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From Afrika to Studio 301 - The Mary Azzopardi Story

Updated: Dec 4, 2021


If you are listening to the radio and they are playing Australian music from the mid-80s to the late 90s, there is a good chance that Mary Azzopardi was involved in the recording. Singer/musician/songwriter Mary Azzopardi has had an outstanding career in music. For 7 years she toured Australia with jazz/funk band Afrika, had success as part of the duo, That’s That, then worked as a backing vocalist on several iconic Australian albums. She also toured with the cream of Australia’s top acts and sang and danced on stage with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

Born in Malta in 1955, Mary is the 13th child in a family of 15 children. Mary’s parents met in a recording studio, her mother Carmen was a singer and father Gato, was her backing guitarist. The family migrated to Australia in 1957 when Mary was 2 years old. It must have been quite an epic journey travelling such a long way by boat with such a large family. The family settled in the inner Sydney suburb of Newtown.

Growing up, Mary was surrounded by music and she had no doubt that one day she would have a career as a vocalist. She entered a number of local talent quests and brought home many first place trophies for solo singing and duets with her sister Rita. Rita recalls,

“She was the one who got me into singing with the local church and going in competitions and eisteddfods. Whenever we worked together it was really her that led the whole thing – ‘Do this, do that, practice like this.’ She really ran the show, but we had great results.”

Two of Mary’s brothers, Joe and Marz were members of the hard rock band Bullett who released two outstanding singles on the RCA label in 1971. The brothers then joined Wildwood in March 1972. When vocalist Rob Van Beek left, Joe convinced the band to bring in his two younger sisters. The band then changed their name to Afrika and began playing the soul and funk music of Stevie Wonder, the Commodores, Parliament and Chaka Khan. Later, younger brother Tony, also joined the group.


Mary and Rita were initially brought into the band as backing vocalists, but it was not long before they were out front singing lead vocals. Both girls then wanted to play saxophone, but they found it difficult finding someone to teach them to play, because it was considered that girls did not play saxophone. They approached a number of teachers before finally finding someone willing to help them. The girls were later taught to play congas by their brother Marz, making the sisters an important part of the band.

Mary’s first session in a recording studio came in 1970 with her sister Rita and Bobby Marchini, a fantastic singer who was in high demand at the time. They recorded an advertising jingle written by Ted Mulry at EMI Studio 301. Mary was excited about her first experience in a recording studio and comments, “For a singer, that was a big deal doing a recording session.” Mary would return to Studio 301 many times during her career.

Having two girl vocalists/musicians upfront, made Afrika unique and they began to build up a good reputation around Sydney and soon attracted the attention of promoter Ivan Dayman. The highly regarded promoter offered them a spot on his lucrative Australia-wide touring circuit. The group went on the road and played at all the venues on the ‘Swinger’ circuit, travelling in an old dual cabin PMG truck with two cars following. They travelled and played at venues from Sydney to Perth, from Perth up to Darwin, then Darwin to Mt Isa and from Mt Isa down to Brisbane. Then back to Sydney again - quite a gruelling schedule for an 8-piece band. (For a more detailed story on Afrika refer to my book ‘Sunshine Secrets’).

Afrika recorded two singles. The first one, Fais Do/Never Die was released on the Sunshine label in June 1974 and a second 45, Running From Your Love/I’m Sticking With You was issued on the Axent label in 1979. In 1980 the group recorded an LP with blind producer Ross McGregor at his studio in Kogarah, Sydney. The music on the self-titled album was not the jazz/funk music Afrika played in their live shows. It was decided to record songs that had a wider commercial appeal. Mary sings lead on two songs, I’m In The Mood For Love and I Thought I Was The Only One. Some of the songs were picked up by radio stations and started to receive quite a bit of airplay. The album was not a big seller, but has received some favourable reviews in subsequent years. These days, the album is a much sought after collector’s item.

“The group run through a number of Tamla-Motown covers including ‘I’m In The Mood For Love’, ‘Don’t Stop Loving Me Now’ and ‘I Thought I Was The Only One.’ The stand-out cut is the choppy ‘I Love Music’ with its sweet conga intro and long disco-funk breakdown midway through. There’s also a nice version of ‘You’re The One.’ (aussiefunk.blogspot.com)



When Afrika disbanded in 1979, Mary started going around to different venues around Sydney and got up and sang with a number of different bands. She ended up getting a lot of work doing this because the bands would be so impressed with her singing that they would invite her to their next gig. One of these bands was jazz/funk band Hot Cargo, led by singer/percussionist Robbie Krupski. Mary fitted into the band so well that she was asked to join as a permanent member. The group recorded an album with Ross McGregor at Axent Studios in Sydney (the same producer and studio where the Afrika album was recorded). The recording was done in two separate sessions in 1985 and 1986, but the album was not released until September 2016. Mary sings lead vocals on two tracks Body Rock and a fantastic version of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together. On his website robbiekrupski.bandcamp.com, Robbie wrote, “The majority of what you are hearing is completely live, no overdubs. Just a kick ass band doing what it does best.”


That's That Danny & Mary

In Hot Cargo, Mary met Danny DeCosta (Costa Coulouris), the keyboard player. Danny DeCosta, born in Sydney in 1957, was a talented musician who could sing and play brilliantly and understood every instrument. When he left school he went to England and lived with his brother who was also a musician. He started songwriting, got a record deal and worked with some top UK musicians. Due to vista problems he had to return to Australia. The two began writing songs together and contributed six songs to the Hot Cargo album.

During 1986 Danny and Mary left the band and formed a duo called That’s That. The couple managed to secure a record deal with True Tone Records and made a huge impact when their debut single, Give Me Rhythm was selected as the opening number on the top rated TV show ‘Countdown’. The single reached No.42 on the charts, but radio stations seemed to favour the B-side, Don’t Talk, which probably did not help the sales.



The follow-up single, Opportunity Knocks was also a great song. However, it did not make the same impact as their debut disc and did not achieve any great success. They recorded a third single, Big House, but it was not released due to a dispute about the promotion of this single. Danny and Mary ended their contract with True Tone Records and they were then unable to get another label to sign them. The A&R guy from Sony told them, “I love your material, I play it all the time at home, but I can’t sign you.”

Mary,Karen Boddington,Wendy Matthews.Aust Made Tour

In late 1986 to January 1987 Mary toured with the Models as a back-up singer on the Australian Made Tour with Wendy Matthews and Karen Boddington. This monumental tour travelled across the country and included a huge line-up of Australian artists on the same bill, including Mental As Anything, the Triffids, I’m Talking, the Saints, the Divinyls, Jimmy Barnes and INXS. Each band played a short set of about six songs with the bigger name acts playing longer sets. INXS finished the night. The tour was well organised but unfortunately rain, washed out a number of the shows. The shows that did go ahead, however, were fantastic and it was a memorable tour for everyone involved. Mary recalls,

“I really liked getting the bus from the hotel with the Divinyls because I was in awe of Chrissy Amphlette. She was such a professional, the way she spoke to the media, she was amazing. I learnt so much from her, just watching her.”


The next band Mary worked with was the Rockmelons. Consisting of brothers Byron and Jonathon Jones and Raymond Medhurst, the Rockmelons were considered to be Sydney’s premier dance/pop band of the late 80s/early 90s. Mary sang back-up vocals on every track of the Rockmelons, ‘Tales Of The City’ album along with Wendy Matthews. Born in Montreal Canada, Wendy Matthews came to Australia in 1983 after Glenn Shorrock asked her to do a 6-week tour to promote his album ‘Villain Of The Peace’. After the tour Wendy decided to stay in Australia. Released in May 1988, the album peaked at No.6 on the national charts and won the ARIA Award for ‘Best Debut Album’ (shared with 1927). Mary and Wendy then toured with the band to promote the album.


Mary on stage with James Brown

During the time Mary was with the Rockmelons, they supported legendary soul singer James Brown, on his national tour. Mary recalls that Brown was totally professional when he performed and would fine anyone in his band who made a mistake on stage. Mary and Wendy asked to the meet the singer at their hotel and were surprised to find that “he just grunted when he spoke and I couldn’t understand him.” The highlight of the tour for Mary happened at Brown’s show in Melbourne. She recalls,

“I was standing on the side of the stage with Wendy and he came behind the curtain and grabbed my hand and pulled me out on stage to dance with him. Then he invited Wendy and myself to sing ‘Sex Machine’ harmonies. That was a great experience.”

When Wendy Matthews left the Rockmelons to pursue a solo career, Mary’s sister, Rita, took her place. Rita recalls what it was like working with her sister on this tour,

“With Mary everything she does, she’s 100% committed. While she’s on that tour she is so aware of everything, respectful and takes it very seriously.”

Ian Moss Matchbox Tour

Mary then managed to be included on Ian Moss’ ‘Matchbook’ tour in 1989 and was included in all of the promotions. Danny DeCosta was also part of the touring band. Mary shared the back-up singer duties with New Zealand singer Mark Williams, who had just recorded, Show No Mercy, a song written and produced by Vanda & Young. The song became a Top 10 hit due the exposure he received on this highly successful tour. Mark was also a great dancer and combined well with Mary, who also liked to move on stage. They were sensational and their dance routine was completely spontaneous. Mary comments,

Mark Williams & Mary - Matchbox Tour

“It just happened. I can’t go on stage and not move, even with Afrika. I used to come home with bruises on my hips from dancing with a saxophone. It’s just me and I don’t like being in a band that I can’t dance.”

Mary features in a number of YouTube videos filmed of this tour when Moss performed live at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney in 1990. On the clip for Never Before, Ian announces to the audience, “If you’re looking for some idea on how to move, I think you should watch Mark Williams and Mary Azzopardi.” Mary made such a good impression that Ian asked her to be part of the tour for his next album, ‘Worlds Away’ in 1991. Rita adds these comments about Mary's on stage presence,

“She added so much more, she wasn’t just the cool chick in the background singing. She added so much more energy to performances because the singers didn’t just stand there and sing.”


Danny DeCosta - Matchbox Tour

In 1989 Mary sang backing vocals on Dragon’s 9th studio album, ‘Bondi Road’. The album featured the Sharon O’Neill penned Young Years, which peaked at No.18 on the singles charts in May. The album was quite successful as well, reaching No.14 on the album charts. Mary and Danny also worked with Dragon frontman, Marc Hunter on his 1994 solo album, ‘Talk To Strangers’ contributing backing vocals to three tracks, Ever Since You’ve Gone, Never The Same and Talk To Strangers.


Another recording Mary sang on was Wendy Matthew’s debut album, ‘Émigré’, released in November 1990. Since turning solo, Wendy’s reputation as a singer escalated and during the 1990s she was considered to be one of the best singers working in Australia. Mary was the other vocalist on A Woman’s Got To Have It (No.34 in February ‘91) and Let’s Kiss (No.14 June ‘91).


In July 1991 Daryl Braithwaite scored a huge hit with a cover of the Rickie Lee Jones song, Horses. Daryl originally picked the song as an album track for his ‘Rise’ LP, but the song has gone on to become his signature song and one that is much loved by the Australian public.

Daryl Braithwaite Horses Tour

“It’s a strange, exciting situation with that song … trying to fathom why it is so endearing to people … when we play gigs and strike that opening chord. I don’t know how to explain it.”(Daryl Braithwaite - liner notes ‘Days Go By’ CD, 2017)


New Zealand singer Margaret Urlich sang the female vocal part on the recording but was too busy establishing her own career and was not available for promotions and touring. Mary was asked to appear on the many live promotions for the single and to join the Horses Tour and joined Daryl to sing the song at each show.

On the 5-track CD that was issued with the ‘Rise’ CD, Mary sings with Daryl on Horses and Gimme Some Lovin’. Danny sings on As Days Go By. The tracks were recorded at the concert at Melbourne Concert Hall in June 1991 and shows what a great band Daryl had backing him on this tour.


Mary then toured with New Zealand singer Margaret Urlich. Urlich had been part of a couple of successful bands in her home country before relocating to Australia in the late 80s, to launch her solo career. For her second solo album her record company had so much faith in her talent that they gave her a budget of half a million dollars. The singer flew to London and Los Angeles to collaborate with some top songwriters, shot videos in Paris and used a leading dressmaker to design her outfits. The album ‘Chameleon Dreams’ released in March 1991, featured the song, The Boy In The Moon. Mary thought her material was really good and enjoyed working with it on the tour. Urlich started to perform some of Danny and Mary’s original songs in her show. They hoped she would record them, but this never eventuated.

Margaret Urlich Tour

Danny and Mary appear in a 40-minute You Tube video of a Margaret Urlich live MTV concert featuring Andrew Oh on flute and saxophone. Singapore born Andrew Oh used six of Danny and Mary’s songs for his smooth jazz self-titled album. The album was released through Honest Entertainment in America and received good reviews.

Towards the end of the 90s, there were was a drop in the number of artists touring in Australia. Mary continued doing session work, That’s That gigs and backing vocals with a variety of performers around Sydney including Richard Clapton. Mary had always been interested in fitness and she took a job as a fitness trainer as well as the music work she was doing. Danny and Mary were working at the Sheraton in Sydney and the booking agent there also booked acts for the Asian circuit. The agent asked them would they like to work in Borneo for three months and they accepted. Mary recalls,

“It was hard work. We worked 6 nights a week sometimes 7. It was long hours and all they (the audience) wanted was ballads. One ballad after another. They had request paper on the tables so people would write down their requests and they’d put it in a cup. At the end of the night we’d get all these requests. So at the end of three months we knew a lot of songs we were never gonna sing again.”

At the 1996 ARIA Music Awards, Mary was one of four back-up singers supporting the live performances. The ceremony was held at the Sydney Exhibition Centre before an audience of 4000 people. INXS were one of the acts that performed on the night. They debuted a new song, Searching from their album ‘Elegantly Wasted’. It was the final performance in Australia by Michael Hutchence before his death 14 months later.


In 1997 Mary sang backing vocals at a benefit concert for Marc Hunter who had contracted throat cancer. The concert was held at Selina’s Nightclub in the Coogee Bay Hotel in Sydney and performers included Glenn Shorrock, James Reyne, Ross Wilson, Jimmy Barnes, Colin Hay and Peter Garrett. A double live CD and a VHS video of the concert titled, ‘Good Vibrations: A Concert For Marc Hunter’ was issued later in the year. Sadly, Marc died on July, 1998

In 2004, Mary was part of the vocal backing team on “Australian Idol’, a talent show televised by the 10 Network. Mary’s brother, Tony also worked on this show as percussionist in the Australian Idol Band. Tony worked on ‘Idol’ for the entire run of the show from July 2003 to November 2007 and has many fond memories of his time on this program,

“It was great fun, it was like working with a bunch of mates. The pressure was on because it was live television. At the beginning when there were 12 contestants, you did each person’s song 7 times. We played 84 songs a day, then you’d go and do the live version. It was really great fun, but massive pressure too.”

Tony is another member of the Azzopardi family that has had a fabulous career in music and is considered by many to be Australia’s leading percussionist. He has done a lot of session work, the most recent being Ian Moss’ 2018 self-titled album. He has played with Tom Jones, Lionel Ritchie, Liza Minelli, Tina Arena and toured with Marcia Hines for a few years. He was involved in a school’s program called ‘Drumbeat’ and in recent years he has played with the Marvin Gaye Tribute Band and in 2019 he did an Australian tour with the Joni Mitchell Tribute Show.


In 2014 Danny was diagnosed with Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), which is a rare degenerative disorder that affects the body’s involuntary functions. The early signs include dramatic drops of blood pressure, which cause feinting. Danny found that he could not control his co-ordination and could not keep time with the music. For someone whose whole life was music, it was devastating.

Rita & Mary in the recording studio 2019

In 2017, Mary and Danny moved to the Lake Macquarie district of Newcastle NSW. Rita and another sister live nearby. Rita moved to the area in 1980, she has three children and two grandchildren. She has taught music for several years, has played in a number of well-known bands in the Newcastle region and is proud of the fact that she played at the formals of two of her children. Mary and Rita occasionally perform together in a band called Minute By Minute doing corporate work, private functions and Hunter Valley vineyard gigs.

Mary Azzopardi has had a brilliant career in music. In hindsight, she wishes she could have performed lead vocals of her original music, rather than singing back-up for other artists. But she was always passionate about whatever work she did and took it seriously. She was easy to get along with and managed to fit into any situation, which was why she became such an in-demand backing vocalist. In a career that has spanned over 40 years, Mary has made a significant contribution to Australian music. She and her family should be most proud of her achievements.

Discography:

With Afrika

Fais Do/Never Die Sunshine K-5560 06/74

Running From Your Love/I’m Sticking To You Axent PRS-2691 1979

Afrika LP Axent ARH-601 1980

With Hot Cargo

Hot Cargo album recorded 1985-86 released 2016

With That’s That

Give Me Rhythm/Don’t Talk True Tone 8884157 1987

Give Me Rhythm (Pee Wee Mix)/Give me Rhythm (Pee Wee Dub), Don’t Talk (12” single)

True Tone 888 415-1 1987

Opportunity Knocks/Don’t Doubt It True Tone TS 2026 1987

Big House True Tone Not released

Backing vocals on the following albums:

The Rockmelons Tales Of The City True Tone 1988

Dragon Bondi Road RCA Victor SFL1 0170 1989

Sunnyboys Wildcat RCA VPL 1 0806 1989

Ana Christensen Brave New World CBS 467349 1990

Wendy Matthews Émigré rooArt 846 649-2 1990

Icehouse Code Blue Regular TVD 93330 1990

Mondo Rock Why Fight It BMG Arista VPCD851 1990

Beatfish Beatfish BMG VPCD0842 1991

Daryl Braithwaite In Concert CBS SAMP 318 1991

Margaret Urlich 6-track bonus disc CBS 1992

Marc Hunter Talk To Strangers Roadshow Music 14510-2 1994

Various Artisrs Good Vibrations – a concert for Marc Hunter marc01 1998

Marcia Hines Time Of Our Lives WEA 3984269772 1999

Sources:

Mary Azzopardi – Interview: April 27th & September 28th, 2020

Rita Azzopardi – Interview: October 14th, 2020

Tony Azzopardi – Interview: October 16th, 2020

Graeme Brown – Sunshine Secrets, Moonlight 2019

Discogs – comments by DJ Kinetic, October 11th, 2010

Mayoclinic.org – Multi System Atrophy

Ian McFarlane - Encyclopedia of Australian Rock & Pop 2nd Edition, Third Stone Press, 2017

Robbiekrupski.bandcamp.com

Sean Sennett – Liner notes: Days Go By CD, Sony, 2017

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