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Smacka and the Fitzgibbon Dynasty: From Aspendale to the Bright Lights

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Members of the Fitzgibbon Family at a Mayoral Reception at Chelsea. Second from left, Minnie Fitzgibbon. Third from the left, Mayor Nola Barber. Fifth from left, Maggie Fitzgibbon, and next to her, Smacka Fitzgibbon, 1963. Courtesy Leader Collection.

When Smacka Fitzgibbon burst on to the popular music scene with Mandy and Barefoot Days in the mid-1950s he was already well known in the world of the jazz musos. But those two happy song hits launched Smacka into stardom, providing Melbourne, and then the whole country, with toe-tapping melodies to be sung and danced to at countless parties and functions of that era. From that time on he was known for his infectious cheerfulness and the lively songs that lifted the spirits of a wider world. Smacka was once referred to as being ‘as Melbourne as the Yarra’.

The Fitzgibbons are certainly an inveterate Melbourne tribe. Smacka’s mother, Minnie, was born in 1904 to Billy and Harriet Mitchell. Minnie gave her father the credit for initiating the family’s engagement with show business. Billy Mitchell trained horses and did stunt riding in the extravagant productions of Bland Holt during the era of Edwardian Melbourne. These shows were staged at places like Wirth’s Olympia, then located near where Southbank is today. They involved daring acts with horses ridden into impossible places, such as up staircases or other unlikely sites. In 1904-5 the sixteen-year-old Annette Kellerman, then living in Mentone, was also in Bland Holt’s productions where she dived from a tower into a glass tank and did other aquatic acts.

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Minnie Mitchell in a pantomime, c1912.

Billy Mitchell’s little daughter, Minnie, inherited the show business flair of her dad, for at the age of seven she saw a notice on a shop window advertising a song and dance competition. She put her name in as a singing entry and won. From then on her parents allowed her to take part in pantomimes and later, as ‘Baby Mitchell’, she tap danced in variety concerts in many Melbourne venues as well as some in Geelong which she visited by ship. Her signature songs were ‘You Made Me Love You’ and ‘Waiting For The Robert E Lee’. Minnie is said to have caused the first strike action in Australian theatrical history. As a child she was not in the union and, on one occasion, other performers who were unionised would not go on stage in a show that included a junior, non-union member. A quick-thinking MC told the crowd that Minnie would do her act after the official program ended. Many stayed back and Minnie did her stuff to earn a great ovation.

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Minnie, aged about 14.

Minnie Fitzgibbon, the vaudeville child performer, developed into a serious mezzo soprano as she progressed through her teenage years. Though advised to train further with professional teachers in Sydney, she could not make this move because her family could not afford it. During the jazzy mid-1920s Minnie met Frank Fitzgibbon at Aspendale where they each were enjoying beach holidays with family and friends at a time when this part of the bay was considered to be a beach resort. Like Minnie, Frank had ambitions to do stage work. He was a born comic and could tap dance as well, but the breaks did not come in that field. Minnie and Frank married in 1927 and went to live where their romance had begun, in Aspendale, their home in Third Avenue being close to the railway station. Minnie gave birth to Maggie in 1928, and Graham (Smacka) in February 1930. True to later form, the lively Smacka was in a hurry to get into this world because Minnie commenced her labour while cooling off with a swim at Aspendale beach on a hot summer day. She had to make a quick return to dry land. When he was just four Graham was nick-named ‘Little Smacka Smodermous’. The name was created by Roy Youlden, a bookmaker friend of Frank Fitzgibbon, a man who amused himself by creating funny-sounding words that were often used as names. From then on little Graham was always called ‘Smacka’ and eventually many people would not have known his real given name. It was no fluke that Smacka was given his name by a racing man because Frank Fitzgibbon had many friends in the racing game. He was part owner of racehorses and he went often to meetings at city courses and in the country. He knew the top jockeys personally and they often visited the Fitzgibbons at Aspendale where Maggie remembers meeting Scobie Breasley, Billy Duncan, Jack O’Brien and a young Jack Purtell. When her mother’s small band was playing at Bonbeach Life-Saving Club Maggie, at 14, danced with Jackie Purtell, as she called him, enjoying the opportunity to mix with the adults because her mother was up on stage.

Maggie and Smacka grew up in a happy household where music added joy to their lives. The Great Depression caused dejection everywhere but the Fitzgibbons responded to it by singing and dancing. Every Sunday Minnie would gather her family and friends around the piano for a long session of singing the tunes of the time. Then Frank and Maggie would roll out a special slatted wooden dance mat so they could tap dance to the music with special routines, possibly imitating the great Fred Astaire. Maggie learned music and taught her mother to read music during the late thirties. By this time Minnie with her strong voice was doing Sophie Tucker impressions as she included the slightly risque songs in her act. Her Sophie Tucker routine was broadcast by ABC radio on a program compered by Dick Bentley. During the 1930s there were variety shows put on locally, with the funds raised going to unemployed people and their families. Frank and Minnie put together a show for this cause at the time, calling it ‘The Gay Sparks’! Melbourne’s top singer of the day, Johnny McMahon, came down to take part.

Surrounded by music, Maggie and Smacka had an upbringng that inevitably pushed them in the direction of show business careers. While Maggie was dancing and training her voice, Smacka, from the age of five, was taught the ukulele by his mum. He began to do George Formby songs, such as ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’, and recite the radio pieces of stars like Stanley Holloway. The comic piece, ‘Albert and the Lion’, was one of them. The Fitzgibbon home, when not resounding to live singing and piano-playing, was likely to be pulsating to the sounds of Fats Waller, Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Louis Armstrong, Al Bowlly and other stars of the era, all enjoyed as the 78rpm records spun on the gramophone. Tenors such as Gigli got a run too, as the family had all-embracing tastes.

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Smacka at St Bede’s College, Mentone, in 1942. Photograph courtesy of the late Minnie Fitzgibbon.

Time moved on and the Depression eased, but soon after that the world was plunged into war. By then Maggie and Smacka, after primary schooling at St Brigid’s in Mordialloc, were attending secondary schools in Mentone. Maggie went to Kilbreda and Smacka studied at St Bede’s College from 1941 to 1944. ‘Studying’, is perhaps not the word that should be used for Smacka’s college career. Classmates remember him reading adventure books under the desk when the lesson was about more serious texts. He was not enthralled by academic work and sport had little interest for him either. Smacka remarked in later life that he hated the strict authority of some of the Brothers, notably Brother Colman; it did not suit his easy-going approach to life. Classmates who remember him always mention his musical talents first, recalling items he performed at school concerts and speech nights. The Brothers at St Bede’s often ran impromptu variety concerts to entertain the boarders on Saturday nights. Tony McMahon, now a Mentone resident, was a boarder at the college during the war years and recalls that Smacka, aged only 11 or 12, often played the ukulele and the banjo at these shows, doing the George Formby material he knew so well. With Minnie belting out the tunes on the keyboard young Smacka also performed at Speech Nights in the large City Hall in Mentone. College life, apart from the music, did not appeal to him though, and he left as soon as he could, at fourteen.

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Maggie Fitzgibbon (on the left) with Pat Lannan at Kilbreda in 1943. The photograph came courtesy of Joyce McGrath, a life-long friend of Maggie’s. Joyce and Maggie both received OAM honours in 2002 for community work in different fields. They met at the Government House presentation, each initially unaware of the other’s award.

As a teenager Smacka enjoyed what the local area had to offer young lads: summer days at the beach and the Mordialloc Carnival, adventures at the creek, roaming through the open scrubland, still plentiful at that time, and visits to Mordialloc’s Regent picture theatre. Maggie has clear memories of Smacka at Mordialloc Carnival driving the Dodgem Cars and banging into everyone else, herself included. Back in 1934 her father had taken her for a joy ride over Mordialloc in a Gypsy Moth aeroplane, owned and piloted by one of his friends, and she recalls the thrill of seeing the Carnival and the bay from the air. Later on Smacka and Maggie went to dances at the Carnival or the City Hall. One of young Smacka’s girl friends at this time was Lois, the daughter of local racehorse trainer, Wally O’Dwyer. Recently Lois recalled the night he failed to turn up for a date, but her annoyance quickly faded because Smacka had such a great smile and was fun to be with. Lois knew Maggie Fitzgibbon as well, because they were both Kilbreda girls. Maggie and Lois shared an interest in horses and spent time riding together at Mordialloc. One day Maggie rode her pony from Aspendale up to Mentone where she was greeted by the boarders at Kilbreda, the girls crowding around the school fence to admire the horse. It was a time when horses did often share quieter roads with other traffic.

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From the left, Bill Moore, Pat Nihill, Lois O’Dwyer and Smacka, friends from school days, all dressed for a dance in 1948. Photograph, courtesy of Tony and Lois McMahon.

Through his teen years Smacka continued to sing and play the uke, but he learned the banjo as well. With Minnie at the keys he also performed at local concerts. By the time he reached twenty he had become acquainted with jazz players at a local level and then more widely. Bob and Len Barnard were in nearby Mentone and they played at jazz dances that were commonly held at Mentone Life Saving Club, the City Hall in Mentone, and elsewhere. Mentone also hosted other jazz bands, including the great Graeme Bell outfit. Smacka joined in, playing with the Barnards and also Frank Johnson’s Fabulous Dixielanders. It was with Johnson’s band that Smacka made his first recordings in 1951. By then he was solidly into the local jazz scene and, at twenty-one, had formed his own group, ‘The Steamboat Stompers’.

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Smacka, with Len Barnard (on left) and Bob Barnard, as well as a young lady friend, in the early 1950s.

Smacka knew that it was not possible to earn a good living from jazz music alone. He was already a car salesman with Riverside Motors when he took a step that would eventually lead to his becoming one of Australia’s best-known performers. Smacka’s parents, Frank and Minnie, took over a hotel licence in Warragul, a Gippsland town about 100 kilometres from Melbourne, and their son went with them to learn the hotel trade. After helping his parents to establish their hotel, Smacka began working part- time as a barman at a hotel in the small town of Darnum, not far from Warragul. Soon he was well-versed in the pub business and he became the licensee of the Commercial Hotel in Warragul, establishing himself as the youngest hotel licensee in Victoria.

Darnum and Warragul were to become key places in Smacka’s life. He was a local celebrity, known to all as the provider of great music at pub functions and the bloke with the cheery laugh who smiled at everyone he met. He also drove a huge 1930s Cadillac, inherited from his grandfather, around the town. Bill Byrne, whose family were long-time Darnum residents, remembers Smacka taking the local kids, himself included, to the town’s swimming hole at the river. A ride in a Cadillac with such a chauffeur was magic stuff indeed.

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Len Barnard’s South City Stompers, early 1950s. Smacka on banjo.

Smacka continued to play and sing with various bands on the Melbourne jazz scene, driving down regularly from Warragul. He developed many friendships, but it was his great rapport with Graeme Bell and his band that proved the crucial factor in his career. The Bell band had become very popular after their return from Europe and Britain where, in 1947-8, they introduced dixieland jazz to countries behind the Iron Curtain, notably Czechoslovakia. Back in Australia they brought jazz to a wider audience, adding greatly to its patronage that had already begun back in the 1920s with Frank Coughlin and others. Enter another key figure in the Smacka story. Bill Armstrong, a young Melbourne music fan, became passionate about jazz in the late forties and, after purchasing suitable equipment, began recording jazz festivals so that records could be brought to more enthusiasts. He soon knew all the local jazz musicians: Graeme and Roger Bell, Frank Johnson, Tony Newstead and the Barnard brothers, Bob and Len. Bill developed a highly professional standard of recording, especially dedicated to jazz music, and later his recording studios became the biggest in Australia. Bill was fortunate to be starting a recording career when Smacka, Graeme Bell and others were young, talented, and keen to bring top quality dixie-style jazz into the Melbourne show-biz world.

One night when Smacka was down from the country doing a show he met Bill Armstrong and Graeme Bell at a Turkish coffee shop that was located under the Melbourne Musicians’ Club. During this meeting, in 1953, Bill suggested that Graeme and Smacka make some party-style recordings. The discussion moved to detail and Graeme suggested that Frisco Joe would be a good title for the band leader, an American-sounding name that radio announcers might be more likely to take notice of, and perhaps give some air time. Bill added Good Time Boys to the title and Smacka naturally became the Singing Barman. Smacka thought they could record some tracks at the Darnum Hotel where he worked, giving authenticity to the ‘barman’ title.

During two Sundays in June and July, 1953, Frisco Joe’s Good Time Boys With Smacka The Singing Barman recorded their first tracks in the hotel at Darnum, an unlikely venue, but easily available in a time when recording studios were scarce but hotels empty and available because they were closed on Sundays in that era. They brought in some local people who talked and sang in the background to give a party atmosphere as the band played. In those 1953 sessions Graeme Bell led the band that had Jack Varney on banjo, Lou Silbereisen on bass, Russell Jones on vibraphone and John Sangster or Lowell Morris on drums. In the first session Maggie Fitzgibbon joined in, singing with Smacka in jazzy renditions of old songs such as Side By Side and How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm. The second session produced Mandy and Barefoot Days, two tracks that became radio hits and big selling disks for people to spin at countless parties of the era. On them, Graeme Bell’s strong keyboard skills led the performances, perfectly accompanying the happy Smacka vocals. The whooping and yelling in the background provided an informality that made these records very popular for house parties at a time before TV took over people’s lives. In one song Smacka comes in at the wrong time and the band obviously breaks up, but they left all this in the recording, giving the listener a feeling of identity with these down-to earth entertainers. Over the next few years there were several more Frisco Joe and Smacka recording sessions at various locations and during one, in 1957, Smacka, backed by Tom Davidson’s band, sang with Graham Kennedy when the TV star was on the cusp of his famous career in IMT and other shows. Smacka revived an old hit, Roll’Em Girls, Roll’Em, in another session when the band included Frank Johnson, Bob Barnard, Frank Traynor and Graeme Bell. The trumpet solos lifted the quality of the sound to great heights in this track, while in every item Graeme Bell’s magical piano-playing gives beautiful rhythmic and melodic backing mixed with fine solos. There was also a series of tracks where Minnie Fitzgibbon’s piano-playing backed her son’s singing, recorded at the Warragul Commercial Hotel.

Those years, from 1953 to 1957, were pivotal in the popular music world. The sentimental and novelty songs of the forties and early fifties were about to be challenged by aggressive newcomers. Firstly there was Bill Haley with Rock Around The Clock, and then the sensational success of Elvis Presley whose Heartbreak Hotel hit Melbourne in 1956. These smash hits, followed by many more similar offerings, began the rock music era which soon elbowed the earlier sedate music out of centre stage. Smacka was competing in a highly charged musical setting. He sang the older style pop songs but he spiced them with a jazz beat, backed by great jazzmen. That was his appeal. There had been traditional and modern jazz for some decades in Melbourne and it had a big following, especially after Graeme Bell’s 1947-8 European tour. Bell played trad jazz classics but he also became ‘commercial’, notably when his big hit South set the toes tapping as it climbed the charts and graced the juke-box turntables in 1948. Smacka was a jazzman who went commercial too, more so than Graeme Bell. It was a tribute to his talent that he succeeded in the fifties despite the rockers who wooed the young brigade.

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Smacka with his Packard, c1956.

Meanwhile, Maggie Fitzgibbon was also carving out a career in show business, having left Australia after the 1953 recordings at Darnum. Earlier Minnie had sent her to an Italian classical singing maestro when she was 17 so that Maggie learned to sing opera, complementing her singing of the jazzy songs the family belted out around the piano. She was given a start at the Tivoli in 1946, singing opera as well as pop songs. Maggie, while in Sydney, went on radio with Jack Davey, a big star of the day. After some night club work she was selected for a leading role opposite Hayes Gordon in Kiss Me Kate, giving her a big break into musical comedy at the top level. Maggie decided to go to London. When she arrived there in 1953 she intended to stay a couple of years but actually lived and worked there for three decades. Maggie also proved she had the Fitzgibbon acumen and versatility. With Chesney Allen of the Flanagan and Allen duo as her agent, she began a long and successful British career. She did a UK touring version of Knights of Madness, a Flanagan and Allen show, and the comedian cast included Arthur English, later of Are You Being Served, the highly rated TV show. Then there were numerous TV appearances with the likes of Benny Hill, Tony Hancock, Harry Secombe and Dick Emery. Maggie returned to Australia to star in the musical Sail Away with Noel Coward after which she was in The Boys from Syracuse with Ronnie Corbett at Drury Lane under the direction of Richard Rodgers. The BBC produced The Newcomers for TV in the sixties and Maggie was the leading female character in the series for three and a half years. London Weekend TV featured a six series show called Maggie’s Place which she hosted and when Smacka travelled to UK in the late sixties and early seventies he appeared with his sister on her own show. The English fans loved him. Maggie worked with Stephen Sondheim and had a role in a Peter Schaefer play before coming home in the late seventies, notably to do shows at Smacka’s Place when he was undergoing surgery. After returning to England she came home in 1978 and by the early 1980s she had organised her retirement on a property in northern Victoria after a very successful career in several branches of show business. She had even been a theatrical agent for a time. Maggie Fitzgibbon was awarded an OAM in 2002 for her community work that included helping to rehabilitate homeless youth by giving them the experience of living in a cottage on her property. She had a marvellous career but because most of her finest work was done in Britain her renown was probably not as well recognised in Australia and not given as much attention as it could have been.

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Maggie Fitzgibbon, early 1950s.

While Maggie was breaking into the theatre world in London Smacka’s life changed quickly in 1958. Frank Fitzgibbon became ill and died. Faced with the loss of his father and with Minnie in mourning as well, Smacka relinquished his licenseeship of the Warragul pub and eventually moved to Wycheproof where he and Minnie took over the Royal Mail Hotel. It was a strange move but Smacka never regretted it for, at the local swimming pool, he met the love of his life. He spotted an attractive, sun-tanned young woman and fell for her immediately. She worked at the dry cleaners’ shop and Minnie was puzzled that Smacka suddenly began taking clothes to the cleaners almost every day. The young woman was Faye Hommelhoff who had Danish, Swiss and French blood in her family heritage. Her father, the local butcher, was bandmaster in the Wycheproof Brass Band, so music was in Faye’s family too. Smacka even learned the trombone and marched with the town band. Faye became Smacka’s wife when they were wed at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne on October 31st, 1959. During their honeymoon in Sydney the young couple met Graeme Bell who remained a close friend for many years.

Smacka then took over the Druids Hotel in South Melbourne. Through the early and mid-1960s the family ran the pub. As usual Smacka created a happy atmosphere in the dining room and among the bar patrons, while Minnie also served drinks, acting the ‘red hot momma’ Sophie Tucker role. By 1966 Faye had given birth to four babies: Nichaud, Mark, Andrew and Dominic. Life was busy but Faye was extremely capable, having been brought up in rural Victoria where she learned to turn her hand to anything that needed to be done. Her remarkable fashion sense, her artistic flair, and her practical skills made her an ideal counterpart for the rather swashbuckling entertainer she had married.

It had been Smacka’s dream that music and the hospitality business could be combined into one entity. In 1967 he decided to realise that dream. Teaming up with fellow jazzman, Frank Johnson, he opened La Brochette, on the fringe of Studley Park Golf Course in Kew. It was Melbourne’s first jazz restaurant. Faye was involved in the running of this business and as her children grew up she was able to put in more time, both in supervising the kitchen operations, and also playing her part in ‘front of the house’ management, particularly when Smacka’s Place opened in the seventies. Minnie returned to show business big time, playing piano during her turn in the roster of artists who made La Brochette such a delight to visit. Smacka invited various jazz bands that appeared each night, allowing him to join in with the banjo and vocal in special spots. La Brochette was a success because of the combination of great jazz, good food and a dance floor that allowed customers to actively join in the fun. During the sixties Smacka also appeared on TV periodically, having many gigs on the Penthouse Club at Channel 7. He also sang on Nine’s IMT with Graham Kennedy, as well as doing spots on Seven’s Sunnyside Up.

During the late sixties Smacka’s career really took off, his popularity taking him into several new fields. In 1967 the Carlton Football Club asked him to record the club theme song which had the tune of Lily of Laguna, an old song Smacka would have loved. With Frank Traynor’s Jazz Preachers providing a melodic backing, he sang it with great flair and the club had such a success with it that Smacka was asked to do all the VFL club songs. This seems to have happened at the request of The Herald, Melbourne’s evening paper of the time. Smacka had a connection with this paper as its parent company also owned Channel 7 where he often appeared, so all the VFL club tunes were recorded at the firm’s radio station, 3DB. They were used at club functions and on World of Sport, the Sunday morning TV show. Smacka also recorded the title song to the quirky 1972 movie, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, about a disrespectful ‘Ocker’in England. Waterloo Road became a big hit for him at that time as well, but his biggest success was the creation of Smacka’s Place. An old garage in Chetwynd Street, North Melbourne, was renovated and turned into another jazz restaurant. Channel 7 televised the opening of the restaurant in 1971 on its Penthouse Club show and then it became famous during the seventies as a place to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and any other happy event. Smacka greeted the diners, and the floorshow was a joyous act with a great jazz band, often featuring its banjo-playing, sparkling singer, the mood-changing musician.

During the seventies Smacka was constantly busy, not only at the restaurant, but also with TV, including advertising work and many other personal appearances. He even did a tour with The Swiss Circus Royale in 1977, appearing with family members including Minnie. In order to provide a respite from all the pressure of running businesses and performing, Smacka bought a large holiday house right on the beachfront at Aspendale. Here the family could go for a break, particularly in the summer season. Maggie remembers a happy holiday there with Minnie on one of her visits when she escaped London’s winter, enjoying the warm air as she and her mum opened the back gate and crossed the white sand for a daily swim. It was a reminder of her childhood when she and Smacka used to enjoy the family bathing box on that same beach way back in the years around World War 2. The Fitzgibbon box was luxurious; it had a primus stove inside that provided hot water for a cuppa!

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Maggie, happily singing at Smacka’s Place, 1977.

For Smacka the happy times were not destined to last. In 1976 he was doing work at 3LO in Melbourne when he collapsed and was diagnosed with a malignant tumour. When he was in his late twenties he had two tumours removed and the disease had recurred. Though he had more surgery and battled on, a stroke ended his life in December 1979. Frank Traynor’s Jazz Preachers gave him a rousing farewell, New Orleans style, at his Requiem Mass in St Mary’s Star of the Sea church in North Melbourne, attended by thousands of his admirers. Bert Newton, a close friend, gave a moving eulogy and after the ceremony the procession marched through the streets to Smacka’s Place as the Jazz Preachers filled the air with the music Smacka would have loved. Many thousands attended the Myer Music Bowl the next year when Smacka was named King of Jazz at the Free Entertainment in the Parks Festival.

Though he was only 49 when he died, Smacka crammed more into those years than most people who live decades longer. Apart from the businesses and the music, he had an uplifting effect on those he met. He greeted people everywhere with a smile. People got the feeling he was just glad to meet them. Smacka had a showy style, a love of life, and a determination to engage people and bring them into his life. He had a happy disposition which he tried to give to everyone. He dressed in a way that personified his approach to the world, always wearing spotted bow ties, striped jackets, check pants, two-tone shoes and a hat worn at a jaunty angle. His appearance in this way relaxed people and lightened the mood. His lifelong passion for cars was expressed in his ownership of several large and ancient Packards from the 1930s, great garage mates for his old Cadillac. When he left this life he left a huge gap in Melbourne’s entertainment world. But his influence did not stop with his passing.

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Smacka, Minnie and Maggie. Top entertainers in the 1970s.

Smacka and Faye’s children have continued the tradition. Often the children of famous people suffer through living in the shadow of a celebrity. In the Fitzgibbon family this did not happen because all four of Smacka and Faye’s offspring have made their mark in the entertainment world. They have been nurtured in this by their parents. Nichaud still says that growing up surrounded by her father’s music and listening to his records from the 1920s and 1930s influenced her greatly. She remembers singing old songs in the car with her dad and being taken to the Channel 7 studio when Smacka was preparing to do his stuff on The Penthouse Club. Minnie taught her to play Fats Waller’s Honey Hush on the piano when she was just seven. Then, after Nichaud teamed up with Frank Wilson’s daughter, Shauna, the two girls sang and danced at concerts in the Melbourne Town Hall. Soon after Smacka died Nichaud began singing professionally, at times to the accompaniment of her brother, Mark, who was a professional pianist by the time he was 13. The two siblings performed at Smacka’s Place during 1980. Then they appeared on the Don Burrows’ Jazz Show on ABC TV, invited by Vince Jones. Mark stayed with the Vince Jones outfit and Nichaud formed her own band for a short time.

Beginning in 1985 Nichaud spent a few years in UK, performing at jazz venues and festivals, before returning to Melbourne where her career really took off. Apart from her live performances at clubs, Nichaud did many TV spots during the 1990s. She appeared on Steve Vizard’s show, Bert Newton’s Good Morning Australia, The Sunday Show, Kate Ceberano and Friends, The D Generation and the Kerri Anne Show. Nichaud did concerts at the Victorian Arts Centre and even started another band with Jane Clifton so they could play in the style of Sergio Mendez and Burt Bacharach. In 2001 the Nichaud Fitzgibbon CDs began to appear, starting with After Hours and including Deep in the Night as well as a series of Moovin & Groovin titles. In 2004 one newspaper reviewer wrote, Regarded as Australia’s finest jazz stylist Nichaud Fitzgibbon has been gracing us with her distinctive smouldering ways for years. She entrances audiences with her beautiful smoky vocal quality and her natural sense of swing. This is fine praise indeed, and those who heard her do a tribute concert to her father at the Stonnington Jazz Festival in mid-2010 will agree with the assessment made by the writer. Nichaud’s career has included many more engagements than those listed above. Like her father she has thrived on being sought after for many and varied gigs. Smacka’s joyful music lives on through her voice, sometimes also described as sultry. Singing with The Syncopators at the State Theatre in October 2010, Nichaud seemed equally at ease with the ‘Banannas’ and ‘Banarnas’ in the upbeat Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off as in more romantic ballads sung in slow tempo.

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Nichaud Fitzgibbon singing at Bennetts Lane, 1995.

Mark Fitzgibbon, just two years younger than Nichaud, began learning the piano as a child and, barely into his teens, he was playing professionally. At 20 years of age he had already played and recorded jazz with the Vince Jones’ jazz band, Ken Schroder’s quartet and Wilbur Wilde’s Blowout. Mark moved to London in 1984 and spent most of his twenties touring Britain. In 1986 he recorded Drive with Tommy Chase and won Wire Magazine’s Best British Jazz Album of the year. He also formed a modern jazz sextet for his British tour. Appearing on the BBC radio and TV productions, he earned a reputation as one of the top pianists throughout UK. In 1991 Mark returned to Australia and won the Wangaratta Jazz Festival’s top Australian Jazz Piano award. He acted as arranger for Nichaud’s CD, Deep in the Night, and during the 2000s did many shows on radio, TV and stage as accompanist, solo artist and composer. During this time Adrian Jackson wrote in The Age, Mark Fitzgibbon is one of the most under-rated talents in the country. Always musically tasteful, a consistently sympathetic accompanist, a repository of a vast repertoire and an impeccable touch, he can produce blistering solos and lift music to another level. Among his CDs there are titles such as 24 Hour Blues, ABC Jazz Track; Go, and others such as Spell and Velocity recorded with Vince Jones and Jamie Oehlers, respectively. Many others were cut in the UK, including Pizza Express Modern Jazz Sextet, his own outfit, and Venus Rising and Racer with Fiona Burnett. It is not surprising that Mark Fitzgibbon continues to be in demand around the Australian jazz scene.

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Mark and Nichaud, 1990s.

When Andrew was born into the Fitzgibbon family in 1966 it was not long before his cheeky sense of humour and great sense of rhythm came to the fore. Andrew used the drum kit at Smacka’s Place, left in place each day by house jazz band’s drummer, Lindsay Copeland. As a small boy Andrew had a go, testing his ability to emulate the star drummer who owned the kit. At 15 Andrew was playing in Ashton’s Circus, doing snare rolls to excite the audience as trapeze artists did their daredevil stunts. He began playing in Nichaud’s, funk band, Yoyo. Andrew’s favourite style was Rhythm and Blues. He was again with his sister in the Moovin’ and Groovin, Orchestra which included, among a group of well-known jazz players, Rebecca Barnard, whose father, Len, played at Mentone with Smacka four decades earlier. During the 1990s Andrew backed visiting artists, including American saxophonist, John Stubblefield. He played for Wilbur Wilde, Mark Murphy, Barbara Morrison and Charlie Musslewaite. Regarded as a great Rhythm and Blues drummer, Andrew Fitzgibbon continues to work at Bennetts Lane and other venues.

The youngest of the Fitzgibbons, Dominic, has pursued a great variety of interests, not all of them involving music. As a child he performed as a tap dancer accompanied by Minnie and his own dad when the New Harlem Jazz Band played at Smacka’s. He then learned the trumpet and the cello as well as the electric bass. Dominic, at Xavier College, showed talent at football, eventually being signed up with the North Melbourne AFL team where he played in the reserves. He gave this away and did a degree at the Victorian College of the Arts, specialising in print making, sculpture and photography, and then after an overseas sojourn he returned to Melbourne and managed the family hotel, the Royal Derby, in Fitzroy. Dominic had an idea that Andrew and he put into reality; they created BABBA, a tribute band to Abba, the famous Swedish group. This has been a success as the group has played at many Melbourne nightspots. Dominic’s main interest is in art. He continues to sell much of his work here and overseas.

Click on thumbnail image to link to larger image (k004960)

Nichaud and Mark at Chapel off Chapel.

It can be said that the dynasty that began with Billy Mitchell, the father of Minnie Fitzgibbon, has contributed enormously to the musical world, both here in Australia and overseas, particularly in Britain. The older styles of Minnie and Smacka, with their emphasis on jazzy, melodic, foot-tapping songs, have given way to more modern types of jazz performed by the younger family members. There was also the work of Maggie with her more classical contribution and her many roles as an actress, mostly in the British theatrical world. The variety of talent has been remarkable.

Smacka was the most flamboyant of all the dynasty members. It was his success that put the Fitzgibbon name in lights in the brightest way. To finish the story with a local reference one last event can be mentioned. In 2008 St Bede’College, Smacka’s old school, hosted a function run by its Old Collegians’ Association. It had been decided to institute an Old Collegians Hall of Fame. Many famous Old Boys were inducted, but the earliest in the school’s history was Graham (Smacka) Fitzgibbon. He first came to St Bede’s in its fourth year of existence. Compere Allan Drummond gave a light-hearted summary of Smacka’s impact and Maggie Fitzgibbon accepted the award on her brother’s behalf. It was a well-deserved acknowledgment; Smacka was the college’s first real celebrity, one who brought great joy to many people and one the school is proud to have in its Hall of Fame.

Click on thumbnail image to link to larger image (k004968)

Smacka and Mark late 1970s.

Author

Leo Gamble

Footnotes

  1. This article could not have been written without the help of two women. Maggie Fitzgibbon, Smacka’s only sister, and Nichaud Fitzgibbon, Smacka’s only daughter, have given me many details of the whole Fitzgibbon story; the important facts about the many members of the family who have made a remarkable contribution to music and show business here and overseas. Nichaud has interrupted her busy schedule several times to talk to me about her life with Smacka and Faye, as well as providing great detail about her career and that of her siblings. She also made valuable photos available. Maggie was invaluable in painting the picture of her own and Smacka’s youthful days and how their careers developed. I am very grateful for her help. Maggie and Nichaud both read the drafts of this article as they were being developed. Their attention to detail ensured the accuracy of what has emerged.
  2. Wikipedia internet material on the Fitzgibbons was very useful.
  3. The Fitzgibbon Dynasty. This was published in pamphlet form by The Victorian Jazz Archive at Wantirna in October 2007. In this document much detail of the Fitzgibbons’ careers has been recorded by Maggie Fitzgibbon and especially Nichaud Fitzgibbon who provided much material on her mother as well as her siblings.
  4. Interviews with several people, notably Bill Byrne, Tony McMahon and Lois McMahon (Lois’s maiden name was O’Dwyer; her father was a racehorse trainer who knew the Fitzgibbons).
  5. Bilarm Music Pty Ltd, St Kilda. The history of the recordings came from this source.
  6. All the photographs used in this article, except the four noted otherwise, came through the generosity of Nichaud Fitzgibbon.

Category: People
Reference Number: 495
Date Created: 5/12/2010
Date Revised:

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