An earlier version of this piece first appeared in Issue 3 of the extempore journal
My wife has generously accepted the fact for a long time now; she knows that for almost forty years, there was another woman in my life.
I sought her out whenever I could; travelled miles just hear her voice. She lived interstate so our assignations grew gradually more infrequent till eventually I realized she wouldn’t make the long trip south again.
I fell in love with the great jazz vocalist Kerrie Biddell in the early ’70s. She was singing on television with the Daly Wilson Big Band and this slim young woman was belting it out over the top of Australia’s gutsiest ensemble as if they were playing mezzo forte. Her range and power were astonishing; her performance energetic and electrifying.
I discovered she was New Zealand-born and worked as a session singer in Sydney from 1965. In 1967, she became the lead singer of The Affair, an imaginative group which played a mixture of soul, jazz rock and pure jazz. If you wanted someone to sing that wide a range of repertoire, Kerrie Biddell would have been your first choice.
When The Affair, exciting but short-lived as many affairs are, broke up after a largely unsuccessful English tour, Kerrie returned to Sydney where her career, like her vocal range, headed ever upwards. She sang on TV, did session work, fronted Daly Wilson, toured with Dudley Moore, Cilla Black and Buddy Rich, had her own ABC radio program, Kerrie Biddell and Friends, and was heard nightly on TV singing the theme for Sons and Daughters.
Australia wasn’t entitled to keep her talent to itself and in 1972, with her husband David Glyde, former front man for Sounds Incorporated, headed to the States and Canada. With the world seemingly at her feet – she appeared on U.S. Tonight shows singing with the likes of Blood, Sweat and Tears, the Hollies and Billy Preston, and had a five-year contract with the MGM Grand in Las Vegas – she came home to Australia.
Her timing was great – the Sydney jazz explosion of the 1970s, as it was dubbed, was just gaining momentum. With Michael Bartolomei, Graham Jesse, Nick Lister and Alan Freeman, she started a jazz fusion group called Compared to What which had a great following at Sydney’s Basement apparently – not much joy for a Melbourne-based fan but absence certainly made this little heart grow fonder. I had to make do with the albums; just five of them:
Kerrie Biddell, in 1973, an eclectic selection of haunting ballads like ‘If I Be Your Lady’ and ‘Who Will Dance with the Blind Dancing Bear’.
The Exciting Daly Wilson Big Band on Festival’s Elephant label featuring, according to the blurb, ‘the intriguing singer Kerrie Biddell’ and retailing at $3.29!
Compared to What featuring Kerrie Biddell proudly proclaiming itself to be the ‘First Australian DIGITAL Album’.
Only the Beginning in 1975 which was ironically, something of an ending; Kerrie didn’t produce another studio album of her own until The Singer CD in 1995. I couldn’t understand the twenty-year hiatus – still can’t; surely I wasn’t the only one who would have bought a recording of her singing the Sydney Street directory.
Her talent was extraordinary. Reviewers generally noted her phenomenal range but, in concert, there was so much more. Sometimes her tone was clear as a choirboy, and at others, so smoky and husky, I feared for her health. She sang like liquid honey in the low register and could coax a melody and pulse wherever she wanted. She’d scat and sing duets with instrumentalists with perfect inflections and intonation. She imitated no-one; her versions of the standard and the obscure were unique and personal. She could laugh and chuckle a light-hearted lyric which she took delight in but her tour de force was often a ‘Cry Me a River’, so angry and intense I was relieved not to be the poor bastard who’d let her down.
I saw her for the last time in Melbourne in 1996. I didn’t realize then it was over. The recognition gradually dawned as I forlornly scanned the weekly gig guides: she wasn’t coming back. Ed Wilson’s wife, Esther, told me Kerrie did the occasional gig with Ed’s Big Band in Sydney but, through ill health, her traveling days were done. I sent Kerrie, through Esther, a letter. I tried to express how much joy her singing had brought me over the years. ‘You were born with a unique talent which you shared so generously,’ I wrote. ‘I hope you understand how much you were loved, particularly by musicians perhaps, around this country. Each time a new young hopeful appears on stage, my friends and I nod sagely and say, ‘She’s okay, but not in the same class as Kerrie Biddell.’ For some of us, no one ever will be!
Kerrie Biddell was born 8 February 1947; she died on 5 September 2014 after a severe stroke.
Perfect Stranger sung by Kerrie Biddell