Sinnamon Park, QLD
Tucked inside yesterday’s Courier Mail was a little news item about an old busker who was hit by a vehicle at the intersection of Adelaide and Edward Streets. The police are looking for the driver of a vehicle that fatally struck a 66 year old man in Brisbane early Sunday. The incident happened around 6 am and the responding officers found the man, identified as Frank Wallis, unconscious and unresponsive with trauma about the body, lying on the road.
On any given day as you wander down the Brisbane CBD you can find a smorgasbord of street performers sharing their talents with tourists, visitors and shoppers. The buskers thrive in this city, especially on the weekends, with roadside performances drawing a fair number of spectators. The city offers diverse fare from musicians, mime artists, balloon artists and street artists sharing their wares. Some are quite well known, like the blind saxophonist Graham Pampling, the Aboriginal didgeridoo player Adrian Burragubba and the guitarist Tim Brennan. There are others who perform in anonymity but you can sense that they enjoy themselves tremendously while busking.
The first time I heard Frank Wallis play was on the corner of Adelaide and Edward Streets, the place where Queens Plaza now stands. He was belting out an al fresco version of To Love Somebody. I smiled as he was taking a certain amount of artistic liberty with the lyrics that Robin and Barry Gibb wrote, interspersing little words of his own in the lyrics. Words that only a true fan would know, that were deviating from the original. I can still remember him belting them out.
You don’t know Baby what it’s like, you don’t even know what it’s like, To love somebody … like the way I love you
There’s … a certain kind of spotlight that never shone on me bright … You ain’t ever got to be so blind, I’m a kinda man, can’t you see what I am?, I live and breathe for youse, But what good does that do, If I ain’t got you babe?
There was something about him in the way he performed, an infectious enthusiasm that sucked you in. In appearance he was a tall, tanned man, narrow framed and supple. At that time he had a frayed t-shirt on and you could glimpse his tattooed arms. He moved in perfect rhythm as he kept tapping, singing and dancing away. He knew how to work the guitar and the voice was something you could listen to. Well, at least I could, so I stayed listening. When he finished, as it happens with buskers, some people walk away, the others look awkwardly inside their wallets and purses and hesitantly bring out random coins with sheepish grins. I too took out some money and dropped it in his collection box. There were some CDs for sale and a few newspaper clippings that I barely glanced at then. I left soon after, catching the train from Central Station, humming To Love Somebody on the Ipswich line.
In the course of the following few months, I came across him performing at the same spot. I always stopped and listened to the sounds of the Bee Gees from this street musician. Somehow he always pulled it off, whether it was the distinctly R&B influenced Jive Talkin’ or Nights on Broadway which used Barry Gibb’s falsetto extensively and marked the group’s movement in the direction of early disco. He knew me as a regular and I always put some money in his collection box, figuring out the peppy mood it put me into made it worthwhile.
It was one of those nights when I heard the familiar beats of Stayin’ Alive pulsing in the city streets. I am a fan of the Gibb brothers. I have more than a passing familiarity with the lyrics of their songs as compared to other groups I don’t know at all. I know that Stayin’ Alive was among the first set of songs that the Bee Gees wrote for the hit movie Saturday Night Fever. The song’s use in the opening sequence of the movie helped make the song a signature hit for the Bee Gees and forever identify it with the emergence of disco into the mainstream.
Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother,
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.
Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’,
And were stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive.
It was pretty cool watching an older busker belt it out without any inhibitions. I stuck around listening and later hung around to chat. All the spectators had moved away, only I was left behind. He had few copies of a CD up for sale, Frank Wallis Performs A Tribute to the Bee Gees. I noticed he always had a few old laminated newspaper clippings but this time I started to read them. And there it was. An old laminated clipping from The Redcliffe Dispatch from the scrapbook of his life.
A 13 year old Brisbane boy, his 10 year old twin brothers and their 12 year old friend are being applauded on all three TV channels in Brisbane in top-line talent shows. ‘My boys and their friend Frank have really got the show business bug,’ said their mother, Mrs. Hugh Gibb, in a soft Lancashire accent, as she poured a cup of tea in their Cribb Island home. ‘The boys practise for an hour each night, after homework, in a make-believe television studio, which they’ve built under the house.’
I couldn’t believe my eyes at what I was reading – a fourth Bee Gee?
Was this busker here a real Brisbane music pioneer? He was packing his equipment away as I looked at him.
‘You knew them.’ It was a statement and not a question.
‘It was a while back,’ he replied, ‘we were neighbours. I was with them when they bought their first guitars at Nundah Music, you probably know it as Toombul Music now, yeah a fair while back.’
‘I never knew that there was a fourth member of the band.’
‘Inquisitive bugger aren’t you? Give us a hand first,’ he said, picking up his equipment as he started packing up. As I helped him put his portable amplifier system away I thought how we walk past buskers never realising how much work they do just to give a performance on a street corner.
‘Let’s walk down to the Victory to grab a beer first mate,’ he said.
I would have gone anywhere with him then; I needed to know more about Frank Wallis, though the Victory in those days was the place to be for younger blokes like me. You waited just for Sunday so you could hit the Session at the Victory. That was the time when the LRB band played with Dave Marsden and Brendan Jagger. Gorging on steak and chips, the jugs of Powers beer and evenings that went on forever. When it was over it was mandatory to hit City Rowers. Weekdays could never compete.
I ordered beers for both of us, with Frank getting friendly waves from some of the patrons as we sat down. ‘So when did you meet them?’ I could hardly contain myself now. In response he took a long swig from his glass, put it down and then wiped his face with the back of his hand.
‘I grew up on Cribby,’ he said. ‘My folks had a home next to the ice works there. 394 Oxley Avenue was the house next door. I was already going to the Scarborough State School so the Gibb brothers and their sister Lesley started walking with me to school. It just felt as if the new neighbours were growing up surrounded by love and music in a very ¬happy household. When Barry said that they were going to be musicians, I just asked if I could join them and they agreed to let me be a part of their group.’
He had a wistful smile on his face then, as if he was reliving those days of his childhood. Would he have ever imagined then that this band of boys from a tiny Moreton Bay island would go on to sell more than 220 million records?
‘The first time we went busking on the back of a truck at the Brisbane Speedway. It was Barry’s bright idea. You know Barry and his pal Griggsy used to be off every Saturday night selling soft drinks at Redcliffe Speedway Circus. Redcliffe Speedway, now that was a place. The stock cars roared in that dusty oval and the smell of motor oil permeated the place. Sometimes they roped us in to help them – we would grab a case, strap it around our shoulders and sell them. Barry’s mind used to tick with all these ideas on what to do next. He was the one who noticed that there were gaps between races and ever the entrepreneur came up with a master plan. At the interval we would set up a quick little stall under the grandstand. The Gibb brothers and I would sing while Griggsy would carry on selling. The idea being to collect a crowd so that we could sell more soda.’
‘Did that work?’ I asked, even though I knew the answer.
‘Even better than expected,’ he grinned in reply, ‘the organiser was Bill Goode. He loved us so much that he said we had to be on the radio. Bill Goode then introduced us to a Brisbane disk jockey, Bill Gates. Bill Gates wanted a name for our group. Here’s some trivia for you. Barry had originally named us as The Rattlesnakes. Robin, Maurice and I used to joke afterwards that Gates almost christened us as The Little Bastards, but fortunately he chose to rename the band, which started out as the Bee Gees after his and Mr Goode’s initials.’
‘You were there at the start then. Why did you leave?’
‘Oh I was there for a while. A week after Bill Gates met us we were up in the 4BH studio recording our songs. We did four then Bill wanted more so Barry wrote two more then and there, while the twins and I kicked around a wastepaper basket. Not only did Bill Gates play our songs he also sent music down to 2UE in Sydney. Mate, after that we even played at the Ekka where people just lined up to hear us perform. We were just little nippers, mate, so getting called up to play at the Geebung primary school fete was a major gig for us.’
He refilled his glass and seemed lost in contemplation. Was it sadness and regret of a life that might have been?
‘My parents divorced in the Christmas of 1962. Mum got custody of the children and decided to move to Warwick where my grandparents had a farm. At the age of fifteen I had no choice but to go with her. Then the Gibb family moved from Brisbane to Sydney in January 1963. From then onwards the Bee Gees became a group that comprised three brothers of a family. I followed their careers. I knew that until April 1966, the Bee Gees issued 10 singles and one LP on the Leedon label. Not one song had been a hit. Even with managerial assistance from Australian rock star Col Joye, the Bee Gees’ recording career was fading out. I was busy with the working of the farm, even though Barry had sent me a letter asking me to join them again, as he felt that they had really taken off when I was with them. But farming is a tough profession and it left me no time to play the rock star.
‘Before I knew it, in late 1966 the brothers returned to England to further their careers. We hardly kept in touch, though there were occasional letters. Robin wrote to me in mid-1969 stating that he was leaving the group as did Maurice the next year.
‘My mother died in July 1970 and I was sad, lonely and depressed. My father had rarely kept in touch since the divorce; he had remarried immediately and except for the obligatory Christmas card he had no time for us. So it was a strange feeling when I saw a car coming up the drive to my grandparents’ house. It was the Gibb brothers, who had all come back for me. They stayed for a fortnight and we bounced ideas for a song that they wrote specially for me. To the world, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart was the song written in August 1970, when the Gibb brothers had reconvened following a period of break-up and alienation. But I knew it was a song that they wrote for their friend after his mother’s death.
‘I can think of younger days when living for my life
Was everything a man could want to do
I could never see tomorrow
But I was never told about the sorrow
And how can you mend a broken heart?
How can you stop the rain from falling down?
How can you stop the sun from shining?
What makes the world go round?
‘The brothers went back but they left me a stronger man. After my grandparents died, I sold off the farm and moved to Brisbane. The sale had left enough money for me to live my life free of financial worries. I tried forming a musical group of my own but somehow it would never be the same with others. So I started performing my tribute to the songs of Bee Gees. I was the fourth Bee Gee. It was amazing. I loved every bit of it. And now I get to relive it each day when I perform on the streets of Brisbane.’
After that Frank Wallis got up, shook my hand and walked out of the bar. I never got to meet him again as I got a job in Sydney the next month. When I came back this year it took me a while to settle down to a routine. Having a family now meant I did not have the time to watch buskers so I never saw him again.