Aussie song has been everywhere, man
“IT’S THE ONLY TWO-STOREY building in the street,” I was told over the phone. On approach, I spot a few clues to suggest the inhabitants of this home on Sydney’s outskirts aren’t run-of-the-mill suburban octogenarians. These include: the theatrical colour scheme of their home (apricot with bright green trimmings); the “Garmisch” in gold cursive lettering (the house is named after a Bavarian town); and the caravan (ready to go) in the driveway.
Geoff ‘Tangletongue’ Mack and his wife, Tabbi Francis, have owned this house since the ’50s but they’ve spent most of their lives away from it, pursuing a life as travelling entertainers on the variety show and country-music circuit. As elders of the Australian show-business world, they are regarded with great affection and respect.
Geoff’s best-known achievement is the song I’ve Been Everywhere. Featuring a torrent of 94 tongue-twisting Aussie place names delivered at breakneck speed, it was a hit for Australian country music singer Lucky Starr, the first to record it in 1962. Soon after Geoff was asked to write a version of the song for an American audience using US place names. Today, more than 131 versions exist, including recordings by artists such as Rolf Harris, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.
According to Geoff, it’s the “triple internal rhyme” that makes the original so catchy. Although ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ is an apt title for 89-year-old Geoff, his song is but one act in a repertoire of life experiences that have taken him from military camps in Asia to England’s music-halls, through post-war Europe and across his home continent many times over.
Born in Surrey Hills, Melbourne, Geoff showed an early knack for clowning around: “I can remember making kids laugh. And I can remember writing ditties. When I’d hear something on the radio I’d never get all the words but I’d get the tune. And what words I didn’t [get], I’d make up.”
VIDEO: The Australian version of “I’ve been everywhere, man”, sung by Lucky Starr.
Aussie song has travelled the world
Geoff’s career as an entertainer began in 1944 in Borneo when he was in the RAAF. A photograph shows the young officer wearing nothing but a helmet and a guitar. He was a support act for the legendary English film star and performer Gracie Fields when she was there. Aged 21, Geoff also found himself producing a variety show involving 40 performers from the armed forces. The Oakey Dokes Revue, as it was known, proved to be a hit with civilian audiences as well when it toured NSW.
Next stop was Japan, where Geoff performed for the British troops and landed a gig as a radio announcer. After the war, he spent six years singing his way across Europe and it was then that he met future wife Tabbi, now 85, an English comedian and dancer. Fittingly, Geoff first saw Tabbi on stage, as half of a female duo named The High Spots who were performing at a “magnificent” venue called the Casa Carioca Club in the German town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. “The dance floor slid back to reveal an ice rink, and skaters would come out, and the ceiling came right back to show the stars – and you know what the stars are like in the Bavarian Alps!” says Geoff. “Bee-yoo-tiful!”
Essex-born Tabbi and her wild colonial boy bowed to convention and got hitched in 1953. “When she decided to come with me on the motorbike back to Australia we decided her parents might feel a bit funny about that, so we’d better get married,” Geoff says. “I always planned to come back overland. Just for the adventure.”
The intrepid couple rode more than 20,000km on their Panther through Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, Tehran and Pakistan to Sri Lanka. “We started off with a side car. It fell apart in Turkey,” Geoff deadpans. After sailing from Sri Lanka to Australia they got back on the bike at Fremantle, crossed the Nullarbor and ended up in Sydney.
While they’d acquired a home base, they weren’t about to settle down in the traditional sense. Over the coming decades, they travelled with country music and variety shows, performing in tents, theatres and clubs all over Australia.
But the halcyon days for Geoff were the late ’50s and early ’60s when he and Tabbi, in partnership with Lucky Grills, took a tent show called Carol’s Varieties out on the road for 10 months of the year. It was a big undertaking: 20 performers, 850 seats and a tent and stage that took 11 hours to assemble at each new location.
“When we’d set up the tent and all the caravans around it we were our own little village,” Geoff says with pride. “The tents were a terrific atmosphere. The acoustics were perfect and the laughter would echo right around the town.”
Source: Australian Geographic Jan – Feb 2012