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22 September 2014

The unequalled Kerrie Biddell

The unequalled Kerrie Biddell

Mark Isaacs remembers the unique Australian jazz vocalist, studio singer and vocal teacher Kerrie Biddell (1947-2014), who passed away in early September. You can hear Biddell & Isaacs (then only 19 years old) perform together in this soundcloud clip from 1978.

I was very saddened to hear of the passing of the great Australian singer Kerrie Biddell. She was someone with whom I had a strong professional and personal association.

I met Kerrie when I was in my early-to-mid teens. She was at the time the powerhouse featured singer with the Daly-Wilson Big Band (this band was then a household name in Australia). She was also a friend of my family, as her mother (a pianist) had done gigs with my father (a guitarist) and it was my parents who introduced us.

Later, at around the age of eighteen, I wrote a piece I called Indian Hemp for her band Compared to What and, in 1978 at age nineteen, I joined that same band. It was quite a remarkable ensemble, and very much under Kerrie's stewardship. As well as accompanying her singing of jazz standards or contemporary pop classics from the time by people like Stevie Wonder, we would perform our versions of the virtuosic instrumental jazz/fusion new music then very much in the forefront by artists like Jaco Pastorius, Brecker Brothers and Chick Corea. In these numbers, Kerrie used her voice quite remarkably (in terms of range and facility) as a wordless instrument. Under her encouragement I also wrote original compositions for the band. We played at least once every week, sometimes more often.

Later (in the 1980s and early 1990s) I would work with Kerrie in the recording studio when she sang on some of the television music I was composing and conducting at the time. She was a natural studio singer and one heard her voice regularly on television ads and series themes. More recently, we renewed our professional and personal association when I suggested her for a Freedman Jazz Award judging panel that I was on. She was a great panellist and fittingly we awarded the coveted prize to young Australian jazz singer Kristin Berardi.

In my opinion, Kerrie had a technical control of her instrument (including pristine diction), a versatility of genre and an ability to deliver palpable emotion that is unequalled by any Australian singer outside of classical music. As a youngster, working in her band - virtually under her tutelage - was a salutary lesson in professionalism and exactitude. The renowned Australian 'she'll be right' ethos was still in full force in late 1970s (and perhaps has not fully retreated) but Kerrie was frighteningly demanding of herself and her collaborators. We rehearsed every week at her home in Bondi for an entire day, but there wasn't always new material driving this. It was simply about maintaining and (hopefully) exceeding the already high standards set.

Kerrie was scary; no words were minced or foolishnesses suffered kindly. As well as the example she set by her own (fulfilled) aspirations towards real artistry and virtuosity, she was the ideal nurturer of others' talents. Not necessarily through what is commonly thought of as encouragement (although there was plenty of that, especially onstage - I learned to yearn for the little yelps of appreciation she would emit if you played something particularly noteworthy) but as often through 'tough love'.

I was a somewhat obnoxious 19-year old as I had been a child prodigy upon whom praise had been heaped from a very young age, so at that kind of bullish age I thought the world was my oyster. I remember once she turned to me - presumably after some smug recital on my part - and said 'You know, you're not that good'. She was dead right, and these are precious words for a 19-year old to hear and have helped spur me to strive to greater heights ever since.

I know for a fact that she gave her gifts to many in this way, and in later life her formal teaching for the Sydney Conservatorium was renowned with a new crop of young singers benefitting from her expertise up until very recently. But in the end it will be her audiences - those who heard her live and/or have her many vinyl records and one CD - who will be the most transformed by being witness to one of Australia's very few artists who have reached a truly international and singular level of accomplishment as a soloist.

Hopefully an Australian record label or distributor will have the foresight to - with the necessary co-operation of the current rights holders - digitally release her many superb but out-of-print vinyl recordings so that they are preserved for posterity in a facilitated way. Hers is a legacy of recent Australian musical history the significance of which is by no means properly acknowledged.

Further links

'Kerrie Biddell - the first lady of Australian jazz' - obituary by Anthony O'Grady in the Sydney Morning Herald (9 September 2014)
'Kerrie Biddell - the song has ended but...' - by Merv Collins on Australianjazz.net (22 September 2014)


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Nice piece

Very nice piece, Mark, and well-written. Glad you weren't permanently scarred by her honesty.

Thanks, and music link

Thank you Andy, it was a pelasure and honour to write it. You and other readers may be interested in hearing a duo version of "My Funny Valentine" that she and I recorded for the ABC in 1978. If you can overlook my immature 19-year-old playing, it’s some of the best Kerrie I have heard. The end is the best, following my little solo, after she reprises the bridge coquettishly, from the word “Stay” which she literally sobs out (she called that sort of thing "blood on the microphone") and then an incredible long note on the next word “stay” with such amazing colour shadings as she diminuendos, with the breath control to join it on the next phrase. Remarkable - great artistry. Stream it here

Thank you

Thank you Mark for that clip - I've added it to the intro of the article, too.