The Singing Kettles were undeniably pioneering legends of Australian country music, and a major reason the music genre would go on to become as strong, and as relevant as it is today. In part one of this revealing, and at times heart-rending interview with Bill Kettle, and his wife Kathy, we’re taken back to a time when CD’s were still science fiction – and a chaff bag could be swapped for a guitar.
Jim: What started it all off for the Kettles?
Kathy: Five chaff bags was the cost of Bill’s first guitar. This bargain buy was the instrument that started three brothers from Tasmania on the road to a successful career in Country Music.
Bill: Yes that’s true, I was 15 and went to stay at my uncle’s place for a holiday. Anyway, he had this old guitar sitting up against the wall, and I asked him if he wanted to sell it. He said, “oh, give me five chaff bags for it” … chaff bags were really in, in those days!
Jim: Lol, so how did the other two brothers join in?
Bill: We used to listen to hillbilly programs on the radio because there were no televisions in our younger years. Our father was a timber cutter, and in those days it was a tough job – with cross-cut saws etc. We started working with dad but decided there had to be an easier way of making a living, so we concentrated on our singing and began refining our harmonies.
We were self-taught, and in the beginning, there was only myself and Ross. Later on Max joined us, and we became a trio.
Everything just clicked into place pretty easily really, but always lurking like a black cloud in the background was Max’s asthma.
Jim: Yes, what happened to Max was so sad, and I’ll get you to tell our readers more about that a little later on Bill. When did things really take off for the band?
Bill: By 1955, we were well known and making acetate recordings for Radio 7LA in Launceston, which is where we met Eric Scott. Eric was a young and enthusiastic announcer, and he began recording us in 1957.
Kathy: The first song Ross and Bill recorded was called ‘Judy,’ and the first song they recorded as a trio was ‘White Silver Sands’, with Max singing lead vocals at only 11 years of age.
Jim: My wife Judy will want to hear that song Kathy, lol. Could you tell us about the trip to Vietnam Bill?
Bill: Sure Jim. In 1969 the Vietnam War was in full flight, and the government was looking for entertainers to send overseas to entertain the troops. To be honest had I known what we were in for, I would never have gone. By this time we were all married with young families, and Max believed that we could make it big Australia wide, and not just in Tasmania. He said that we could either stay in Tassie for the rest of our lives, working our buts off in the timber industry and recording and singing on the weekends (at that time we were supporting all the major Australian mainland and International artists), or we could give ourselves a shot at something bigger. So, we took on Vietnam for two reasons – to see how we would go and where it might lead us career-wise, and to give some comfort to our troops.
Jim: What was it like performing in Vietnam?
Bill: We were in Vietnam at the worst time of the war in June 1969. You would be taken by helicopter to wherever you were going to be performing to the troops. Sometimes, there would be a makeshift stage set up in the clearing of a dense jungle – other times you were just placed somewhere, you would start singing, and the soldiers would come to you. A couple of times we were performing when the enemy attacked. Soldiers were killed in front of us, and we had to duck for cover with bullets flying everywhere – not a nice place to be. A bomb had been planted at one of the hotels we were staying at, and we had to jump from three stories up – Max broke his ankle.
Kathy: News shot home to Tasmania that they were all missing and presumed killed, and it was three days before the families were told they were okay – there were no mobile phones in those days Jim.
Bill: We also believe that the ‘Agent Orange’ powder on the floor of the helicopters could have contributed to Max’s death, which happened eighteen months after we came home from Vietnam. He was a chronic asthmatic and really shouldn’t have gone on the trip. All the same, Vietnam Veterans have been very good to us in these later years – Ross, Max and myself received a logistic support medal for our contribution, along with 30 other entertainers.
Jim: When did you decide to move to the mainland Bill?
Bill: Well, we’d come home from Vietnam, and our recording manager Eric Scott said he’d been talking to a bloke in a town in NSW called Tamworth. He said they were hoping to turn it into the country music capital of Australia, and they wanted to know if we’d be interested in moving there.
Kath: It must have been hard on the boy’s mum and dad to have the three brothers sell their homes in Tasmania, uproot their families, and move to a place thousands of miles away.
Col Joye spotted us and wanted us to go up to Sydney – he said we’d never be out of work. EMI also took an interest in us which was great, so to get out of the recording contract with Hadley we had to record another 200 songs. All up, there are over thirty albums – which include recordings from the duo, the trio, and the material I did with Kathy.
Jim: Yes, Kathy has been by your side since 1981, and we’ll talk about her a little more in a minute or two Bill. I know that when you left Tamworth and moved to Sydney, you began working for Col Joye’s office, and on some of his tours. You also started recording for EMI, can you tell us about this period of your life?
Bill: Well, everything was going well for us, and we’d really hit the big time. Max had just turned 21, but became very ill because of his asthma. We were due to perform at Smithfield RSL (and mind you – in those days you couldn’t say you’d been to Vietnam or you wouldn’t have been allowed to work in any of the RSL’s). While on our way to Smithfield (Ross and I in the front of the car, and Max in the back), we heard a thump and realized Max was very sick. He’d been suffering all week, but the hospital wouldn’t keep him there because they felt he was well enough to go home. We turned the car around and headed back to Liverpool Hospital, but unfortunately, Max was dead on arrival.
Things were a bit tough (personally) for us after that – although things were still going well for us professionally. EMI continued to record us, and we were back up vocalists to many of the major stars at the time, like Col Joye and Lionel Rose – but even so, it was very hard getting over Max’s death. We’d been chosen to go to America and tour with Buck Owens, but they wanted three brothers, not two. They asked us to find another brother – but we couldn’t and wouldn’t do that. There were also our families to think about.
Jim: So you continued on as The Singing Kettles Duo?
Bill: Yes Jim, that’s correct. Work wise, it couldn’t have been better – but emotionally and family wise, it was tough. Ross and I continued to grieve in different ways, but didn’t realize that’s what was happening to us at the time. We also hadn’t gotten over things we’d seen in Vietnam. Things like performing to children and soldiers with no legs and arms – horrific things we weren’t free to talk about.
As I said earlier, in those days you couldn’t let on you’d been to Vietnam – we’d have been black-listed from performing in Australia. This caused a great deal of stress for Ross and myself – and between us. Alcohol was so accepted and so freely available to us, and like a lot of entertainers in those days, we turned to the alcohol to help us get over things. The Col Joye tours were great. He’d book a tour around QLD, and had a little caboose we would climb aboard after each show, and go to sleep. The caboose would be attached to the next train to come by, and we’d head off on our way to the next town.
Jim: Love the caboose story Bill, must have been so much fun – must think about that idea for my next tour, lol
Kathy: The boy’s performed with many American and English artists.
Bill: We sure did. We performed on all the national television shows, Ernie Sigley, Don Lane, Graham Kennedy, Reg Lindsay, John Williamson’s Traveling out West. We worked a number of times on our friend Terry Gordon’s TV show too, which was always fun.
Kathy and I performed on the Bert Newton show numerous times, as well as the John Mangos television show. We did many Telethons to raise money for various children’s hospitals, which is something that’s near and dear to our hearts, as we know it is with you, Jim.
We performed quite often on all of the Tasmanian Today Shows too.
Jim: So, let’s hear more about Kathy Bill – when did she come on to the scene?
Bill: In 1981, I was going through a divorce and really quite down on my luck – Kath walked into my life and never walked out! She was a Sunday School Teacher. Ross and I had been singing together for thirty years at that stage, and I guess we’d never really had a break from each other. We’d never even had a holiday – it was always work, work, work. Kathy performed with us for five years, but life was tough at that stage. We were still going just as strong as entertainers, but the hard years had taken their toll
on us …..