Gary James' Interview With
Frank Ifield

He began his recording career at age 15 and in 4 years released 44 records in Australia. In fact, he became the number one recording star in Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania before he was 19. He became the first artist to ever have 3 consecutive number one hits in Britain and also to be awarded 3 Gold Discs in one year.

His name is Frank Ifield and what a story he has to tell!

Q - Frank, how is it that you were able to secure a recording contract at the age of 15? How were you discovered?

A - Well, it's rather a long story actually. It happened because I conned my way in virtually when I was just a young kid. I went to a music publisher to try and get a hold of some new material and the guy said he doesn't hand material to just anybody; that I could have a listen in his room, but I wasn't allowed to take anything away. Now I had a very quick ear for music. I listened to the new songs he had to offer and I dashed over to E.M.I. and tried to find out the man who was in charge of E.M.I. I'd never met him before. A fella by the name of Ron Wills. The girl told me when he came back from lunch that she'll point him out to me, which she did. I said, "listen, I got some new songs to sing to you and I've been sent over here by the publishing company." He was suitably impressed, but he said, "Look, I can't put you on a record unless you've got some major program. So, I told him I had been on what they call Australia's Amateur Hour and I hadn't at that time, but I knew that if I said I was recording, I would get it. (laughs) So, I dashed over to Australia's Amateur Hour and told them I was recording, got the job and then ran back to E.M.I. and told them the day I was doing it and that clinched me a record contract. (laughs) It's quite a long story. A bit of a con session going on there.

Q - You were very smart at such a young age.

A - Pushy. (laughs) I had a little faith I suppose, in what I was doing. I was still going to school at the time. That's how it all came about.

Q - Now, you were what they call a Teen Idol in Australia?

A - I was to start with. I was singing Country music and Country music if you remember in the '50s was extremely popular. I did have a whole heep of fans at the time here in Sydney. I was really working all over the place at that time. But, it gave me a sort of star status, but it wasn't until later on that I sort of got in to what you call the teen-age racket, when I did television. I was first on television here in Australia, with a thing called Campfire Favorites. That shot me into doing a lot of television from there on. I was doing Bandstand regularly. That made me sort of a cult figure as it were at the time.

Q - You were referring to American Bandstand were you?

A - No, well, it was like American Bandstand. It was called Australian Bandstand. I did do American Bandstand, but that was much, much later.

Q - Your success in Australia then was based on what...your voice? Your stage shows? Or record company promotion? Or all three?

A - I think it was pretty much a combination. All of those factors really, because I was doing vocally things that were different than everybody else was doing. Even in the Rock 'n' Roll era, although I was doing my share of Rock 'n' Roll as well, I was actually doing it very differently. I sided more for the Country field, but I gained myself a Pop audience, which was very strange really. That was up until about 1959. By that time I had done just about all the television and radio programs. Then I decided I was gonna go to England and try my luck out there.

Q - So, you were a hit in Australia?

A - Yes. I had a few chart successes here in Australia, but it wasn't until I got out to Britain that I was able to capitalize on it properly.

Q - And you were successful in England, Tasmania and New Zealand as well?

A - Before I went to Britain, I wanted to try my hand at working in a different country. I didn't know what I was doing and wasn't so much aware, just to pit myself against their best to see if I had anything to offer. And I chose New Zealand to do that in, because they weren't so much aware in New Zealand of what I was doing as they were here in Australia. So, that worked in very well for me and it gave me the feeling that I really had to pull the finger out and do something different. (laughs) I didn't go to Britain until 1959. Then I stayed there and of course that's where I had my major hits, 'cause I ended up also recording for E.M.I. in Britain, the same as I was doing here.

Q - Did you have any hits in the States?

A - Yes, I did actually. I was the first Australian to have hits over there. I ended up with a song called "I Remember You", which a lot of people recall. I think it was number 3 on Billboard, but it also made number 1 on the Country charts, which struck me as being strange 'cause it wasn't a Country song. It was a standard. (laughs) The British really helped a lot. I did my first tour over there in 1962. Then I went back and forth to America several times after that. I did lots of the Ed Sullivan shows. They did very well for me actually, because they got my name known in America. I came out there on several occasions and Canada as well. I worked over there too. But, my main work was basically in Britain. What happened was, after I got that first hit; in fact I was the first artist to sell a million copies in Britain of "I Remember You" and then I had the second one which sold a million, a thing called "Lovesick Blues", which you probably remember that song, don't you?

Q - Hank Williams Sr. Who can forget that song. It launched his career!

A - That's right. (laughs) We made number 1 with that. We kind of put a Twist beat to it, which was very popular on the continent at that particular time. That sold a heck of a lot of records. Then they were saying to me, "if you can get the next record to number one, you'll be the first to make 3 number ones in a row." And as luck would have it, I just made it by the skin of my teeth. But, I must tell you what nearly stopped me, after my second record I was working up in Liverpool at the Liverpool Empire. While I was there, I was at the top of the bill, a fella came 'round to see me, like a doorman came up to see me and said "There's a man downstairs who wants to have a word with you. He looks important. I think you should see him. He's got a briefcase and he's wearing a suit and tie!" I thought, well, that's good enough. (laughs) So, he came up to see me and introduced himself as Brian Epstein. Brian said to me, "Look, I'm handling this group over here. They're very popular in Liverpool, but as yet they haven't broken out into Britain at all. I know that you're doing a tour. Could you put them on the tour?" "I'll have to hear them first." So, he played their record, which was "Love Me Do". He said their name was The Beatles. Anyway, I first heard that song, I particularly liked it because it wasn't dis-similar to what I was doing myself. I said "I'll try to get them on the show. I'll have to clear it with the producer, the promoter." We did the first show at Peterborough in Britain and The Beatles were supporting me on that. It was a long time ago and of course people ask me what did I think of them. Well, at that time who could ever have told that they were gonna be the biggest thing in the world? (laughs)

Q - When Brian Epstein played "Love Me Do" for you, did he also show you a picture of the group or did you ask to see a picture of the group?

A - Yes, he did.

Q - What did you think?

A - I was a little taken a back by their haircuts. (laughs) Their haircuts were very unusual at that time. But, also the fact that they were dressed in suits virtually and ties and the whole thing at that stage, they didn't really stand out as being particularly different. They had a sort of different cut of suit which was low down in front. They just struck me as being fresh-looking kids. And of course when they did the show, I was quite impressed with what they were doing, but unfortunately they didn't go down with the audience very well on that first night. It's amazing isn't it?

Q - Who was in the audience...young girls? Young boys? A mixture?

A - Oh, a mixture. All ages really. They were my audiences basically, which was a pretty wide selection of people from the teens through to the adults. But somehow, this didn't go over and I don't know why. The next day they got a particularly bad write-up in the press, which wasn't good. However it didn't stop them there, did it? (laughs)

Q - No, it didn't.

A - One could never have thought in a million years that what I was watching then that went over so badly was going to become the biggest thing. They had just released a record at that time which when I released my third record, "Wayward Wind", they had released their record "Please Please Me". I managed to keep them out of the number one slot. They only made number two with that one, which made my three number ones in a row, which I was hoping for.

Q - George Martin made the comment to The Beatles that "Please Please Me" would be a number one song.

A - It probably made number one in several other countries at a a later stage, but at that point I managed to keep them out of the number one slot. It is a great song. I liked all of their stuff in fact. I was very, very fond of The Beatles. I had a lot to do with them in America. Because I'd already had my hits in America, in '62, a record company called Vee Jay took me on and The Beatles stuff as well. They got it as a job lot. So, the producer had the idea of putting out a record with me and them together. They produced the record. Frank Ifield and The Beatles. It said on the front "Live On Stage". None of the tracks were 'live' and certainly none were onstage. They were all just separate tracks. Later on they re-released the record and it was called "The Beatles and Frank Ifield", which is one of the biggest collector items for The Beatles. Try to get a hold of those copies! They're worth a fortune it you can get hold of them.

Q - What's that album worth anyway? $100? $200?

A - Oh, much more than that. It was selling for thousands of dollars.

Q - Did The Beatles appear to be having a good time on that Peterborough stage?

A - Yeah, they did. The only thing I did feel when I was listening to them is they were probably a bit loud and the management was gonna come around and tell them to turn it down. But I put it down to from the side of the stage you always hear more of the band than you do the vocals. I thought they were very good. I was quite impressed with them.

Q - Did you have an opportunity to talk to them before the show or after the show?

A - Yes, I did. When they first turned up, I wanted to greet them because I told Brian Epstein I would look after them, you see. Still not having met them before, I knew they arrived when I heard all these Liverpool accents. (laughs) They did have a lot of fun together. They were always talking together, laughing together. They were a lot of fun to be with. They came into my dressing room. I was putting my stage make-up on. They were watching me. I became very much aware of all these eyes looking at me through the mirror. I said, "What are you looking at me for?" They said "Well, Brian Epstein told us to watch whatever you do because you can teach us a lot." I said "Have you ever put make-up on?" They said "No." I said "Well, take this make-up away and put it on yourself, because you'll need it for the big lights out there." (laughs) So, they went away and came onstage. They put so much make-up on they looked like red Indians. (laughs) I do remember one time when it really started to happen for The Beatles in Britain and I was working at the London Palladium and they came down to see the show. They came backstage after the show. The place was absolutely heaving with people. So, there was no room in the dressing room for anyone to sit down any more and The Beatles were all sitting on the floor. (laughs) I heard John turn to Ringo and say "Well, if we never get any higher than what we've got, we can at least say we sat on the floor of the number one dressing room in the London Palladium." (laughs) It just tickled me. In reflection, you would never have thought that would you?

Q - No, I wouldn't.

A - Funny guys. They had a good sense of humor.

Q - What kind of a guy did Brian Epstein strike you as being?

A - Brian struck me as being very much a gentleman. He was a very quietly spoken fella, at least that was the impression I got. Very polite man. Not at all what one would expect really from a high pressure management. I was very impressed with him because he was quiet spoken. You felt very comfortable with him. I guess that's how he managed to con me really when I think about it. (laughs) I believed what he was telling me. The man used to have NEMS Enterprises. He owned a lot of places in Liverpool that dealt with the selling of records, within a major store. Being as how he owned a lot of these places, he actually put The Beatles records in prominent positions to sell them, certainly around the Liverpool area. That's why they got so many fans in that area. I think he was a great help to them for someone who had the outlets for their records too. It was very difficult for all of us I suppose to get a record contract in the first place anyway. There were several of the companies that turned The Beatles down, number one being Dick Rowe from Decca. He turned them down, which I thought was quite incredible. In fact the strange thing was, after I left E.M.I. I went to Dick Rowe with Decca. So, I went with the guy that turned The Beatles down. (laughs)

Q - I've heard that he regretted that every day.

A - I'm sure he did. Can you imagine? (laughs) That was in the very early days, before The Beatles were known at all. He wouldn't have a clue that they would have the market. And yet, probably one expects these people to have a keen ear on what is going to be popular. Some amazing things do happen. Obviously the guy who had the Vee Jay label, when you think about it, really stuck his neck out. He did have a sort of premonition because he originally wanted to call that record "The British Invasion" and at that time there had been no British Invasion other than the fact I suppose we'd had one or two hits from British artists, like Lonnie Donnegan had a major hit. But, up until that time there had been no major hits from Britain at all. Strange as it may seem, The Beatles were extremely popular in Australia in the very, very early days before they sort of cracked it anywhere else. It just seemed that the hype that was happening in Britain happened here as well at a very early stage, before they actually cracked it in America. They did have a very big fan following here. I guess that happens. Your sort of get these areas that accept people readily.

Q - Who did you appear with on The Ed Sullivan Show?

A - I remember working with Hank Williams Jr. He was only a young kid at the time. Very good looking young fella. I just had my record out, "Lovesick Blues". He said "I understand you've done my daddy's song." (laughs) He was very good. I enjoyed what he was doing. Very Country of course, in a sort of Rock way. He had a different style than his dad. But, it was very good. I did several of the Ed Sullivan shows. I think I did four or five of them. I do remember at the time I was working for a company called Hickory (Records) in Nashville. In that particular stable of people I was working with, Roy Orbison was one. They had The Everly Brothers. There was Don Gibson. So, quite a few names that I was very much aware of. I do remember Roy Orbison coming up to me and saying "Frank, how do you do it?" I said "How do I what?" He said "How do you get on The Ed Sullivan Show? How come you're over in Britain and you get on the Ed Sullivan Show and I've been trying for years and can't get it?" (laughs)

Q - You've written your autobiography haven't you?

A - Yes. It's out on the market. It's called I Remember Me.

Q - So what do you do today? Are you still performing?

A - Actually, I'm in promotions these days. I don't perform. I don't sing anymore. I still do a lot of hosting and what have you. But, I'm more into promotion. I am actually promoting Australian Country music in Europe mainly and doing very well at that in fact. I've quite a few artists in Britain doing tours. I also run the big festivals over here in Australia as well. So, I'm still very much involved in the same industry except I don't sing anymore, which is unfortunate. I'd love to be able to do so, but the voice lets me down. But, on the other hand, I'm still bringing a lot of records out. I've still got plenty or recorded stuff on the market at the moment. I'm just about to release another album very shortly of a lot of the tracks I've recorded over the years, a lot of the sort of rare tracks that people have not been able to get on CD before, which could be interesting.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.