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Sweet-Singing Son of a Screacher Man
When you Dad played lead lungs for the quintessential Great Aussie Rock Band, you’re gonna need a ton of talent to mark out your own territory as a singer. But as ANGELA BENNIE reports, David Campbell has been doing just that – Barnes-storming New York, and doing it his way.
Last Saturday night a wiry young Australian was standing on top of the world. He was singing and he had the whole of Manhattan at his feet. He was on the 65th floor of the Rockefeller Centre in New York's most exclusive cabaret venue, the Rainbow and Stars Room. Here the likes of Rosemary Clooney and Vic Damone, Maureen McGovern and Anthony Newley have crooned their way into legend; and here the glitz of New York drink their worldly Manhattan and talk of the Stars among the stars.
He was taking a risk as he sang, for it was an old Jimmy Barnes number he was belting out, Higher and Higher - well out of his usual range and well out of his audience's ken. They had never heard of Jimmy Barnes. But he knew what he was doing and why he was doing it. And as he took it higher and higher, Manhattan cheered him and called for more.
Next Saturday night he will be a long way from the, Rainbow Room and the Rockefeller Centre. He will be standing on top of a barricade on the stage at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, singing of revolution. He will be playing Marius in the 10th anniversary production of Les Miserables, his slight, wiry figure leading the charge.
Again, he will be taking a risk as he sings: it is a long way from Manhattan to Sydney and back again. For he is determined to return to the heights of Manhattan. So why mount Les Miz's barricades in Sydney? Surely, once you have conquered Manhattan; there is no other barricade to climb?
David Campbell thinks there is. "I have so far yet to go in my mind, to where I want to be," he says. "I want to do it all."
This 24 year old is already well on the way to doing it all Campbell's is not exactly a rags-to-riches story, but its substance has the very stuff of showbiz in its fabric.
What is striking about the whole thing is that the more one explores Campbell's risk-taking the more one finds it is not risk-taking at all, but sheer determination born of cool decision. And what is fascinating about it all is that if there is one thing Campbell has been doing all his life, it is mounting barricades, personal barricades of his own making.
"Nah, he's got where he is through sheer hard work," says Jimmy Barnes, the original voice behind Higher and Higher. "That's what I call it. He has worked hard to get where he is."
Australia's very own Working Class Hero should know. Apart from the fact that this quintessential rocker knows all about the kind of hard work it takes to get to the top in showbiz, Barnes is Campbell's father.
Which brings us to the first barricade.
Until he was 12 years old, Campbell did not know who his father was. He was brought up by his mother in Adelaide. It was a household filled with music: Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Gershwin, the old American ballads of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway musicals. The kind of music his mother loved and on which Campbell's incipient talent and reedy, full-throated voice was unknowingly being nurtured. He thought it was the only kind of music there was.
"I used to sing around the house all the time when I was a kid. I feel as though I have been singing that sort of music all my life," he says. "And I knew that that was what I wanted to do - to be a singer."
Jimmy Barnes, Australia's famous "screamer", he knew merely as an occasional friend of the family, whom he saw off and on over the years. One year, when he was 12, he was invited to holiday for a week with the Barnes family in Sydney.
"I think they thought, 'If he gets on with him, OK, then, we'll tell him'," says Campbell. "And we got on very well. I thought he was just a friend of the family, I thought it was very nice of him to invite me over.
"When I got back to Adelaide, they told me, they told me the whole situation. It didn't bother me. It felt natural. It felt right. Everything sort of clicked into place."
But now Campbell began to sing in rock bands after school, experimenting with his voice, experimenting with rhythm and blues, with rock, with a different kind of music. Was he pushing his voice out, closer to his father's, was he subconsciously emulating him? He doesn't think so, but people began to call him "Barnsie's boy". And he didn't like it.
"The whole reputation seemed to follow me every time I tried to do any singing. I admit I began to shy away from Jimmy - not from him personally, but from his whole enormous reputation. It just followed me everywhere I went."
At 18, Campbell moved to Sydney and put his singing behind him. He immersed himself in the thriving theatre scene and he began to be noticed. On stage he was intense and he carried with him an automatic, albeit somewhat self-conscious, grace.
"The first three years were hard, but I was getting work and I was loving it. I worked with the Sydney Theatre Company, I worked with the Ensemble, I worked at the Stables. I just wanted to be a good actor, I was totally absorbed in the idea of being a good actor. I put singing away, somewhere else in my head. Acting became my passion.
"And then it started all over again: it kept coming out that I was Jimmy's son, Barnsie's boy. Whatever show I was in, or if there was any publicity about what I was doing, there it was again, Barnsie’s boy. I didn't like it much - as though that was all there was about me, father's boy!"
Campbell didn't know it, but he was facing his first barricade. He was about to mount it.
It was at this time that he was asked if he would like to take part in a small cabaret gig at the Stables, up behind the Cross. Why not?
He could sing again the songs he loved to sing, the old standards and ballads of show business. He might be Barnsie's boy, but this Barnsie's boy was determined to sing his own song. The show was an unexpected success, and Campbell began to take his material out into the small cabaret spaces around Darlinghurst, attracting a dedicated following and larger and larger audiences – until, suddenly, he found himself in great demand in the wider Sydney and national cabaret scene.
"It all just suddenly took off. It was strange. I found myself doing solid cabaret in Adelaide and Melbourne and Sydney and the audiences were growing. We kept having sell-outs. They seemed to really like what I was doing, so I just kept on doing it."
Which brings us unexpectedly to the next barricade. It may seem at this stage of his meteoric rise that would take him to the heights of Manhattan that Barnsie's boy was at last doing his own thing. But in truth what he was really doing was hiding.
"I used to choose songs from musicals to sing so that I could sort of play the character in the song. That way, I could hide myself. That's all I wanted to do, hide myself in a character on the stage. I was so nervous about being myself that I had to hide," says Campbell.
Yet something inside him was struggling with this. It wasn't conscious; it was something he didn't know he was working out. Slowly, tentatively, he began experimenting, singing songs not as a character in a musical but songs that had personal significance and meaning to him.
"I also began slowly trying to talk to the audience without a script. I spent a year and a half doing this, until I became more and more sure and comfortable about just being me on the stage and not a character. It is the hardest thing in the world, I think, to do this, and I was determined to conquer it. So I worked hard at it. And now..."
And now, as with all good showbiz stories, enter the lucky break.
"Nah," says Barnes. "David's got where he is because he has the talent and because he has worked hard - very, very hard. He is a real pro, he is very determined, and I really admire him for what he has done.
"We are very similar, we have the same mannerisms, we tell the same bad jokes. But he is so focused on what he's doing. He works very hard. I am very proud of him."
When the queen of American torch singing, Barbara Cook, was in Australia for the 1995 Melbourne Festival, she conducted a master-class. Campbell was one of the select few who participated. In the audience was the New York cabaret maestro and star Michael Feinstein, who also happened to be in Melbourne as part of the festival line-up.
"That masterclass changed everything for me," says Campbell. "It was a revelation I suppose in a way everything had been evolving inside me anyway to get me to that point, but not in a conscious way. That masterclass with Barbara Cook changed so much of what I was about. She talked about being honest on stage. She said it must be the truth. That really hit home.
"From then on, I made a conscious effort to do just that, always to be honest on stage. I don't pretend any more, I am just me, and everything I do and say, everything sing, I try to make it the truth. I don't try to hide from the audience any more. It is me there and I talk to them about me and about my life and who I am and they talk back to me."
Feinstein was so impressed with what he saw that he suggested Campbell come over the following year to New York and try his luck at the Cabaret Convention. The Cabaret Convention is a New York showbiz institution - the singing hopefuls gather from all over the country (and the world, if lucky enough to land a gig) and are given seven minutes to strut their stuff, seven minutes only to take a nibble at the Big Apple, in front of agents, aficionados and that critical, quizzical cabaret audience that seems to breed in New York. Feinstein thought Campbell should have his seven minutes. He knew the manager of the Cabaret Convention. He would have a word.
Campbell packed his bags.
Last year in October he walked out on to the stage of the New York Town Hall with his seven minutes under his belt and his determination in his arms. He mounted the barricade. By the time he had reached the top, he had stopped the show.
A booking at the Eighty Eights nightclub in Greenwich Village followed, followed by another, followed by one at New York’s Skylight Room, then the Friars Club, followed by a spot at the legendary Algonquin, followed by a national tour, followed by a CD release, followed by another, followed by a nomination for the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs Award for Best New York Male Debut, followed by the biggest bite of them all, a booking at the Rainbow and Stars on top of Manhattan, leaving the critics in his wake to crow about their discovery of the Boy Wonder from Down Under, his charm, his unpretentiousness, his easy Aussie manner, his movie-star jaw and his "volcanic" performances.
Barnsie is not convinced by the hyperbole: being a pro himself, he knows the score.
"I believe he is poised to do great things," he says modestly of his son. "The genre he is attempting at the moment, the cabaret ballad, he is heart-wrenching, he is so good at it. But I believe he can do anything. But, then, of course, I am biased."
Why, then, is Campbell leaving all this behind to return home to play Marius in Les Miz?
"I really don't want to limit myself to cabaret," he says. "I want to perform, I want to be challenged, I want to do concerts, I want to do musicals. I want to do it all.
"I cannot wait to play Marius. I have been reading Victor Hugo's novel and I have discovered that Marius is also a very hungry man, he is searching for meaning all the time. His father was a war hero and he feels he can't live up to that legend ... and I wouldn't know what that feels like, would I!"
Two weeks ago, David Campbell opened at the Rainbow and Stars. In the audience was his father, who had flown over to New York especially to see him perform at the top of the heap.
Campbell began with I Got Rhythm, sailed easily through a set of Peter Allen numbers, pitterpatted his way through the chatter, glided gently into It Will Always Be You and ended, as usual, with a dynamic version of Barnsie's old Higher and Higher.
He stopped the show - deliberately. He turned to his father and asked him to come up on to the stage and sing with him. The old rocker left his seat and joined his son on the premier cabaret stage in New York. And together, Barnsie and his boy rocked their way over the tops of the roofs of Manhattan, while the sound engineers frantically adjusted their equipment and the audience went wild.
David Campbell didn't know it, but he had just scaled the most difficult barricade of them all. Next week's opening of Les Miz should be a cinch.
The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, November 22, 1997.