The Son Also Rises
His public face is of the talented Australian singer who took the New York cabaret world by storm. But behind his phenomenal success, David Campbell is still trying to mend his rock relationship with his father, singer Jimmy Barnes.
By the time David Campbell was just six years old, destiny had already sketched his future. "Our home in Adelaide was always filled with music," recalls Joan Campbell, 66, David's adoptive mother. "We had a big stereo with a microphone and I can still see him, dressed in his Superman Suit, his red cape billowing out behind him, running around the lounge room, singing along with Nat King Cole or Johnny Mathis. He was so confident, so comfortable in front of an audience even then, though it was only for his family. Everyone who saw him knew he had too much talent to be anything but a performer."
More than two decades later, David still loves to play to an audience, though these days his fans number in the thousands. At 28, David, the illegitimate son of Jimmy Barnes, is the star of the hit musical Shout and perhaps the most lauded, most sought-after male vocalist in the country.
A handsome, slim-hipped, flop-haired tour de force, David was only 23 when he set New York's sophisticated cabaret clique clamouring for more with his passionate performances of songs by music legends George Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein.
According to one influential critic, David's impact in the Big Apple was more dramatic than anyone since Barbra Streisand. And after just a few years - nothing in the grinding crucible of New York's notoriously demanding entertainment world - he stood at the door of a Broadway career that many believe may have taken him to international greatness.
Despite this great promise, in a move that mystified many of his fans, not to mention some of his managers, David last year turned his back on New York, walked away from a full-blown Broadway musical and headed back to Australia hoping to establish himself as a big fish in a much smaller entertainment pond. He achieved that, and more, in little more than a few months.
Today, David strides to our interview with boundless energy, his full-throated speaking voice churning out a barrage of bad jokes and snappy one-liners. He wears a worn leather bomber jacket with blue Chinese dragons emblazoned on the front, a stylishly down-at-heel lift from his famous dad's wardrobe. It fits him like a glove - and little wonder. The Barnes genes flow freely and generously in this young man's veins.
David Campbell is unmistakably Jimmy's son. Though his features are more sharply defined than his dad's, he has the same rock-like jaw, deep-set eyes and bushy eyebrows that give Jimmy his brooding intensity. The irony that he fits so snuggly into the jacket of his hardcore rocker father - the man who left him as a child, certainly isn't lost on David. Nor is the fact that his next ambition is to transcend his burgeoning reputation as a musical theatre star and emerge as a rock 'n' roll phenomenon in his own right.
"I know I sound like him. I move like him. There are times when I look like him. It's spooky how alike we really are," says David, who is currently enjoying rave reviews for his performance as another Australian rock icon, Johnny O'Keefe, in the lead role of Shout.
"The older I get, the more prominent the [Barnes] genes become. I think that a move into rock 'n' roll has always been in the back of my mind. I really hate being pigeonholed and, for a while, people said there's David Campbell, the cabaret star, now, it's David Campbell, the musical theatre star. I want to do it all and I don't see why I can't make it as a rock 'n' roll artist. That's definitely one of the things that I have learned from my father - if you're not pushing yourself to the absolute limit, then you're not being an artist."
During the three-hour Shout, David sings 17 songs through 26 costume changes and pushes himself to the limit of his physical and emotional endurance. The show has already played to sell-out audiences in its Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide seasons and promises to do the same in Brisbane and Perth. Shout's success, many believe, is largely due to David's enthusiasm, his trademark "volcanic" voice and dynamic presence on stage.
Behind his success, though, away from the accolades and full-house audiences, David Campbell has fought a personal struggle that is far from glamorous. In many ways, as he moved from one phase of his entertainment career to another, he has also been searching for a sense of his own identity.
David has tried to come to terms with the reality that his mother and father relinquished their responsibility for him at birth and that Joan Campbell, the woman who adopted him and whom he came to know and love as his mother, is actually his maternal grandmother.
It is only now, 28 years later, that he is finally developing mature
relationships with his birth parents, though sometimes at great personal
"A lot of people would think that, by now, I would have been able to deal with all this stuff, to maybe leave it behind," he says frankly, "But it's not that easy. The thing is that when I am not on stage, when I am not performing, it's there - all the time. It's an incredibly complex situation and sometimes it takes a lot of energy to deal with it. Sometimes it's easier to be David Campbell, performer, than it is to be David Campbell, person.
"I was brought up by a woman, my father wasn't there and that's the way my life was. The old value system is missing: about who a man is, what he's supposed to do and the role he's supposed to play. I'm not blaming Jimmy. Joan was married to a guy called Campbell, and he left. There seems to have been a lot of leaving in and around my life. My greatest fear is that people will leave me, and that has to do with issues from my birth.
"It's something that continually bugs me. It's the thing that I am always running away from. That's what makes me work on stage, that's where I can escape."
David was conceived after a one-night stand in Adelaide between Jimmy Barnes, then a wild 16-year-old on the cusp of a rock 'n' roll career, and Kim Campbell, a young woman the same age who lived nearby. Both were young - too young - and unable to accept responsibility for their actions. Consequently, by the time David was born, Jimmy had moved on and Kim's plans didn't include a child.
"It wasn't a difficult decision at all," recalls Joan, Kim's
mother, speaking of adopting David. "For me, it was the most natural
thing in the
From the time David could speak, Joan told him that he was adopted. "I've known from as far back as I can remember," says David. "Joan was adopted herself and she always made a point of telling me that to be adopted meant that you were special, that it made me special."
He grew up as the youngest of five children in the Campbell house. He had a close relationship with all his siblings, even with Kim, who moved to Sydney from Adelaide and married while David was still young. At age 12, his world, up until then a warm and secure place, took a bizarre and confronting turn. Everyone agreed that it was time David knew who he was and where he came from. He was told that Kim, the woman he knew as his sister, was really his mother and that his father was rock star Jimmy Barnes, whom young David knew as a family friend.
"I'd just been on a holiday to visit Jimmy and his family at their home in Bowral [in the Southern Highlands outside Sydney] and, when I got back, Joan sat me down at the kitchen table," he has recalled.
"She started with the words, 'David, I have something to tell
you.' I'll never forget those words. It freaked me out. Not so much
the fact that
Indeed, the situation is something he is still getting used to. In 1990, when David was 16, he was again invited to stay with Jimmy and his family at their Bowral estate. It was Jimmy's 34th birthday and a party with a Japanese theme was planned, with rock stars and friends were flying in from all over the world.
Like many teenagers, David had been experimenting with alcohol in Adelaide and in true rock 'n' roll style there was plenty to be had at Jimmy's birthday party. "The guests started arriving at 7.30pm and by 8.30 I was smashed on saki," recalls David. "I hadn't had anything to eat and after throwing back a lot of saki quickly, I was just stumbling around incoherently. Jimmy grabbed me and took me upstairs. He was trying to get me under a shower. I promptly threw up all over his suit. He was fuming. Here's this kid, making trouble, getting drunk, throwing up on him. And I wasn't even his son. I was the part-time son who kept coming in and out of his life. Thankfully, some of his mates calmed him down and reminded him that he'd done the same kind of thing when he was young."
It was hardly an auspicious start, but the relationship survived, as did David. In 1992, at 18, he left Adelaide to live with Jimmy, his wife, Jane, and their four children, at their invitation. On David's behalf, Jane approached a local youth theatre company which, at the time, was run by Les Solomon, who later became David's manager.
"I remember the day when he walked in," says Les. "He was as green as green could be. He was loud and brash and irritating, but he had talent and, within two months, he was directing and starring in a version of West Side Story."
By the time he was 19, David had moved out of the Barnes' household. "There was a split in their relationship at that time," says Les Solomon. "I think it was a difficult and unfamiliar situation for all of them."
David's independence was flourishing too. "I didn't want to sing, because of my father," says David. "I came to Sydney and started to do some plays. The stage was where I wanted to be and I got some good reviews."
Around the same time he began to experiment with cabaret and started to train his voice with singing coach Don Graydon. "That's when David started to take off," says Les. "That was the beginning of the David Campbell you know today. He always had talent, but it was a rough diamond until Don showed him how to exploit his voice."
By mid-1994, Jimmy found himself in financial trouble and decided to take his family to live in France. There was a send-off in Sydney's Double Bay and David wanted to say goodbye. "It was very emotional for them both," says Les Solomon. "I drove David there and he went in, saying he'd be about 20 minutes. I fell asleep in the car and he emerged about two hours later. Jimmy had told him how proud he was of what David was doing and what a wonderful human being he'd turned out to be. It meant a lot to David."
Then David got his lucky break when he was invited to appear in a masterclass at the Sydney Opera House in 1995 with US cabaret veteran Barbara Cook. It was a watershed moment. "She listened to him sing," recalls Les, "and said, 'Young man, I have nothing to teach you. You can do it all. But would you mind singing one more song before you go?' It was a truly great compliment. As luck would have it, Michael Feinstein, the New York cabaret legend and former assistant to Ira Gerswin [George Gershwin's brother and lyricist], was sitting a few rows back and later he invited David to appear at the Cabaret Convention in New York early the next year. We jumped at the chance."
It was then he began to establish himself in the world's toughest music market. On the strength of David's Cabaret Convention appearance, he managed to land a show at New York's famous Eighty Eights Club. "I got the gig and it sold out and then it sold out again, and suddenly a two-night run had turned into four months and just as suddenly it seemed the word was out about me," he says.
David's strength was live performance. What followed was a performer's dream. In an amazing 18-month period, from early 1996 to late 1997, he was offered shows at New York's most famous cabaret venues - the Skylight Room, then the Friars Club, the FireBird Café, the Oak Room at the legendary Algonquin Hotel, where cabaret crooners such as Frank Sintra, Rosemary Clooney (the equally famous aunt of George) and Vic Damone strutted their stuff during the '60's.
Next came two hit CDs and finally, in November 1997, David won a spot at the Rainbow Room, perhaps the most famous of all the New York cabaret venues, which sits atop the Rockefeller Center, 65 floors above the Manhattan streetscape. At 24, the boy from Adelaide had hit the heights in the biggest way possible.
On his opening night, David was preparing to go on stage. He went to the bathroom and turned around and came face to face with his dad, Jimmy Barnes. "Jimmy and Jane had flown in specially, but they hadn't told me they were coming," recalls David. "I was blown away."
Indeed, it proved an important night for them both. As David came to the end of his show, he announced he would do a rendition of Higher and Higher, a hit for his father in Australia. "Spontaneously, Jimmy jumped out of the audience," says Les Solomon. "He leaped up on stage and they did the song together. I think singing with his dad like that was one of the most important moments of David's life. It sent signals of approval and recognition and respect, all of the things that David had been seeking most of his life."
In the midst of this success, he got an offer from promoter Cameron Mackintosh to play Marius in the Australian production of Les Miserables, which started its run in January 1998. "I almost didn't take it because things were going so well in New York, but I hadn't been back to Australia for a while and I said yes," says David.
A member of the cast was Natalie Mendoza, then 20, who with her sister Rebecca was famous as part of the pop group Jackson Mendoza. She played Eponine to his Marius and died in his arms on stage every night for the next six months. More than that, they fell in love. When the show's run ended in June 1998, he rushed back to New York and they continued their relationship long distance. He proposed to Natalie by phone on August 6, 1998, his 25th birthday.
A year later, critics were running out of superlatives to describe David. Yet, for all the praise he attracted, David was finding it difficult to make ends meet. "You do cabaret in New York to be noticed. You don't do it to become rich," he says. "I was out on the road every night trying to make my rent and I was missing home a lot."
The person he missed most was Natalie, but the tyranny of distance between the US and Australia proved too much for the relationship. Natalie ended their engagement at the end of 1999, not long after songwriter Stephen Sondheim chose David for the lead role in a revival of one of his early productions, Saturday Night.
"David was devastated," says Les Solomon. "When he broke up with Natalie, he suddenly realized that someone had walked out of his life who he thought was going to be there forever. He'd never had those feelings before and he didn't know what that felt like. He really lost the plot there for a few weeks. I think that fear of abandonment had always been there, but no one had ever really abandoned him other than Jimmy, when he was young. It was only some very good friends that got him through."
To beat off the blues, David and another performer from Saturday Night put together a show based around some original songs and some rock 'n' roll standards. For David it was a new beginning. "It was like I'd opened my eyes," he says. "It's rock 'n' roll. I knew then that's what I really wanted to do."
Within a few months, David and Natalie had patched up their differences, but David's focus had shifted from Broadway back to Australia. He turned down a lead role in Thoroughly Modern Millie, a fully fledged Broadway production, and came home. "It was a hard decision because I really wanted to do it and it would have established me as a force in the US."
When he landed in Australia early last year, he was offered a role in Guys and Dolls, playing in Melbourne. Natalie and David set up house together, but the relationship foundered again in February this year, just as he was beginning his run in shout. Of the break-up, all David will say is, "I loved Natalie very much. I think I still do."
David's success in Shout has reinforced his determination to make inroads as a rock 'n' roll star. He recently engaged a music manager so he could concentrate on establishing his pop career. He will be hosting the Nine Network's broadcast of the 15th Aria Awards on October 3.
His return to Australia also meant a conscious decision to reconnect with Jimmy and Jane Barnes. During the past few years, the three have bonded both publicly and privately. In recent times, he and Jimmy have even performed together, such as at last year's Rugby League Grand Final and at the National Cricket Awards earlier this year.
David is amazed at how much he shares with his father. "I was always very sensitive as a kid," says David. "You'd only have to walk out of the room and I would break down crying. It was like I was just waiting for someone to hurt me and I know that is directly connected to my childhood experience of being left. Even now, I am sensitive. I wear my heart on my sleeve. It's like walking around without any skin. I deal with that all the time.
"And I know that Jimmy is the same. He's also been thinking about his future. I want to aim for the fact that when I get married and make that commitment, that it is for life," says David. "I want my kids to know I'm never going to leave. I want them to realize that I'm going to be their father for life.
"I've been spending a lot of time with Jimmy and Jane and trying to make a connection with them," he says. "At the same time I am talking to Kim, my birth mother, and also trying to establish a parent-child relationship with her, but it's difficult, it's difficult for both of us.
"I keep in contact with Joan. She's my mother, the woman who raised me, and I will always be grateful for that. We are very close, but perhaps not as much as either of us might have wanted during the past couple of years, and that's my fault. In some senses, I have been distancing myself from her while I have been trying to establish a relationship with Jimmy and Jane, who I also see as my parents. In my head, it hasn't been an easy delineation to make. Without a doubt, it's the great unresolved issue in my life."
By Michael Sheather - The Australian Women's Weekly - September 2001