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A Chip Off the Old Rocker

ONLY IN AUSTRALIA IS THE YOUNG singer/actor/cabaret performer David Campbell known as Barnesy's boy. The upmarket audience at New York's famous Rainbow & Stars room where Campbell sings Gershwin and Cole Porter has certainly never heard of the former wild man of Australian rock, Jimmy Barnes. The Queen, who chatted to Campbell after a royal performance in London in June, is unlikely to have. For the first 11 years of his life Campbell himself didn't know too much about Barnes - certainly not that he was his father.

Before flying back to New York last week, 24-year-old Campbell recalled that extraordinary day in Adelaide when Joan, his adoptive mother, sat him down and said, "David, I'm going to tell you something." Phew. She explained that she was actually his grandmother, his sister Kim was his mother, and the family friend Jimmy Barnes, with whom he had just spent a week's holiday, was his father. "Discovering Kim was my mother was what freaked me out more than anything else," he says, drinking Ribena in the Redfern, Sydney, flat of his manager, Les Solomon. "I was really thrown for a loop." Later he would discover that his paternal grandfather was Jim Swan, a champion featherweight boxer from Glasgow. The 11-year-old kept the knowledge of his father's identity a secret for many years, not telling even his closest schoolfriends.

AWARD: Campbell has just spent seven months playing the romantic lead, Marius, in the Sydney production of Les Miserables, a role which two weeks ago earned him a Mo award for best supporting musical performance. (In New York and Buckingham Palace they don't know much about comedian Roy Rene or his alter ego, Mo McCackie, either.) After the curtain came down on the final Sydney show, Campbell had his long, Les Mis curls chopped off. His first reaction when he looked in the mirror was, "Oh Jesus, now I look like him."

With his new short spiky haircut he's a deadset chip off the old rocker. Campbell's features are more sharply defined but he has the same deep-set eyes beneath the same black bushy eyebrows, the same rapid-fire patter, the same energy, and many of the same on-stage movements. "We are the product of our genes," he says. "It's like the Douglas boy. Like Michael and Kirk."

Musically, father and son are miles apart. While Barnes was belting out Working Class Man and Cheap Wine, Campbell was being raised on Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Hollywood musicals and the classics. Barnes screamed. Campbell crooned. Barnes and his band Cold Chisel trashed the set on Countdown. Campbell did the Midday show. Barnesy does the RSL clubs and Campbell the New York cabaret circuit. Barnes wears a leather jacket and gold chains and Campbell a cool tuxedo.

After a rocky start to their father/son relationship, the pair have become the best of friends. "Jimmy Barnes is a great man and not to be underestimated," says Campbell. Two weeks ago, when Barnes agreed to go the full monty on stage with fellow celebrities Bryan Brown, George Negus, Hugo Weaving and Mike Carlton at the Aussies Without Cossies charity dinner in Sydney, he suddenly got cold feet. "Jimmy asked me if I'd do it if he dropped out and I said, 'Yes, of course I will but you're not going to ask me'," says Campbell, who explained to his father that getting your gear off is no big deal. Barnes said it was the dance routine that he had to do beforehand - choreographed by Paul Mercurio - that worried him. Campbell was in the audience to watch his father's performance - "he was very, very good" - and much amused when a friend came up to him afterwards saying, "Hey, I just saw where you came from."

Barnesy's boy is a full monty veteran himself, having posed nude for a magazine and appeared nude in Terrence McNally's play Love! Valour! Compassion!, which also required him to be blind and fall off the stage into the audience. 'That was so hard, the nudity thing was easy. It's nerve-wracking but, once you do it, it's really not so bad. It's really a very empowering experience. There is no hiding once you are naked up on stage. Maybe it helped my singing."

POISE: He admits he used to do a lot of hiding on stage - hiding behind the musical comedy characters whose songs he sang. Now he takes his audience into his confidence and chats to them with newfound poise. Americans may not have heard of Barnes but, predictably, they love the story of the boy who discovered that his father was the wild man of Australian rock. Campbell became the youngest performer ever to play the Rainbow & Stars room and one critic described him as the best cabaret artist in the country - a performer who "ignited the kind of buzz not heard since Streisand burst on to the scene in the '60s". The William Morris Agency, which has Daniel Day Lewis and Judi Dench on its books, signed him up.

The hype had already begun in Australia when Campbell took part in a 1995 masterclass given by the musical theatre legend Barbara Cook, who announced, "Honey, I can't teach you anything. You know what to do." As a result of the masterclass performance he was given the chance to perform at the annual Cabaret Convention in New York City's Town Hall. The work and the gushy reviews just kept coming. During visit home, Campbell flew to Adelaide for the opening of the David Campbell Performing Arts Complex at his old school, the Ross Smith Secondary School in the suburb of Northfield. "I thought you had to be dead before that happened," he grinned. His proud mother and grandmother were present. Campbell knew he wanted to be a performer even before he knew who his dad was. "I was always singing," he says. At high school he sang and played guitar in a rock band and became involved in Adelaide'e youth theatre scene. "I got the acting bug, moved to Sydney and bummed around," he says. He auditioned unsuccessfully for NIDA, got small stage parts, a role in GP ("I played the boyfriend of a girl who got pregnant by her father") and lead in a Sydney Theatre Company production of Michael Gow's Away. He also acquired as his manager Les Solomon, who urged him not to give up on the singing and advised singing lessons. Campbell had not sung a note for three years - it was a way of avoiding famous-father comparisons. As something of an experiment he did a late-night cabaret show that was expected to run for nine days. It just kept going-all the way to New York.

"You don't go into cabaret to make money, you go into cabaret for the love of the music and the love of the connection with the audience," says Campbell. "I do it for the passion of it." Cabaret artists certainly don't make the sort of money rock stars make. Unlike his father, Campbell has not lashed out on Ferraris, horses or country mansions. (Barnes went spectacularly broke in 1994, and with his wife and four younger children went to live in France for a couple of years).

"I'm not as wild as Jimmy," says Campbell, who still flies economy class. He and Solomon are travelling carefully, neatly balancing the career mix of cabaret and acting. He has started to write music. His CDs are selling. Between gigs in the US, Campbell will take acting lessons. "I would like to do something in the future that is just acting - no singing at all" he says.

He is studying Deepak Chopra's The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. He has the looks, the voice, the self-focus, the energy and Jimmy Barnes' genes. What can stop him?

By Lenore Nicklin