Memories of Danny Spooner (Circa 1960-66)

Joanna White (Joan Spooner / White)

I first saw Danny when he walked onto the stage of a social club in East London. The band he was about to sing with had already assembled with their instruments, looking a bit uncomfortable in their brand new red jackets, courtesy of one of their proud dads. Danny had apparently refused to wear one, being scornful of formality and uniforms.

The band, ultimately known as The Tremeloes, needed professional photos to send to the BBC in hope of an audition. As assistant to the owner of a local studio, my job was to hand him the flash bulbs from our box of equipment.

Through the locked doors I could see a crowd gathering. I wondered why, until I heard the boys perform. They had good style, melodious harmonising, and a terrific soloist – Danny. He had instantly-recognisable charisma, and when the girls were allowed in, they ran to t the stage and obviously loved him. The Tremeloes went on to have a No.1 hit “Silence is Golden” but by that time Danny had left the group. I could see his and their potential and tried to persuade him to stay, but he didn’t want to spend time in rehearsals after a hard day’s work on the Thames barges, nor to go touring.

Danny came to the studio personally to pick up the proofs later that week and to my surprise asked if he could wait till I’d finished work and walk me to the bus-stop. He thought I was a bit la-di-da on the social scale compared with his (proudly) Cockney upbringing, so I played up to that a bit just to tease him. I’d travelled all over Europe and been out with lots of boys but Danny seemed more manly and genuine than any of them. And ultra-protective. Too protective as it turned out. He was proud of his boxing prowess and did well as a lightweight during his 2-year National Service army training. However, he had a keen eye for anyone looking in my direction, or even asking me to dance at functions, and would invite them to ‘step outside’!!

After National Servic e in the army he returned to his former work as a lighterman – a highly-skilled trade towing strings of barges full of goods loaded from ships and delivered along the River Thames to various depots between the Port of London and Isleworth. This meant navigating the complex tides, currents and bridges along the way.

The day we got engaged we queued to see “Psycho”. Neither of us had experienced a shower (in those days most houses only had baths) and after watching the famous knifing scene, Danny declared he never would have one! It became a family joke.

When we were married we moved into a council house with his two brothers (his mother remarried). Suddenly I had sons! They were nice boys and the three of them used to play air guitars to The Kingston Trio, Cliff Richard and The Shadows – amongst many more. The house was always filled with music. Girls wore feminine dresses with gathered skirts, straight tubes or shifts and high heels. No jeans at that time. Nor sneakers. Lace-up ‘Plimsols’ (no Velcro) as they were called were strictly for sports.

When the river trade diminished we emigrated to Australia in 1962 and joined my parents in Sydney. A kind aunt of mine bought Danny his first good guitar as a parting gift. He (and I) learnt a range of chords easily and on board ship (the s.s. Canberra) he sometimes became part of the entertainment for passengers. I was far too shy to get up and sing with him.

We were housed in a migrant hostel at Burwood – a suburb of Sydney – until we could find work and a flat. We were (and still are) known as ‘Ten Pound Poms’.

It was hard for Danny to find work in Sydney, as the water-workers’ unions were closed shops. I found a job with a photographer and also taught myself shorthand-typing to broaden my options. I tried encouraging Danny to study a subject of his choice at night-school but this didn’t interest him, and eventually the difference in our attitudes to personal advancement wrecked our relationship. Counselling hadn’t helped except to make me realise we should never have married. I consider it was mostly my fault, but divorce set me free to follow my own ambitions.

We met occasionally without acrimony and I followed his new career path with great interest. I heard he was being guided into further education by a caring woman, which pleased me greatly. At last he was going to use his obviously good brain.

By that time the folk-scene was in full swing and Danny found other singer-guitarists to play with – amongst them I believe Gary Shearston who attained a large following.

I returned to England in 1966 and 13 years later was offered a job transfer to Melbourne by an American company. Ironically, the first man I met socially – a well-known larrikin academic - happened to know Danny extremely well and filled me in on their joint antics. I was delighted to learn that he had met people who each took him on as a worthy cause, and in turn ‘did them proud’. I went along to hear him play a couple of times in Melbourne, and when our mutual friend Dinny O’Hearn died, met Danny’s new wife Gael at the wake.

I can now turn my part of Danny’s story over to her – I know it will be in very good hands.


Sydney folk scene 1964-5

Pam Skilton

Danny first started his singing career in Sydney at a small coffee shop upstairs in an arcade in Manly Corso, together with Graham, whop also -played guitar and sang.

I was in the audience one night with my brother, and Dan was singing all the old favourite English songs which we learned at school, plus many songs of the Kingston trio at the Hungry I (which was my favourite LP at the time). Naturally I joined in and sang along. Dan joined us at our table and started chatting about music and offered to drive us home. He invited us to a party at the Britannic, next to his flat in Mosman on the clifftop overlooking Sirius Cove.
We talked and sang lots of songs, and he asked me whether I'd be interested in singing with him as our voices blended well. Graham returned to NZ and that was the beginning of Danny and Pam.

We worked at Manly and then at Maxims in Newport when they opened the Pit downstairs. There we met up with other folkies of the time: the Liberty Singers (Brian Godden, Irene Whitehead and Bix Bryant) who had a repertoire of popular folk songs and sang some beautiful harmonies. Garry Green wood was there with his unique guitar work and style. The Warrumbungle Mountain boys performed their bluegrass regularly (Nick Young on fantastic banjo and Bill Mobbs on guitar). Rocky Mountain Breakdown was one of their favourite pieces. Chuck Quinton pl;ayed and sang and organised the musical entertainment for Bud Bell, the American owner. Larry King arrived on the scene with his American accent and smooth style. Dan loved singing Bob Dylan and his memory for lyrics was incredible.

At the conclusion of each night we would all stand out the front and Danny would lead us in a rowdy hootenany. We all had a great time and loved it. All the artists would then head back to the Liberty Singers' house in Dee Why for a late party. There'd be the Beatles rocking in the lounge room and lots of dancing. Dan and I would head for the bathroom for the good acoustic, stand in the bath and with people crowded into the space and outside through the window, we'd sing and have a great time. In those days noone was into drugs or alcohol so it was innocent fun and sheer enjoyment of the music and each other.

The Pigalle in Parramatta started a Saturday night folk scene and we travelled over there to do a bracket or two. Danny by then was confident enough to do his own bracket as well as one with me. The owners, Frank and Marion French, were very welcoming and looked after us well. Frank presented me with apple pie and cream whenever we arrived (my favourite)!
Our circuit around the venues was beginning.

We started at the Last Straw at Neutral Bay, owned by Jim Carter who also owned the Troubadour in the city. Marion Henderson was Australia's equivalent of Joan Baez and sang at the Troubadour. Gary Shearston was the main male folk singer, singing at the Troubadour and writing some of his own songs including The Voyager and Dole Bread. Alex was also popular with his Aussie traditional music. The Troubador was the most well known and best venue in Sydney at that time.
We sang at the Pink Elephant in North Sydney when it opened. There we met Margret RoadKnight with her beautiful harp playing.

Danny expanded his repertoire quickly and started singing sea shanties and whaling songs. This brought in some really 'dirty' harmonies as I called them, and they resonated through your whole being.

By this stage we'd met Bob Smith who was a dedicated member of our audience, learning guitar, and with a rich bass voice.
We became friendly with Declan Affley and loved his beautiful Irish music. We were heading more and more into traditional English, Irish, Scottish and of course Australian bush music.
We were finally invited to perform at the Troubadour.
Danny's grey Holden sedan was kept very busy in those circuit nights.
At about this time we met Colin Dryden with his blues and folk music, Jeannie Lewis with her incredibly strong and beautiful voice, and Mike Ball with his wonderful collection of folk LPs from the British Isles.

In the Manly area the Greenhill Singers had arrived from winning a talent quest in Melbourne (John and Alex McMillan and Chris Bonnet). They wrote their own music and joined the folk circuit. Finally the Liberty Singers broke up and Brian Godden took Chris Bonnet's place as double bass player.

Two folk festivals were held, one at Newport and one at Brookvale. Both were incredibly successful. This was where Danny first met Martyn Wyndham-Reid and Brian Mooney, a real milestone in his career. He knew the direction he wanted to take now.
At the Brookvale Festival the overseas guests were the New Lost City Ramblers with their wonderful bluegrass mountain music. We all had a great party after the show at Nick and Mobbs' flat in Brookvale.

The whole folk scene was a lot of fun and a terrific place to be.
Marion Henderson threw a party at her Brookvale house, which included all the Sydney performers. Don Henderson, Marion's husband, was a well respected guitar maker.
Then Dave Guard of the Kingston trio came to live at Whale Beahc and started his TV show Just Folk. By that stage we had met up with Fran Stone from Granville who had a strong and powerful voice. Danny formed us into the Shanty Singers with Bob Smith. It was wonderful fun learning songs and practising harmonies, and finally Dave Guard booked us and a group of other local performers to appear ion Just Folk.

About this time Dan rented a lovely older cottage in Mosman and let his flat go. He shared the house with muso friends (Less Miller who was an exceptional guitarist, Colin Dryden, Bob Smith and Ronny, another Pommy friend). It was a lively place with many comings and goings and lots of wonderful musical friendship.

As Dan was starting to change direction and was learning much from ALLoyd and Ewan McColl's work, he decided to resign his day job in the city and take a trip to Melbourne to check out the folk scene there. Traynors was going strong there while the Sydney scene was on the brink of change. Not long after Jim Carter closed the troubadour and went into the new fad of discos. The times really were a-changing.

Pact Folk in an old wood warehouse in Pyrmont became the remaining venue and some of us battled on there for a while. I found it hard contending with the choices people were making, and the direction things were going in with alcohol and drugs. I pulled out. For me, without Dan with folk scene just wasn't the same. The light and love, the life we had created, was gone.
Danny was a free spirit and not bound by convention. That was part of his appeal. In Sydney he created his own image, tying his jeans up with an old rope and sticking the cigarette behind his ear when we were singing. He was a real character and always fun to be with. His energy was boundless and he forged ahead in all things. Everybody loved him for his easy-going open nature, for his great generosity of spirit and his bubble Cockney sense of humour. He was a true treasure in all our lives then and memories of him are sparkling... what a memory he had!

Another Danny Spooner

Gael Shannon

Danny Spooner had a true clear voice, a twinkle in his eyes - and apprehension tightened him before he sang. He'd smile a little nervously, drop his head, close his eyes and sing about the lives of working men, women and children. Feeling how the audience received it, he'd relax and smile broadly under his 'coronet of curls' (Jamie McKew). The material carried him. How he loved to tell the tales of love and woe, of struggles and triumphs, of mayhem and trickery, of decency and simplicity. In all the accents of the British Isles, he could re-create their world. He had read their literature and their social history until it became his intimately-known background: the details of labouring lives in worlds pre-Christian, medieval, agrarian, industrial, military or maritime. He would remind us that this was also the background to the British settlement of Australia.

Danny was born in 1936, the eldest of three boys, growing up listening to the wireless, to his dad playing the piano, and learning to join in the singing at family gatherings. WW2 interrupted that, as the London Docklands was a frequent target and the family was bombed out 3 times, eventually moving in with a Scotswoman who had a huge repertoire of songs. So did those around the piano in the bomb shelter...

School was abandoned as the 13-y-o talked his way into a job on a sailing barge carrying cargo on the Thames and along the south coast. Bob Roberts, the skipper and a renowned traditional singer, had a hoard of songs. Knowing they would often be fog-bound, he joined Danny up to 3 libraries, asking him after he'd read each book 'to tell me the tale boy' – and somehow always had a song to match the story. Not one to read fiction, Danny read history and began to build his own bank of songs. Singing them into the wind from the prow developed his voice.

He worked on through an apprenticeship as a waterman and lighterman, a tug skipper pulling barges on the Thames, knowing its rushing tides and just how to push the vessel through the churning water at a bridge. But as planes took over cargo, the 'work on the water' dried up. He seized the opportunity to work his way to Australia on the passenger liner 'Canberra', entering Sydney Harbour at dawn. Within an hour of stepping ashore he'd been offered accommodation, and settled in a ground-floor Mosman flat with the Taronga Park lions to send him to sleep, and a view of the harbour through what he saw at first as scruffy gum trees. He got a job in a boatyard in Mosman. When a new friend took him to Jim Carter’s Troubador Folk Club in Rushcutters Bay he discovered folk clubs where people sat in silence and listened to someone being paid to sings songs like his... He also found there was an Australian tradition of songs and tunes.

In Melbourne he loved the community of Frank Traynor's Jazz/Folk Club. He learned new songs each night and developed a gift for 'making a good story' building 'his feeling for the song' (Cris Larner). Employment in the History and English Departments at the University of Melbourne enabled him to read everything within reach, honing his knowledge of the lives and music of working people of both Britain and Australia. 'When he sang you were absorbed into the world of the song, understanding better how people lived' (Ian Roberts). Danny taught at tertiary and secondary levels, and sang and talked across Australia and New Zealand, the British Isles, Denmark and France.

When he retired Danny confessed he had always dreamed he might sing in America, and (thanks to Ewan Barker introducing him to Jerry Epstein) he did: in 2003, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13. In 2010 he was flown to Washington DC for a weekend singing at the Australian Embassy where he drew a parallel between the e to w European occupation and development of both the USA and Australia. He loved Mystic Seaport, shanty sings, house concerts and festivals. He was valued as a solo traditional singer and made many wonderful new friends.

In 2003 Danny was immensely honoured to find himself invited to talk with Richard Tognetti, which led to work with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. It was an opportunity to bring to classical audiences traditional songs and some beautifully crafted contemporary folk songs - a national tour in 2007 with the ACO and Mike Kerin, and in 2009 the Festival of Maribor with the Slovenian Philharmonic and members of the ACO.

He lived in Carlton, North Fitzroy, Newmarket, Geelong and spent 27 years in Daylesford. The thoroughly urban man loved his hilltop home under the walnut trees. It was his oasis: a rambling house, food from the garden, the cats and hens and his beloved Ford station wagon. He was a great man for a breakfast egg. He mowed the lawns, hand-made pasta and gnocchi, cooked up wonderful meals, whistled at his work and poured out the wine.

Diagnosed with rampaging lung cancer, Danny sang right through the summer of 2016-7: in NZ, Tasmania, locally at Newstead, with the Brass Band as part of a 5-hour tribute concert mounted by fellow musicians in the beautiful Daylesford Town Hall. He spent a week near the mouth of the Snowy, watching the river and listening to the sea, before his final sing at Cobargo Folk Festival in s.NSW. Danny died on 3 March 2017 and was buried in the bush cemetery at Vaughan, 10 minutes from the Guildford Folk Club.