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Gonks, Mini Skirts & Normie: The Donna Gaye Story

Updated: Oct 6, 2023


Pop singer Donna Gaye (born Vivienne Jarvis on September 18th, 1949), from Five Dock in Sydney, had a fairly brief but eventful career in the music business. Unlike many singers who work for years to get their big break, Donna quickly gained recognition when she started singing as a 15-year-old, and began supporting some of the biggest names in the Australian pop scene and was appearing on all of the popular television music shows.


As a young girl, Donna loved animals and it was her ambition to become a vet. But when her mother told her that she could not afford to send her to University she said: “Well, I’m not going to school.” So Donna left high school at 15 not knowing what she wanted to do. Soon after leaving school, however, she was asked to sing in Sydney band, the Convairs. After working with the Convairs for around six months she auditioned for a spot as a support singer for an up and coming tour. The audition was held at Surf City, one of Sydney’s most popular dance venues at the time and the tour promoter was Ma Harrigan. The headlining act for the tour was Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs. Donna’s audition was successful and she found herself on tour with Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs, Jade Hurley, Merv Benton and Vikki Forrest.


Donna with Billy Thorpe 1964

The tour was a big learning curve for Donna and she recalls:

“I was brought up a very strict Baptist girl and I grew up on that tour like you wouldn’t believe, because I have never seen or heard things like I saw on that tour.”

Donna must have made a good impression because when she returned to Sydney at the end of the tour, John Jennings, who worked for Ivan Dayman, asked her to sing at the Bowl, another popular teenage dance venue in Sydney. Dayman was an important man in the Australian music business at the time, and he ran a network of dances throughout Australia and was the owner of Sunshine Records.



Donna made regular appearances on a children’s TV show called ‘Kaper Kabaret’, which was hosted by veteran actor Reg Quartley or Uncle Reg as he was commonly known. Also appearing on the show was a young up-and–coming singer called Karl van Rhoon who later changed his name to Marty Rhone and became well known on the Australian pop music scene.


Another young talented singer Donna met and became friends with on this program was Trevor Gordon who she remembers as having “red hair and freckles” and was “a lovely guy.” It was through Trevor that Donna met the Bee Gees. Maurice became her boyfriend and it was the Gibbs who suggested to her that she change her name to Donna Gaye. The twins, Trevor and Donna used to hang out together all the time. While Barry concentrated on writing songs, Robin and Maurice focussed their attention on making crazy home movies.

Donna recalls:

“Robin was a mad camera freak with a Super 8 camera. They’d make up these weird plays and we’d act them out, no sound. It was really strange, Robin had a funny imagination.”


One day the group of friends all went to Donna’s place to spend the afternoon. When it was time to go home they all piled into Donna’s mother’s Mini and it was quite a squeeze. Crammed into the car was Donna, Trevor Gordon, the twins, another girl, a drum set and a guitar. When they arrived at the Gibbs house, Barry was standing outside strumming his guitar. When he saw everyone packed tightly into the small car he said, “Won’t you get claustrophobic?” Not long after, the Bee Gees released their next single Claustrophobia. When Donna and her mother heard the song being played on the radio they wondered if the car incident was the inspiration for Barry to write the song.


Later in life Donna never caught up again with Trevor Gordon or Gibb brothers. Trevor went on to achieve international success as part of the duo the Marbles. Their song, Only One Woman written and produced by the Bee Gees became a Top 3 UK hit.


After making a number of successful appearances at the Bowl, backed by such groups as the Playboys and the Blue Jays (whatever group was in town at the time), Donna was asked would she like to tour with Normie Rowe. This was another exciting opportunity for Donna’s career and I don’t think she would have hesitated too much in accepting this offer. Normie Rowe was the most popular artist in Australia at the time and was experiencing unprecedented success throughout the country, causing riots whenever he performed.


Donna started appearing on all of the popular television music shows including: ‘Bandstand’, the ‘Go!! Show’ and ‘Saturday Date’. Donna’s mother used to attend the taping of these shows and take a Super 8 movie camera with her to film her daughter’s performances. ‘Bandstand’ was the only show that she was not allowed to take video footage. As well as appearing on TV, Donna performed at a number of concerts and dances around Sydney and regional areas. Donna’s mother would drive her to each show wherever she sang, which in some cases involved travelling long distances.


One dance Donna made regular appearances at was ‘Teenscene Cabaret 65’ held at the Toronto Community Hall. It was around 150 km from Five Dock to the small township of Toronto on the shores of Lake Macquarie, near Newcastle. The Pacific Highway was a dangerous road to travel on in those days especially around the Hawkesbury River area where there were many sharp bends surrounded by steep cliffs. Regarding these trips Donna recalls:


“Mum used to drive. It was a long way to drive and we never stayed. So poor Mum had to drive straight back after the show. We didn’t have the money to stay anywhere.”


Donna was then asked to record a single and the song that was picked out for her was the Sue Thompson hit Norman. The words were changed to Normie, in tribute to Normie Rowe and the names of other Sunshine label artists, Peter (Doyle), Tony (Worsley) and Mike (Furber) were also included in the lyrics. The catchy sing-a-long tune gained a lot of airplay and reached Top 20 in Brisbane. Veteran rocker, Lonnie Lee, produced the record, on a new label Ivan Dayman had started, called Kommotion. Early pressings of the single gave incorrect writer credits on both sides. Later pressings corrected this error.





Graham Chapman, Donna, Normie Rowe

Donna toured with Normie Rowe from then on and when she appeared on stage at Normie Rowe concerts and sang Normie, the teenage fans loved it and sang along with her. Donna recalls:


“I used to go on just before Normie, so it built all the girls up when I sang ‘Normie.’ It was good for Norm and it was good for me.”


Donna’s follow-up single Little Things Like That was released in September 1966 and was produced by Pat Aulton, although Lonnie Lee was also in the studio for the recording. Little Things Like That is a catchy pop song, but it did not have the same impact as her previous single. Little Pattie also recorded a version of this song and it was the title track of her LP ‘Little Things Like This’ (HMV OCLP 7666) released in December 1967.



Donna loved collecting soft toys. A whole room of her home was devoted to a few hundred furry animals including teddy bears and gonks. When Donna appeared on ‘The Go!! Show’ she is seen holding one of many gonks which were a popular novelty toy at the time.


Donna’s third and final single, Hey Beach Boy was a poor choice of song and was Donna’s last recording. Donna says about this track: “It was a nothing song. You think about it, you’re competing with Little Pattie. It was a stupid song, it should have been something totally different.”


Donna considers the tent shows she did on tours organised by Frank Foster to be the highlight of her career. “Touring to me was the best, a different place every night. We went right up through the middle of Australia, went up to Darwin and those country people, they are just the best people in Australia. Every show was full, you couldn’t move in the tent. They were great.”


The tent shows Donna appeared in also included Tony Worsley, Peter Doyle, Graham Chapman, a juggler and the backing band were Brisbane group, the Escorts. It was during the tent shows that Donna met her future husband, Dennis Annable, who was the bass player with the Escorts. When the show travelled to Darwin, Donna was asked to do a radio interview. When asked by the radio announcer, “What would you like more than anything else.” Donna replied: “A kangaroo,” which was a strange answer, but being an animal lover, it was the first thing that came into her mind.


Donna thought nothing more about what she had said on the radio but when she was just about to go on stage for her next show, Frank Foster said to her that she had to come outside right away. Donna replied: “No, I’m about to go on.” But Frank insisted and when Donna went outside there were ten guys, each holding a baby kangaroo. The one Donna chose was a red kangaroo and when she returned to the tent Frank said to her: “What are you going to do with a kangaroo, you’re flying home tomorrow.” Donna replied: “Fine, I’m taking him home to Five Dock.”


So when Donna returned to Sydney she snuck the kangaroo (which she named ‘Tony’ after Tony Worsley) onto the plane in a Pan Am bag. Donna recalls:


“I’m on the aisle seat, there’s a guy in the other aisle seat and it was four hours in those days from Darwin to Sydney. Anyway, this guy ordered a drink and he’s looking around the plane. Well the bag started to kick, he wanted to get his head out of the bag and I’m trying to hold him so he doesn’t kick. Well this guy just kept ordering the booze. He’d look over and think: ‘I just didn’t see that bag move surely’ and he’d order another drink.”


Donna took the kangaroo back to her home in Five Dock and when it grew to a fully-grown adult, it was over six feet tall with a thick red coat. The kangaroo would come into the house and when it was smaller it would sleep in bed with Donna and did some unusual things. Donna recalls:


“The minute the music of Skippy came on the TV, the kangaroo came into the house and would sit back on his tail and watch Skippy and then go out the minute the music started again.”


In 1968 Donna went to Vietnam. She had refused several requests to go to Vietnam to entertain troops but after an argument with Dennis Annable, who she was engaged to at the time, she changed her mind. Donna recalls:


Performing to troops in Vietnam 1968

“Someone rang and said there are auditions at the Cross if you want to go to Vietnam. I said ‘Yes, I’ll do it,’ and Mum said: ‘Well, you’re mad going to the audition, because you’re not going to Vietnam.’ And a week later I left. The doctor backdated the needles, I never had the right needles to go. A few weeks later I was in Vietnam and I stayed for three months.”


Donna travelled to Vietnam with two other Australian musicians, Gary McDonald (Richard Wright Group) and Phil Manning (Bay City Union and later Chain), plus two Go-Go dancers. The shows Donna performed in were to American troops stationed right on the perimeter of the war zone and Donna was lucky to get out of there alive. She recalls:


“Every time we did a show the soldiers would say: ‘You’re bloody crazy being here. This is the de-militarised zone and you shouldn’t be here. I mean, we got mortars, had to dive into bunkers all the time. It was dreadful.”

One of the shows Donna was asked to do was to a segregated audience of American soldiers. She was told only to sing to the white people in the audience. She recalls:


“So they said: ‘You’ve got to do this segregated show and only work to the white people.’ And I went: ‘Well there’s no way that I’m going to do that.’ There where blacks on one side and whites on the other and I just walked across and sang to everybody. I got tomatoes thrown at me. Lucky they were only tomatoes.”


That night, rocks were thrown on the roof of the apartment building she was staying in and she was called: “A nigger lover.” A very frightening experience for a 19-year-old girl a long way from home.


When Donna’s visa ran out she returned to Australia. Her plan was to go back to Vietnam and perform on ‘The Bob Hope Show’ and then travel to America to further her career. This plan did not eventuate. She reunited with Dennis and six weeks later, they got married. The newly weds moved to Brisbane and Donna reluctantly gave up her singing career, which was a difficult decision for her to make at the time. Donna says:


“I just loved it. Dennis did it for the money, I did it for the love. I mean, I backed Normie a lot of times on his shows throughout the years. I loved all that, not for money. Anything just to sing on stage.”


Donna with husband Dennis Annable 2017

Donna now lives on Queensland’s Gold Coast, is still married to Dennis and has two sons, which were born sixteen years apart. Her younger son Brett is a very good singer and when he was 16 he wanted to start performing in clubs, but was too young. Promoter Johnny Veen spoke to Donna and said that the only way that her son could perform in clubs was if she sang with him. So Donna performed with Brett in a show they called ‘A Family Affair’ at the Tweed Heads Bowls Club. This was a one-off show and Donna has not performed since.


Donna has many fond memories of her career in singing and has a great collection of music memorabilia. The compilation CD ‘Bandstand’s Singing Sweethearts’ (Spin D46097) released in 2000 contains two of Donna’s tracks, Norman (Normie) and Hey Beach Boy. The DVD series ‘The Best of Bandstand’ (Vol.3) includes Donna singing the Sandie Shaw song Tomorrow. These days she occupies her time painting, knitting and volunteers twice a week at a disabled horse-riding group.


Discography:

Norman "Normie"(John D Loudermilk)/Untrue, Unfaithful (Gordon Mills)

Kommotion KK-1314 04/66

Little Things Like That (Russ Titleman-Larry Kolber)/Bring It Al Down (Bob Lind)

Kommotion KK-1470 09/66

Hey Beach Boy (Crane-Ross) /Why Should We Take The Easy Way Out (Kasha-Hirschhorne)

Kommotion KK-1559 01/67


Sources:

Graeme Brown – Still Stompin’, Moonlight 2003

Graeme Brown – Sunshine Secrets, Moonlight 2019

Donna Gaye – Interview: February 2nd, 2017 & November 27th, 2019

PopArchives.com.au

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