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A Chip Off the Old Rocker

Front Cover of The West Magazine, July 11, 1998

Being the son of Cold Chisel's Jimmy Barnes might open some doors, but David Campbell says he's made the grade without cashing in on his father's fame. Campbell's quick rise culminated last month in a performance for the Queen. And Her Majesty, as far as he knows, has never been a big Chisel fan.

STEVE PENNELLS met Campbell in Sydney, just before he moved to the United States for a cabaret tour.

"THEY'RE going to name a building after me," David Campbell says with a bewildered laugh.

His mother has just called him from Adelaide to tell him his old school, Ross Smith Secondary, plans to immortalise him with a new performing arts complex. The news knocks him out of his jetlag.

"I'm only 24!" he says repeatedly, the sneaking presence of an American twang betraying his recent tour schedule.

Campbell opens a pile of letters, lingers on one from Ansett, and wonders whether he has enough Global Rewards points to fly to South Australia. He has just flown back into Australia, but that night will walk straight back into his role in the 10th anniversary run of Les Miserables, and, days later, juggle a series of media commitments, including appearances on Family Circle TV, McFeast and preparing "some kind of risotto" for an episode of What's Cooking?

"It's for the mums," jokes the Midday Show regular.

His trip home is a short pitstop in a global itinerary which will see him end up in the United States indefinitely for what he calls the "cabaret haul", and a chance to put the feelers out.

If Campbell has been affected by the hype surrounding his rocket rise on the international cabaret and theatre circuit, he is not showing it. But he admits that it did hit him, six days earlier, while sitting in a dressing room at the Lyceum Theatre in London's West End with countryman Philip Quast and a Glasgow-born, US-raised singer named John Barrowman.

Campbell was pointing to a speaker broadcasting the action on stage, motioning for quiet. If ever there would be a time to be overwhelmed by his success, this was it.

Over the speaker, Julie Andrews had started announcing the first act of a series of some of the greatest names in musical theatre: Dame Judi Dench, Elaine Page, Bernadette Peters, Jonathan Pryce, Ruthie Henshall, and composers Stephen Sondheim and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. Campbell was next.

By personal invitation, he was taking part in Hey, Mr Producer!, a history-making tribute to Cameron Mackintosh. He sang with the original Miss Saigon, Lea Salonga, had his photo taken with Andrews, even met the Queen, but admits he was "too intimidated" to introduce himself to Sondheim.

Campbell, who doesn't drink, left the aftershow party early to pack, but didn't end up going to bed until 5am.

"I just couldn't sleep," he remembers. "I was up watching TV, trying to do anything. I just didn't want to go to sleep - I didn't want the night to end, because it was that special."

For Campbell it was the highest point in his career so far.

He was raised in Adelaide, but moved to Sydney when he was 18 to make it as an actor. Despite the hype surrounding his famous roots, he did not know he was the son of former Cold Chisel frontman Jimmy Barnes until he was 12 years old.

Campbell, the product of a youthful indiscretion, was raised to believe his grandmother was his mother, his mother was his sister and his father was a family friend.

"It hasn't been the easiest life in the world, and I would not complain about it for a second - it has been a good life, and I have had to challenge myself and my own identity over and over again," he says.

Sometimes, when Campbell asks for requests at one of his shows, someone in the audience invariably yells out "Khe Sanh", a Cold Chisel classic.

But despite the inevitable comparisons, he considers his family ties a blessing.

"If I wasn't his son, I wouldn't get these opportunities to do this... but that is not to say it is because of Jimmy that I got the Queen," he says.

"There is no way Jimmy has any pull with the Queen at all, she is not a Chisel fan... well, she didn't mention it to me.

"But if it wasn't for him making, I guess, this mistake, then I wouldn't be here.

"And if it wasn't for his influence in my life and his drive, then I wouldn't have the drive to push myself."

Campbell credits his adoptive mother and her worn-out LPs of Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole for his diverse musical tastes. "Stuff that kids my age just didn't listen to."

On top of this were Cold Chisel concerts, a school rock band, and basic chords strummed on a guitar given to him by Barnes when he was 16.

Out of this eclectic mix came Campbell's own style, which the queen of American torch songs, Barbara Cook, reportedly said she could do little to improve.

It was at a masterclass she conducted in Australia for the 1995 Melbourne Festival that Campbell was heard by New York cabaret maestro Michael Feinstein.

Impressed, he urged him to go to the US the following year to try his luck at the Cabaret Convention, a New York showbiz institution which can make or break a performer.

Campbell was given seven minutes in front of agents and a critical cabaret audience to strut his stuff. But by the time he had finished, the "Boy Wonder from Down Under" had won them over. Bookings flowed in, there was a national tour, two CDs released through Polygram, and then a performance at the cabaret artists' mecca, the Rainbow and Stars in New York.

The youngest performer to tread its boards, his show prompted Time Out magazine to gush that he had "ignited the kind of excited buzz not heard since an unknown Streisand burst onto the scene in the Sixties." The New York Times said Campbell "oozed star quality." The Village Voice called him "the best male singer in years."

He is acutely aware of the dangers of hype.

"A lot of times, particularly in the States and also when I did London, I am going out there and people have only heard about me," he says. "They don't exactly know what I do, and so there is what I call the conversion factor - people who sit with their arms crossed saying, 'Well, show us.'"

"That can be tough, but if you win them over, they are the best audiences in the world.

"Sometimes we hype up so many people and then they disappear because these people get a false idea of what they are."

If one thing was needed to put it all in perspective, a glance at the posters on the wall of the Rainbow and Stars - where stars like Rosemary Clooney and Vic Damone, Maureen McGovern and Anthony Newley have crooned their way into legend, would be enough to do it. Treading the same boards intimidated the hell out of Campbell.

"It stares you right in the face because you are walking a tightrope, and that is the scariest thing about it," he says.

He is obviously anxious to avoid pigeonholing. He mentions Smashing Pumpkins in the same breath as Sondheim, and seems pleased when it is suggested he pose with his guitar for a photo shoot. "You don't want to get stuck into just being 'stage'," he says.

Later, he demonstrates by strumming some chords. The song is the result of his first serious musical collaboration with his father, and an attempt by Campbell to break the mould of cabaret singer before it sets hard.

"We don't know who is going to use it yet, we're both debating it, but I have started writing, so it is out there now," he says, pointing to an imaginary music vacuum in the distance.

"It could be (on the next album), it could be on one of his."

Campbell has no concrete plans for his third CD, but he wants it to be different. Instead of interpreting other people's songs, he wants to see how an audience reacts to his own.

"That is very scary," he says candidly. "That may not happen on this album. I may chicken out. "But at least I'm trying to challenge myself to do it."

Two weeks later, post-risotto, FCTV and an ordeal with Elle McFeast, Campbell brings the house down at the 23rd annual Mo Awards with his version of The Lady is a Tramp, based on an arrangement that legendary maestro Tommy Tycho did for Sammy Davis Jnr.

Mid-performance, he strides up to compere Don Lane and stretches out his hand: "I have always wanted to meet you." That night, in front of an audience of his peers, Campbell is also named best supporting musical theatre performer for his role in Les Miserables. He pays tribute to his fellow cast and crew, and manager Les Solomon, for standing by him and "supporting the kid".

Two hours later, negotiating well-wishers, he leaves as the band at the aftershow party cranks up.

The next day, he flies to Adelaide to walk the halls of his old school and visit the new building which will bear his name.

  • David Campbell played the first performance of his extended American pilgrimage at a private party last Saturday.

By Steve Pennells - The West Magazine, July 11, 1998.

A big thanks to Steve for personally sending me his article. It was a pleasure to know that the web site proved helpful for your research. Adam