She might have followed it up with some other conversation about the song ‘Chain of Fools’, but she just made this announcement. We dropped the ‘fuckin’’ and it became Chain because we liked it. So she was instrumental in forming and naming the band.”
In 1969 Australian music was still in the grip of the pop “scream scene”. The Chain was one of the first local bands with a progressive outlook, and by the end of the year the underground Melbourne scene was beginning to burgeon forth so they joined the likes of ex-pop-star-born-again-rockin’ bluesman Billy Thorpe and his reconstituted band the Aztecs (by then featuring guitar maestro Lobby Loyde), Spectrum, Adderley Smith Blues Band, Matt Taylor’s new band Horse and Carson County Band playing the likes of the Thumpin’ Tum, Berties, Sebastians and various Town Halls.
Of course, by that stage Wendy had moved on again; she left Chain in May 1969, ready to enjoy her next musical adventure. She decided to go solo and was often billed as “Australia’s Lady of Soul”. Then on 6 September 1969, she appeared on the front cover of Go-Set under the headline Wendy Saddington Writes for Go-Set. Wendy announced that her intention was to give space to good, young groups and singers, which she did as well as interviewing the usual big names in Max Merritt, Barrie McAskill, Doug Parkinson etc. She also took on an “agony aunt” role in the column Wendy Saddington Takes Care of Business, which caused the occasional public outcry over her words of advice to young teens.
Around the same time she appeared on ABC TV’s in-concert series Fusions, singing the Robert Parker song ‘Barefootin’’ and the Jimmie Cox song ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’ (as done by Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, Otis Redding etc) backed by the house-band Tully.
This time backed by Chain, Wendy appeared on the bill of Australia’s first major rock festival, “Pilgrimage for Pop”, held at a farm near Ourimbah, NSW over the Australia Day weekend, January 1970. Ourimbah featured the cream of local rock talent of the day: the Aztecs, Jeff St. John and the Copperwine, Leo and Friends, Tully, Doug Parkinson In Focus, Max Merritt and the Meteors, Levi Smith’s Clefs, Hans Poulsen, aboriginal blues singer Black Alan, Heart ‘n’ Soul, Chain and the festival organizers, ex-Los Angeles acid rock band Nutwood Rug. The audience was treated to a couple of days of excellent music, all topped off by the inevitable jam session featuring Wendy alongside Merritt, Thorpie, McAskill and Loyde.
Wendy was featured in Gordon Mutch’s long-heralded film of Ourimbah, Once around the Sun, which only saw release on DVD about a year ago. With that wild electric hair framing her face, the singer’s performance of ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’ – backed by Company Caine – displays her commanding stage presence. She doesn’t move much (just the occasional little body shimmer) but she sure as hell owns that stage.
In May 1970, Wendy joined the ranks of Jeff St. John & the Copperwine as co-lead vocalist. St. John and the Copperwine were already established as one of the premier acts on the flourishing head music / concert circuit. Their exciting progressive soul sound could be heard to startling effect on the imaginative album Joint Effort. Wendy exerted her influence immediately on the band’s sound by delivering spell-binding re-arrangements of The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues’.
In January 1971 Wendy and Copperwine played one of their most famous (or infamous, if you like) gigs at “The Odyssey” Music Festival (Wallacia, NSW), followed by an appearance at the Myponga Festival of Progressive Music in South Australia. In such splendid outdoor settings, Copperwine with Wendy and Jeff (who, although he didn’t appear at Wallacia, was there for Myponga) certainly held their own among such heavyweight company as the Aztecs, Levi Smith’s Clefs, Spectrum, Daddy Cool, Chain, King Harvest, Company Caine, Healing Force, La De Das, Blackfeather, Pirana, Tully, Tamam Shud, Nutwood Rug, Kahvas Jute etc.
Wendy left Copperwine in February 1971 and continued to work as a solo artist. She concentrated on appearing at larger concert events, often backed by a band featuring Warren Morgan on piano and Phil Manning on guitar. She performed songs such as the Stones’ ‘Honky Tonk Woman’, ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’, ‘Shine a Light on Me’ and the unveiling of a new Morgan-penned song called ‘Looking through the Window on My Wall’.
The singer recorded the song (plus the gospel-inspired piano ballad ‘We Need a Song’) with Morgan and Thorpie at TCS studios, backed by Chain. When Infinity issued the single in July 1971, the song had been re-titled ‘Looking through a Window’. Lyrically the song posits Wendy as a child watching the circus come to town. The song starts as a delicate piano ballad, with Wendy’s emotional vocals striving ever higher as the strings soar and the band rides the high for all its worth right to the end of the six-minute arrangement. The whole thing just builds and builds…
Now it was time for Festival to issue an album. As far back as that February, however, Wendy had indicated that she didn’t want her performance with Copperwine at Wallacia released. She argued that it hadn’t captured her performance at its best, and besides it was Copperwine minus Jeff St. John so only told half the story anyway. When interviewed by Juene Pritchard on ABC TV’s rock show GTK (26 July), she went so far as to state she didn’t like it at all and that “anyone who buys the album is an idiot and wasting their money”.
The protests fell on deaf ears and Festival issued Wendy Saddington & the Copperwine Live on the Infinity label that September. Despite Wendy’s misgivings, it is a great album. The punchy rendition of Nina Simone’s ‘Backlash Blues’ and the atmospheric, flowing treatment of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ highlight Wendy’s expressive voice and the band’s strong musicianship and adeptness with arrangements. ‘Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ is taken at funereal pace while the autobiographical ‘Five People Said I was Crazy’ and the 14 and ½ minute ‘Blues in ‘A’’ allow for plenty of instrumental interplay between voice, guitar and piano. There’s a definite West Coast psych vibe throughout, in particular how the arrangements ebb and flow.
Wendy had long harboured a desire to travel overseas, to broaden her horizons as the cliché goes, so at the end of December 1971 she boarded a plane bound for New York. She only had one Australian connection in NY, the legendary magician Jeff Crozier so she visited him at his home, in a tool shed on Staten Island, with his dog, pet mouse and all his stage props. It was while she was staying with Crozier that Wendy re-evaluated her performance craft and devised a new costume and make-up in which to perform.
Wendy explained to me that on her trip to the US she had carried with her a picture of a clown. The clown seems to have been a recurring theme in her work. The lyrics of ‘Looking through a Window’ tell of a child watching the circus come to town and being intrigued by the clowns. Wendy’s new make-up was styled after the image of the pantomime character Pierrot. She then put a twist on the theme by combining the make-up with her freshly cropped hair and a costume of leotards and leggings split into black and white halves. All up Wendy’s new look presented a very effective piece of theatre.
Wendy returned to Australia at the end of April 1972 and settled in Sydney. She presented her new persona in a series of well-received concerts, often joined by new performance partner Teardrop, aka mime artist Morris Spinetti who excelled at “expressive movements”. Her show stopping song around this time was an emotional rendition of ‘Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child’.
Wendy appeared in director Peter Weir’s 1972 10-minute short 3 Directions in Australian Pop-Music, which had been filmed as part of the Commonwealth Film Unit’s Australian Colour Diary series (#43). Also featured were Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band and Indelible Murtceps, filmed at the Much More Ballroom (Cathedral Hall, Brunswick Street Fitzroy). The singer performed a cover of cult US folk singer / songwriter Sixto Rodriguez’s ‘I Think of You’ (from his 1971 album Coming from Reality), accompanied by Teardrop and a three-piece backing band which Wendy recalled as comprising the ex-Copperwine guys Ross East (guitar) and Pete Figures (drums) with Tim Partridge on bass.
It’s interesting to note that some sources list Wendy as having appeared at the Sunbury music festival (both 1972 and 1973) but that’s not the case. Her next high profile appearance was in the role of the Nurse as part of Lou Reizner’s Australian stage production of The Who’s Tommy, held at the Myer Music Bowl, Saturday 31st March 1973. Also featuring Daryl Braithwaite, Billy Thorpe, Ross Wilson, Doug Parkinson, Broderick Smith, Jim Keays, Colleen Hewett and Linda George plus The Who’s Keith Moon, it was a remarkable success.
Wendy continued to perform throughout the 1970s. By 1975 she had moved into a funk / white R&B direction with her backing bands Shango and Silver Sun. In one of her most unusual undertakings, Wendy made a brief appearance in the 1979 experimental short film about the impact of rape entitled Hanging Around, directed by renowned photographer Carol Jerrems; she also sang an untitled song on the soundtrack.
In 1983 she unveiled the Wendy Saddington Band, featuring jazz pianist Bobby Gebert and guitarist Harvey James (ex-Ariel, Sherbet). The 1986 version of the Wendy Saddington Band was probably even more popular, a reggae / funk / soul collective featuring Mick Liber (guitar; ex-Python Lee Jackson), Angelica Booth (bass), Rose Bygrave (organ; ex-Goanna Band), Des McKenna (drums; aka “Animal” from Hey Hey It’s Saturday) and Javier Fredis (percussion, congas). Apparently the band recorded an album at ENREC Studios, Tamworth which was never released because – it’s been suggested – Wendy felt it wasn’t good enough.
Following that, some notable appearances included:
September 1998: the Continental Cafe, Prahran, with the Kevin Borich Express and Ross Wilson. In one of the most exciting rock events of the year, the Express backed Wendy on five numbers. Gone was the customary Express brand of driving blues rock, passed over temporarily for an amazing set of exploratory jazz-blues fusion which was incomparable in its existentialist scope. The concert appeared on CD as Kevin Borich Express – One Night Jamm.
2003: she contributed three tracks (‘Live the Life’, ‘Prisoner of Love’ and a cover of The Doors’ ‘Been Down So Long’) to the CD Women’n Blues (on Full House Records), alongside three tracks each by Sally King, Kate Dunbar, Jeannie Lewis and Margret RoadKnight.
August 2006: Lobby Loyde Benefit Concert, the Palace, St. Kilda. Wendy sang ‘Looking through a Window’ backed by Warren Morgan on electric piano. Billy Thorpe introduced her: “She was an important figure on the scene around 1969 to 1973, she stood toe-to-toe with the guys at the bar, rolling joints, she was a great friend of mine, she hasn’t performed on stage for 30 years (sic), please welcome Wendy Saddington”. Maybe Wendy, Lobby, Billy and Ian Rilen (who also appeared on the bill) are now reunited at that great gig in the sky…
Her last ever live performance came in December 2012. Despite the ups and downs of her career, Wendy Saddington’s music and spirit will endure.