With his band The Playboys, Normie Rowe had an unrivalled string of pop hits in the 1960’s, earning him the title of Australia’s First King of Pop. His double-sided release of Que Sera Sera/Shakin’ All Over in particular became one of the most successful recordings of the era.
In 1967 at the height of his pop success, Rowe was drafted for the Vietnam WaR. Rowe’s tour of duty would change his story, ending his reign as King of Pop but ultimately opening him up to the next stage of his career, and earning Rowe his appointment as a Member of The Order of Australia (AM) for his services to Vietnam Veterans and the entertainment industry.
Though Rowe continued to record and perform upon his return from Vietnam, in the 1980's he turned his talents to the world of musical theatre. In 1987 Rowe became a part of Australian stage history when he starred as Jean Valjean in the original production of LES MISERABLES. He took on further high profile stage roles including Daddy Warbucks in ANNIE, Freddy Trumper in CHESS and Peron in EVITA. In the process the King of Pop became a bona fide musical theatre star.
This month the personal and professional life of Rowe is celebrated in NORMIE the Musical, a new Melbourne production written by Graeme Johnstone. The production features many of Rowe’s hits from the 1960’s with additional original music composed by Peter Sullivan. A joint production by Old Scotch Music & Drama and Beatroot Services, the musical looks at Rowe’s experiences throughout the late 1960’s, at the centre of one of the most turbulent decades of the 20th Century.
Rowe will feature in NORMIE as Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, and on the eve of this new production we put a few questions to this true Australian icon, including how it feels to have a musical written about your life ...
Normie, you are known as our first ‘King of Pop’. What was life like for pop royalty in the 60’s?
NR: Our routine was extremely hectic. Touring took most of our time with one-night concerts rolling across the country for 6 months at a time. And recording schedules that were equally gruelling. From 1965 to 1968 The Playboys and I recorded over 140 songs.
As for the audiences, I think attitudes are driven by media espouse across all subjects and issues, popular music is no different. What is different is the amount of exposure opportunities for young artistes to both 'break' and sustain their careers. We had numerous TV Shows on which to appear, and Radio Stations were not so greed driven and scared to play new music. In fact they realised that if they were to break an artist it meant immediate currency for ratings. Large enthusiastic audiences followed and both radio stations and TV shows promoted their own concerts.
Popular music has changed to often be more about the ‘popular’ than the ‘music’. Which of our modern pop stars do you think has got the balance right?
NR: Assuming you're correct, which is arguable, I think for his audience, Justin Bieber has done well. So has Eminem, both of whom both appeal to, and cater for their audiences well.
What was your initial reaction when you were first made aware that a musical of your life story was in the works?
NR: I was ambivalent, I knew there was a dynamic ride to relate, I knew there was a political angle that hadn't really been investigated, And I knew there were parts of the story which had escaped public scrutiny. I thought also that if my story could be a creator of work for actors et al who put these productions onto the stage, it would be a worthwhile project. I am acutely aware of the depth of wonderful performing artistes who rarely get to play their parts. I love that I'm part of an opportunity for 28 cast members and at least 50 who are working slavishly behind the scenes.
An entire musical has been written about you. What would be the defining song of your life story – if you had to choose just one?
NR: Of course this musical is about a certain time of my life - to do it all would be quite a task. But for my whole life I guess Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be). Continued next page.