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Nev Nicholls
For 10 years, from 1968 to 1978, the music of Nev Nicholls and the Country Playboys cut though cigarette smoke, clinking glasses and clashing plates of wall to wall revellers in various stages of sobriety at the Texas Tavern in Kings Cross, Sydney. And for five of those years most of the clientele were American servicemen, snatching a week or two of oblivion from the Vietnam jungles. Nev and the boys faced the Kings Cross jungle seven days a week, and there was no rest or recreation for them.

  For five or so years, three of them concurrently with the Tavern, Nev has been heavily involved with the trucking music scene. He lives out the image of a tough, leather-jacketed gear jammer with a gravel voice, who tells of the hardships and the fleeting pleasures of the big rigs and the highways.

 This image has demanded a lot of the qualities Nev actually possesses. He is a big man, rough and ready, as quick with a four-letter expletive as he is with a guitar. He has more than a nodding aquaintance with the bourbons and scotches that go with the image; but he is always in control, not they. He has always been game for a night on the town, a session of what the Yanks call hell-raising, or to climb boots and all into a sticky situation. Underneath, however, is the clear and analytical mind of a man who regards his career as a business, and who is quite capable of looking after the affairs of Nev Nicholls, professional entertainer, thank you very much.

  His image, unlike that of Slim Dusty who projects the bushman and looks like a country town auctioneer, is pretty much what he is: a country boy turned entertainer. Or you might well take him for a professional truck driver, a game at which he has had some minor experience.

  But he didn't start out that way. If ever an artist qualified to call himself country because of his background, Nev did. Born at Tallwood, near Orange in the New South Wales central west, Nev grew up in the depression years on a hundred or so hectares of poor country, with aith all that meant in terms of battle for sheer survival. Country music was a family consolation, and Nev's dad was a stauncg Buddy Williams fan, a preference which he passed on to Nev at an early age.

Nev & The Country Playboys
Nev Nicholls (second from right) and his country playboys performed at the Texas Tavern in Sydney's Kings Cross for ten years from 1968 with guest Johnny Devlin

  By the time he was 11, Nev's singing was starting to show some promise, so his parents bought him a Hawaiian guitar and some lessons from the Sampson School of Music. Nev wasn't interested in Hawaiian music, so he reefed the nut out of the instrument and taught himself, Buddy William's style of course.

  Pretty soon the family moved to a better property at Blayney, but unfortunately Nev's dad did not live to enjoy the better times. He died within 12 months of the move, and left the family battling again. At this time Nev was 12 years of age, and from then school became secondaryto farm work. The mixed farming property supported dairying, cropping for potatoes, peas, hay, and wool-growing. During the toughest years Nev and the family got up at dawn, did the milking and helped what hired labour they could find. The hired hands started at 7.30, and when they went home about 4.30 in the afternoon, the family did the evening milking, finishing in the dark. That was seven days a week.

  When things were slack at home, Nev worked around the shearing sheds to bring in a bit of extra money. Small wonder that he feels he had to much of country life too early, and that bitterness creeps into his voicewhen he speaks of those days. "I hated it," he says. "My mother and sisters worked alongside me at the same job I did; women on farms those days were not treated fairly."

  Social life in Blayney centred almost entirely around the churches, which were involved in both sporting fixtures and entertainment, and Nev began his public singing career at church concerts. Neville Pellitt, who was then running a country music scene from 2GZ Orange, put him on some of his local concerts and suggested he should go to Sydney and make some acetates which could go to air.

  In 1952, when Nev was in Sydney for the acetate session, Alan Crawford of Southern Music happened to come in, and after a talk, agreed to publish his songs and arrange an audition with Regal Zonophone in January 1954, and put down a session a year for the company until 1958.

  Nev started writingat a very earl age. His 22 Regal Zonophone sides featured a big percentage of his own compositions, laced with overseas songs like the old Jimmy Rodgers classic Rock All Our Babies to Sleep on the first coupling, Hanks Snow's Conscience I'm Guilty and the top American country hit of the time, Fourteen Caret Gold. And perhaps that is a good cue to explore a curious phenomenon of the 50s and look for reasons for it.

  Most of the artists who made our country music in the 30s and 40s were the skimmings off the top of the groundswell of interest amongst kids who took country music to their hearts on farms. What they so passionately wanted to do was to sing about their personal experience on country life. Idealised, naive, derivative it maty often have been, but the Buddy Williams, Slim Dusty, Gordon Parsons and Dusty Rankins were out to tell the world about the feelings their environment had generated in them.

  From 1950 on, this changed. The established artists continued to look at the life around them, but the new breed preferred to sing songs from America, where country music had already shed it's rural image, and where the the strong preference was for Hank Williams and his outpouring of self pity. Even those who were writing their own songs here no longer drew from their country background. Instead, they wrote songs of an escapist nature, modelled on the overseas trends, and repudiated their country heritage.

  Perhaps the drift to the citiesand the increasing opportunities for young people to get outand see the world had something to do with it. Perhaps it was that the country kids with talent had become city dwellers, and had been joined by city bushmen who had no experience of country life but liked the music style. Or perhaps it was simply that the pressures from the radio people to reject anything that wasn't on the billboard charts overseas, began to penetrate the scene when the transistor radio made music more portable and accessible. Whatever the reason, the fact was a striking one - from 1950 on, the newcomers were not interesed in reflecting their country background, either to praise it as Buddy Williams had done, or to protest about it as a Nev Nicholls may well have done. They simply ignored it and found their inspiration and patterns elsewhere.

  The first Regal Zonephone release was Nev's cue to make the break from the farm. He went to Sydney, he says, intending to be a superstar, but there were no immediate vacancies in that field, so he set out to find a job which would earn him a quid. Work was hard to get, and the start he finally settled for seems to him now about the most unlikely he could have chosen. He answered an advertisement for insurance salesmen, and got the job.

  "Can you imagine," says Nev, "a young bloke straight off a farm trying to flog insurance to all those city people?" The people who employed hom must have been good judges, for three years later Nev was top salesman for the company. After a couple more years in insurance he tried selling real estate, until touring put an end to that. Since then, whenever musical earnings have thinned out a bit, Nev has supplemented his income with insurance selling, but mostly it has been professional entertainment all the way.

  in the early 50s, Nev's story was more or less the same as everybody else's. He played the Ted Quigg and Tim McNamara Shows, did an occassional pub job, turned up at Ray Brown's place for jam sessions, and generally managed a lot of activity without a lot of pay. But these appearances got through to a lot of people. They sold your records, kept your name and photo in the trade magazines like "Spurs" and "Spotlight", gave you a stage to sing from, with a chance of a bigger break coming, and they were fun.

  In 1957 Nev went out on a three week tour with Reg Lindsay. Kevin King and Chad Morgan were also in the cast, and they visited country towns within 600or 700 kilometres of Sydney. Houses were really great, and they all enjoyed the trip emmensely. Lindsay's Sydney committments didn't allow him to do long trips at that time, but reportswere feeding back from around Australia about the success and adventures of the people that travelled with Slim Dusty and Buddy Williams. Nev and the gang had had just a small taste of the romance of the road, and they were eagerto sample whatever else was going on out there.

  Nev, Kevin Kind and Chad got together with Rick and Thel Carey and ralked about it, Then decided to take out a co-operative show split four ways. The All Star Western Show, took to the road in 1958. For the quality and general spirit of the show, the crowd it pulled and the memories it left behind, many say it has been unique in the history of the travelling shows. Certainly it gave a thorough grounding in the business to five people who later followed through, each in the own manner, and made great names for themselves.

  When clashes of personalities, tempremaments and ambitions of the five artistic people eventually brought about a split, the Chad Morgan Show went out with Rick and Thel co-starring, and Nev Nicholls and Kevin King rejoined Reg Lindsay who was ready by this time to take on the longer hauls himself. The association lasted until 1961, the notorious disaster year for the show circuit, when economic conditions, the introduction of television to country areas, the radio-fostered changing musical tastes and the huge proliferation of shows which the good years had engendered all combined to leave dozens of shows and showmen all over Australia, thumbing rides back to whatever homes they had.

  Nev was not caught in any of the major crashes, but simply saw the writing on the road and got off the circuit. ge got a group together and worked around Sydney pubs - Yagoona, Bankstown and Liverpool being the main regular venues. They started outwith Johnny Starr on lead, Jack Anderson on piano and Barry Forrestor on drums. They didn't stick strictly to the trad country format, but threw in a bit of anything they thought the audience wanted: necessary, Nev says, if you want to survive.

  Personnel changes came as band members went their ways, and it was virtually a new group that started at Fairfield Hotel, with Kenny Kitching joining on steel guitar and Wayne Davidson on drums. They moved from Fairfield to Guildford, then to the Kookaburra Hotel and at Canley Vale.

The young Nev Nicholls
Nev Nicholls at an early stage in his singing career.

This is a re-print from an artical written by
Eric Watson
of Selection Records some years ago.

  In August 1986, Sydney arranger and bass player, Ron Martin, phone Nev at the Hookaburra. The Texas Tavern at Kings cross was looking for a band, because the scheme to bring American soldiers on rest and recreational leave from Vietnam had begun, and a large number of them wanted to hear country music. Johnny Ashcroft had been approached, but he didn't have a group, and Ron had considered it himself, but was more interested at that stage in forming a small jazz combo. Nev auditioned and got the job.

Nev with Laurie, Bobby, Johnny & Harold
Nev Nicholls (centre) with entertainers Laurie Allen, (left) Bobby Bright (second from left) Johnny Heap (second from right) and Harold Williams (right)

  When they kicked off, in November 1968, the band consisted of Nev on rhythm and vocal, Kenny Kitching on pedal steel, John Dunn on bass and Laurie Webb on drums. It started slowly, but within three months they were packing them in wall to wall. There were three entertainment areas in the hotel: the Red Garter, which featured small jazz groups; El Camino Real, where Latin American music held sway: and the Barn, exclusively country. The Barn had a cover charge, and a full restaurant menu, with beef steaks being the most popular fare. The American servicemen had plenty of money to spend and were not interested in taking it back to the jungle with them, so the meny was priced accordingly.   These men, mostly in their teens or early 20s were not your ordinary tourists out to photograph the Harbour Bridge and the Opera Houes, and on for a bit of a lark if the occasion offered. They were confused, mentally wounded, physically taut beyond endurance. Their values had been shattered beyond repair, their sensibilities outraged and their hopes of a normal life gone forever. Small wonder if for thousands of them, the R and R wasc a moment snatched away from the bitter jungle warefare, and if the bourbon and then women and the hell-raising were things which had to be kept going in a frezy, because to stop and look would have been unbearable.

  And the music. The music had to be that echo from home that cut through the melee and reminded them of what they had been toldthey were fighting for: the light at the end of the tunnel when the job was over. So Nev and the boys sang of Okies from Muskogee, of truckies who pulled out of Pittsbourgh, of Mom's apple pie and Green, Green Grass of Home, while homesick, battle-sick and fea-sick Americans told themselves desparately that these were the things they were fighting for, and that the Great American Dream Would come true some day.

  The Tavern began with a show from 9.00pm to 1.00am each night. Soon it grew from 8.00 to 1.00, then from 6.00 to 300. At the last escalation, it became too much for one band, and a second group was used from 6.00to 10.00, Nev's Country Playboys, as they came to be called, taking the 10.00pm to 3.00am stint. Various groups filled the early spot from time to time: Kevin King, Darryl Lee, Tony Sheridan and many others moving in and out.

  Personnel, too, played musical chairs, musicians frequently swithcing from the early band to the late and back again. Dave Longmore, Peter Bazely, Garry Brown, Mick Hamilton and Phil Emmanuel all had long periods of lead guitar work with the Country Playboys, and Nev says he had a total of 17 drummers. Johnny Heap and Al Tomkins were the two longest serving bass players, the former doubling on vocals and the latter on banjo.

Don, Nicci, Johnny, Chad, Nev, Rex & Sam
Nev Nicholls (third from right) with country music performers Don North, Nicci Bradley, Johnny Heap, Chad Morgan, Rex Dallas and Sam Murray (from left to right)

  The pressure accounted for a lot of changes. The Tavern was a hotbed of noiseand a frantic, non-stop energy. The airconditioning was never good, and you could cutthe cigarette smake with a knife. The music had to be deafeningly loud to stand a show of being heard, and the hours were long and spread over seven days a week. Alcohol was a problem with some of the boys some of the time, who felt they had to hit the bourbon along with the customers in sheer self-defence. Brawls happened now and then, and with the jam-packed audience there just wasn't room to fight.

  Practical jokes often lightened the scene. Roland Storm, pianist-entertainer in the Jerry Lee Lewis manner, swept majestically to the keyboard one night, acknowledged the thunderous applause, and got a series of dull clicks from the piano. Peter Bazley and drummer Don North had taken the action out of the piano befoer the show. Dave Longmore suffered a surplus of liquid hospitality from admiring fans one night, as he strode forward to do a solo - a little too far with the tables stacked up against the stage as the often were - stepped onto a table and finished his solo with his foot in a customer's plate of food.

Nev with Charlie Daniels & John Kerr
Nev Nicholls (left) with Charlie Daniels and John Kerr in 1981.

  R and R came to an end with the Vietnam war. The management, naturally worried about the future, decided the Red Garter was the most likely of the three sections to survive, and they poured a lot of money into advertising, but in the end it was the survivor. With some renovations, and changes in approach, it kicked on quite well with a strictly country clientele and somewhat quiter times. No seems to quite know why, perhaps it was just something that had its course, but the Texas Tavern Barn, with Nev Nicholls and yhe Country Playboys, came to an end in August 1978.

 It had been an incredible 10 years. It brought much-needed cash and experience to countless country musicians; it proved a point about country music bands in the cities, and it provided an unforgettable pieceof colour to the Sydney scene. Everybody who was involved in anyway with country musicpassed ove its stage in one way or another. And Nev Nicholls often feels surprised that he survived at all.

  By the time the Tavern nights ebded, Nev had another scenealready well and truly rolling. His old mate Barry Forrester, having long ago given up the life of a musician and advance agent to progress to be A and R Manager for RCA, suggested Nev should try an album on trucking songs. Mack Trucks supplied a cover photograph of one of their rigs, and when the annual Truck Show came around, they suggested that Nev might put on a show at their stand. Used to selling a dozen or so records at his normal gigs, Nev took up a box of 50 on the first day. To his great surprise they went off in ten minutes, so he took 100 the next day, which lasted half an hour. Next day Friday, he too all he had, 200, and these disappeared in an hour. With Saturday coming up, he rang Barry Forrester in desperation. They collected all available stock from the warehouse - and sold it all! They had literally never seen anything like it, and it has all happened more or less by accident.

  Accident it may have been, but it was not just a flash in the pan. At the next year's Truck Show at Yennora Woolsheds, they tried it again, this time with a properly organised stage and selling area, and with the growth in the trucking scene, the results were even better. Nev has now turned it into a highly organised and lucrative business, and follows the truck shows all through the state capitals and some of the country centres. He works in with "Truckers World" from the marketing end, and has nine trucking albums of his own to sell as well as a bunch of other people's, both local and imported.

  Nev's recording career has reflected the changes in his approach to the music - or perhaps both have followed his assessment of the market. After the Regal Zonophone 78s he had a brief spell with Martin Erdman's du Monde label, during which he did an album with the Country Playboys of the type of material they were doing at the Tavern. And in later years he has concentrated almost entirely on the trucking scene, with a notable exception being an album of beer drinking songs. His early trucking albums featured almost entirely songs from the American trucking albums. Lately, however, he has drwan just about all his material from local song writers, with a corresponding improvement in sales, because the Australian truckie now finds he can identify with them more readily.

  Well-known musical arranger Rocky Thomas has played a big part in the distinctive Nev Nicholls trucking sound. The heavy use of brass and strings takes it well away from traditional Australian country, but still leaves something in there for the Nev Nicholls fans of 20 years earlier.

  Nevs preoccupation at the time of writing is with a two-hour country and trucking musin radio show, being syndicated to over 90 stations throughout Australia. Plans are well in hand to develope it into a road show as well.

Nev, Geoff, Alan, Stuie
Nev Nicholls, Geoff Quinton, Alan Tomkins