Home Interviews Interview: RAY BURGESS

Interview: RAY BURGESS

31 min read


Photography by Karen Burgess

I remember, in the late 70s, I used to rush home from school in the afternoon, turn the TV dial to the ABC and watch the ‘youth culture’ series, Flashez; my particular interest being interviews with some of the country’s top pop groups of the time. Flashez was hosted by singer, Ray Burgess and I never missed an episode. It was up there with the likes of Countdown, also essential viewing for any self-respecting teenager in those days. Recently, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Ray to talk about those days and what he has been up to since then.

Ray’s musical career began when he was one of the runners up on New Faces. “1969, I think it was. I got a job with a professional band and toured extensively. We worked as John Farnham’s backing band for probably eighteen months or two years.” Eventually, Ray was invited to venture out into a solo career. “I had a hit record within twelve months, which was more of a shock to me than anybody else,” he recalls.  “At that stage, we were working through the AMBO agency in Melbourne, which was the house of Kevin Lewis and Johnny Young and Young Talent Time. We didn’t have a recording contract. John and Kevin heard the single and they had a contract with Festival and they said ‘We’ll release it.’  And Boom! Boom! It was on the first colour Countdown and away it went!”  The song, of course, was ‘Touch Me’ and, as Ray recalls, he was a bit of a regular on Countdown back then. Unfortunately, many of those episodes from the first two years of Countdown are now lost to us. “I think they reused the tapes and none of it ever got kept,” he explained. “I was lucky when I did ‘Touch Me’ on that colour Countdown because that’s the reason they kept it. It was the first one.”

Then Ray decided to audition for another television show. That show was Flashez and, for the next 18 months or so, he was beamed into lounge rooms all around the country via the ABC. “It was extraordinary stuff.  I guess the television coverage was probably to the detriment of the recording because radio stations were loath to play your music if you were on TV every day.  That message came through quite clearly. From then on, there was a lot of television. There were all those Don Lane Shows. I was a regular on Kennedy’s Blankety Blanks. I just did a lot of TV and continued to work in different genres. I did kids’ shows and I toured and just kept working all over the shop, until about ten or so years ago.  I was working at a club in Sydney, doing a ballad or something,” he recalls “and the poker machines were roaring on the right hand side, people sitting with their backs to you and the band was sort of staring off into space as they were playing and I thought ‘This is not what I did it for.’  If people don’t want to listen, there’s no value in doing it.” And that was when he began to rethink what he was doing and which path he wanted to take.  “I started thinking  ‘what else in life is there to do?’ and I found that, through the experiences I had in life, I was able to help other people look at themselves and say ’You can do these things and you don’t have to sit at home and be miserable. There’s an option that you can get up and go out and do something, be somebody.’  And I enjoy that. You get to take on people who sometimes become like your family. It’s a wonderful thing to know that, with that profile and knowledge that you pick up over a period of time, you are actually in a position to influence someone’s life, to change it, to show an interest. And I’ve met young people, some even older, who have nobody in their life to show any interest in them and as soon as you do, it’s like putting water on a flower,” he says. “They start to blossom. And I guess, at the end of the day, if you have a life where you have done what you love most and you have a great family and you can help other people, well, that’s about as much as you could hope for.”

When Ray stopped performing in a full time capacity, he started working with long term unemployed people, doing community work. “I guess, as an artist, I’ve always been involved in community work, in a way, which led me to work at the community centre, Pole Depot, where I work now.”  About eighteen months ago, Ray was asked by Brian Cadd to become involved in Support Act which is a musician’s benevolent fund in Australia. “He was going overseas and I’d been involved in some fundraising activities and he asked if I’d fill his position on the board, which I was very surprised and honoured with. And when I asked him ‘Why me?’ he said because I’d been involved with community work and at that level in management and board level already. Brian’s overseas again at the moment so I’m again involved in the board.”

“It’s a wonderful thing actually because, for all the people who have become successful in the music industry, there are hundreds of people behind them who make that possible.  And that’s everyone from the musicians who played with you, the writers who write the songs or the staging guys, the lighting guys, the roadies who lug it all in. If you have a degree of success, it brings financial reward and I guess it ups your social ante somewhat as well which makes life a bit easier but for all of those who are successful, there are certainly many that aren’t and a lot of those fall by the wayside, particularly as they get older, with injuries or illness and there’s no superannuation in music. Support Act is about musicians and entertainers rather than just rock music. It’s just that, I suppose, those guys have the profile to kick it off,” he explains “and so we’re about raising the profile and the need to have the public involved in fundraising activities; to help those people who need help and a lot of those people might be famous people. William Shakespeare was a perfect example. John Cave was his real name and he lived for nigh on fifteen years in a solitary environment and needed the support of organisations like Support Act all the way along just to survive. That was medical treatment and bills that he couldn’t afford.”

Ray feels, very strongly, that there is a duty of care towards others, particularly those who are a part of the industry that gave him so much. “These are not paid jobs but you have a responsibility, I think, and somebody’s got to do it. The music industry bodies like ARIA, PPCA and APRA, as well as many high profile people in the business, are behind Support Act and it’s great to see people in the industry, particularly people like PPCA that collect royalties, put funds in to help those people. I guess record companies and the like get some bad press occasionally but all those organisations are supporters and providers for Support Act, right at the very bottom end and it’s for no kudos really. They do so because they have a moral obligation to do so and that’s a good thing.”

While most people are certainly keen to help wherever they can, the question is always there. ‘Does the money go where it is intended? How can I be sure that any money I donate will end up helping the people who need it and not be swallowed up by administrative costs?’  Ray is adamant that a large percentage of donated funds will go to the people that Support Act is helping. “I can tell you, as a statement of fact,” he declares, “that we have two part time administration employees. We have one part time case worker and social worker, Lindy Morrison, who is from The Go Betweens.  She is also a very educated lady.  And the salaries for those three people is provided by the industry bodies so, apart from the odd piece of paper that’s got to be stamped at the end, I think they worked out it’s about 98% of every dollar that comes in that goes to the people who apply for it. But all the people in the music industry, members of the board and members of the various state bodies, work for free. There are no fees involved. We don’t get paid for any of it. We do it just because we love the music and we love music people so it’s in our DNA to help them. You go to fundraising gigs. People put on shows and say ‘We’d like to make part of the door money for Support Act’ and people have such a wonderful warmth about those shows. Recently, Alex Smith from Moving Pictures came back to Australia and they put the band together and they did a short tour and at the Sydney show at the Theatre Royal, he asked whether we’d be happy to be the recipients of monies collected on the night and we had people at the door, in Support Act T-shirts, and with buckets. With the flurry of people leaving the theatre, I think there was about $1,000 just with people throwing tens and twenties in the buckets on their way out. It would be wonderful if everyone who ever went to an Australian rock show went on to the website and became a member. You can become a lifetime member for $30 and that gives you a newsletter and that keeps you up-to-date with what’s going on and events and fundraisers.”

There is also a new series of video advertorials to raise awareness. “The advertorials feature the likes of Megan Washington, Chris Chaney, Hoodoo Gurus and Jimmy Barnes.  And the more guys like that, with a high profile, who come on board, the better. Michael Chugg has been involved right from the word go,” he tells me. “He used to be on the board but he is now one of our international ambassadors because he just doesn’t have the time.  This new video will play at concerts during that interminable wait for somebody to come on stage. We’d love more of the public to be involved.  We’re not a large community and it’s very rewarding to pitch in and help your own, I think. It’s a good job and it’s rewarding.”

But Support Act is not the only way in which Ray is showing his support for the community. As mentioned earlier, he works for a local community centre, Pole Depot, and his musical connections can come in very handy at times. “Every year, I do a fundraiser for the centre and last year we had Normie Rowe perform for us.” he tells me. “We’re doing it again on 13th June this year and my good buddy Russell Morris is doing it for me. I think we’ve got a capacity of about 220. It’ll raise some good money for what we do. This year, we’re chasing money to expand our respite services because there’s just such a need for respite. It is funded by State and Federal Government but there’s never enough. There’s always room for more. So we’ll be raising some money to help with that and it’s great to have Russell on board…”

He is also involved in community radio. “I’d never done radio before. Radio was always the bane of recording artists,” he laughs, “because you were constantly begging them to play your stuff. There’s one major community radio station here: 90.1 on your dial. I think they cover about 23 to 24% of the Sydney market. And we specialise in 60s and 70s music which is right up my alley. I do play more modern music occasionally. It’s great and it gives me a platform to talk about the programs that Pole Depot run which are very important and relevant as well. And, in the wider music community, it also gives me a chance to talk to people who were my peers, my mates. I recently had a discussion with Darryl Cotton. He was here with Russell Morris and Jim Keays and I said ‘Guys, thanks for taking the time to talk to us on air.’ and Darryl said ‘No, thank you! There’s so few that want to know anymore and we’ve got to use all the resources we can to let the people know we’re still alive, still working and still around.’ ”

“There are other industry things I get involved with too. I sing occasionally. I did a gig recently with Marty Rhone, Dinah Lee and John Paul Young which was a couple of hours of hits which was mighty.” he smiles. “It’s great to be treading the boards again.”

Family is all important to Ray and when the conversation turns to his two daughters, he is more than happy to talk about their achievements. “My youngest daughter is in Hi 5,” he beams with pride, “and she has been for a number of years. They’re out on the road at the moment so she keeps the family name kicking around. She’s a good kid, writes good songs and she should make her own way as a soloist when she’s done and dusted.”

My other daughter is not involved in the music industry. She was one more for sitting on the side of the stage. She was dragged around on all sorts of tours and was always there and she has met all these incredible people and she loves it but has never wanted to be involved in it. She’s successful. She’s got two kids, a nice husband and a nice house so she’s done quite well too.

Thinking back over his long and varied career, Ray considers what the highlights were for him. “I suppose,” he ponders, “a major highlight was when I first heard ‘Touch Me’ played on radio. It was released on 16th December 1974 and traditionally in the lead up week, playlists get locked in over the Christmas period and they don’t change until about the second week of February and I thought ’Well, if it doesn’t get picked up this week, it’s history. But who cares? Let’s do it anyway. If I’ve got a little piece of vinyl, then that’s great. It’s better than some have got!’  It got picked up by 3XY in Melbourne on Christmas Eve and I heard it when I was driving home on the South-Eastern Freeway that afternoon and it was such a buzz.”

He pauses for a moment. “But, really, it’s the people you met on the journey and the mates you make along the way.”  He relates a story to show me exactly what he is referring to. “You know, there’s a lady who comes to our shows here in Sydney who suffers from cerebral palsy. She’s about fifty and she gets herself in a wheelchair and gets a cab by herself and if you ask ‘Do you want us to help you?’ she says ‘No. I’m fine.’  She just lives and loves music and she can get out there to some of the shows… while we sometimes think ‘Oh should I do it?’ and you’ve got someone like that with such a restriction on what they can do, what an amazing person! People think it’s about the things they can’t do but people with a disability say ‘No, it’s about the things I can do!’ 

Ray is clearly very content with his life at the moment, and finds his work extremely rewarding. “The gamut of experiences is fantastic and it gives you a really good broad spectrum of life. It helps you appreciate what it is and what it should be. Life can be wonderful one minute and turn on its head the next. That’s what makes it interesting,” he smiles. “My life is never the same, two weeks in a row.”


by Sharyn Hamey



Copyright © 2012 [Sharyn Hamey] All Rights Reserved.

Ray with good mates Brian Cadd and Russell Morris


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