Meet Pat Charker - vocalist, drummer, flautist, pianist and piano accordionist

Drumming up a storm: Pat Charker pictured in her heyday as a multi-skilled Newcastle performer. Photo: Pat Charker

Drumming up a storm: Pat Charker pictured in her heyday as a multi-skilled Newcastle performer. Photo: Pat Charker

DECADES ago there was a special, some say classic, era of late night Newcastle entertainment.

This elegant era of live music came in post-war years, from the mid 1950s into the 1960s, sandwiched between the end of World War II austerity and the growth of the NSW clubs movement and poker machines.

Television, in humble black and white, not colour, was even in its infancy. Few major overseas entertainers bothered to come to Australia, unless they were part of the brief, ‘Big Show’ phenomena piloted by firecracker impresario Lee Gordon.

In early 1955, Hunter hotels moved fast to capitalise on new, extended closing hours (from 6pm to 10pm) to attract new clientele and musical entertainment seemed to fit the bill perfectly

The area’s best hotels opened their dining rooms, lounges and cabaret rooms from 7 o’clock nightly to small bands, especially with female singers, adding a touch of glamour.

One of the best known artists in Newcastle was pianist Claude Moore. Years later Moore became a legendary solo feature act at the Alcron restaurant in Church Street, The Hill.

Moore gave a start to many artists, including the lively, bubbly and talented Pat Charker. And little wonder. Besides being a vocalist, she was a drummer, flautist, pianist and piano accordionist.

“I was to replace Claude’s singer Ronnie Ayerst who married a US marine and went to Las Vegas,” Pat, now 82, told Weekender.

“Oh, it was a wonderful era, my glory days.

“I played everywhere from Pippy Wilkinson’s at Speers Point and the Seabreeze Hotel at Nelson Bay on Sunday. I also used to play at the Shoal Bay Hotel, George Hotel, The Palais, the City Hall and Tyrrell House at the end of Hunter Street.

“Opposite there, near Newcastle Beach, was the (then) Hotel Esplanade. Sometimes I’d do a late show there with a piano accordian, walking among the customers.

“I remember we’d rehearse in a Civic Arcade studio all day in preparation for performances at the Duke of Wellington, at New Lambton, and the prestigious Great Northern Hotel, where our group played for 11 years, probably from 1958, ” she says.

Multi-talented: Flautist Pat Charker in the 1950s. Photo: Bob Suker

Multi-talented: Flautist Pat Charker in the 1950s. Photo: Bob Suker

“The Great Northern was very elegant and had a beautiful ballroom with a sprung dance floor. It was a very posh place back then. The dining room had great starched tablecloths, quality food and diners all dressed up. I also remember the head waiter in a formal dinner suit with tails cooking special dishes for customers at the table like the best foreign restaurants.

“But looking back now at my photographs, I can’t believe I was ever that young,”  Pat laughs.

She’s never been one to rest of her laurels. In 2018, she has the unusual distinction of probably being Newcastle longest working professional drummer, including 49 years working with Hamilton’s Young People’s Theatre (YPT).

In 1969, Claude Moore had suggested Pat play drums for the YPT and now, up to six times a year, she’s called upon to provide musical accompaniment at between 18 and 22 performances. She still teaches music, but has restricted herself to students learning drumming since she broke her wrist some time ago.

“I’ve also taught music at The Junction School for 40 years. I taught the little girls, who’d all be women now, the flute. The little boys, however, I taught the drums, including (former silverchair drummer) Ben Gillies, who was later named the best rock drummer in Australia,” Pat says.

Among Pat’s most vivid memories, however, is a sad one: “Claude Moore became ill and lost his memory. It was a tragic loss. Later he partly gained it back, including early show tunes he played, and worked at The Alcron after that, but he was never the same.

“Claude came from Broken Hill and had polio in his childhood. His mum had him taught piano. He went to Sydney to study dentistry, but found he preferred playing the piano instead for a living.

“Claude gave me a continuing role in the industry for which I’m grateful. Years ago, I urgently had to earn a living after my marriage broke up in Adelaide. Left with a small child to care for, I came back to live with mum and dad in Newcastle,” she says.

In 1963, she went to Noumea where she met husband number two. Back in Newcastle a few years later, he suddenly dropped dead aged 44. A third marriage followed and it lasted 30 years before he, too, died of health complications.

“So, I’ve been left on my own rather a lot,” says Pat in masterly understatement.

Today her life is still very busy, but a far cry from her early carefree days aged about 17 roller-skating at The Palais every Saturday afternoon and later dancing there at night.

Her versatile career, as a vocalist and flautist in particular, has led her to accompany singers Johnny Ray and Tony Barber, appear solo at the Sydney Opera House and regularly appear on an NBN TV show in the mid 1960s with the Bill Bates Band. Pat also admits gleefully she’s worn out up to four drum kits in her life.

Her talent and generosity has led her to collect two Newcastle drama awards known as CONDAs, including one in 1993 for “outstanding service to children’s theatre”.

“I was then given life membership to the YPT in 1995 and in 2018 I’ve been honoured by being named YPT patron,” she says.

But there have been several dark patches in her life. One is the memory of a former colleague, a jazz pianist, being shot to death at a Lake Macquarie hotel after confronting a man he suspected was having an affair with his wife. 

Another is the memory of Iris, a RNH dietician by day and booking agent and talent scout by night, who toured Hunter venues trying to ‘discover’ future stage acts.

“She lived with her aged mother and they were together in a car one night coming home from somewhere in the Hunter when on a lonely, dark stretch of road, her headlights showed some men waving them down by a car halted ahead,” Pat says.

“Iris slowed down, then alarmed, said: ‘What am I doing? We could be robbed’ and accelerated fast, swerving around the men to avoid them.

“Then from her car boot came a loud ‘BANG’. Next morning, at home, she finally inspected her car for damage. Now, Iris’s car was the sort with a single lock catch on the boot and to her surprise she found her boot handle had snagged something. Wrapped around it was a heavy chain with two fingers still in it!”

“This was the era remember when young men went around at night swinging chains to intimidate people,” Pat says.  “You know, I think there was just as much serious crime around ages ago as now, but you simply weren’t aware back then. There was no TV.”