Nat Kipner and The Bee Gees
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MR. CAN-DO MEETS MR. MAKE-DO
Nat Kipner is writing a song. He’s also driving his car. And carrying on some sort of conversation with his passenger. One Kipner hand taps the steering wheel. The other hand is out the car window, slapping a counter rhythm on the roof. He starts singing, loudly, not noticing the police car trailing in his wake.
The law pulls Nat over and books him for negligent driving. When the police finally ease back into the traffic, has Nat lost that rhythm? Has he lost that melody? No, siree. "And the chorus", he says, "goes like this," and he drives straight back into the song, tapping and singing and slapping away. And that is driving ambition, Nat Kipner style.
Nat Kipner has many friends – he’s gregarious, funny, charming – but all those friends have some variation on the story above. He’s a driven man, one manic ball of energy. "Wears me out", says long-time mate and fellow songwriter, Geoff Mack. "Never stops talking", says another friend. A colleague in the record industry called him "the most mercurial person I’ve ever met". In one small frame, Nat has led a big life for nearly 80 years, having a ball and personifying the spirit of American can-do. All of that spirit was brought to bear in 1966 on one of the great conundrums of Australian pop music - how would the Bee Gees ever get a hit record?
Nat had met the Bee Gees in Brisbane some years earlier. They’d appeared on Teen Beat, a TV show he’d produced. Barry Gibb had been about 13 years old, twins Maurice and Robin about 10 or 11. The Gibb family moved from Brisbane to Sydney in January 1963. From then until April 1966, the Bee Gees issued 10 singles and 1 LP on the Leedon label. Not one had been a hit. Even with managerial assistance from Australian rock star Col Joye, the Bee Gees’ recording career was fizzling.
Hugh Gibb, the boys’ father and manager, had complained to Festival records about their Leedon contract. Festival records chief, Fred Marks, then agreed to place the Bee Gees with the nascent Spin label. Some reports have said that Festival dropped the Bee Gees – this is not the case, the group was released from its contract with Festival Records on condition that it move to the independent Spin label. Festival had the rights to manufacture and distribute Spin’s releases for the next ten years. And it just happened that Spin’s new A&R manager was the US Airforce veteran, Nat Kipner.
Nathan Kipner was born in Dayton, Ohio on 2 October 1924. His father, Abe, was from Kiev, Russia, his mother from Vilna, Poland. The family name was actually Kipnis, but an immigration official at Ellis Island had spelled it wrong. Music was in the family genes – one of Abe’s relative’s, Alexander Kipnis, became a famous operatic basso profundo. Nat’s parents both died when he was a teenager, so Nat and his brother, Boris, went to live with an aunt. The arrangement didn’t suit Nat, so he moved into a room at the YMCA.
Like Ossie Byrne, Nat lied about his age to enlist in the Airforce at 17. Nat says his troopship, President Coolidge, docked in Brisbane on Boxing Day, 1941. He worked for Aircorps Supply, firstly in the 4th US Air Depot, then the 81st. He was stationed in Brisbane, then, again like Ossie Byrne, at Finchaven PNG, though he and Ossie didn’t meet until 1966. Nat married a Brisbane girl, Alma, in 1944, then returned to the States after the war. The Kipners came back to Brisbane in the early 1950s.
Roughly a decade later, Nat walked into Ray McCartney’s office at Channel 7, Brisbane, and said he could produce TV shows. Nat said he was hired on a Monday, and the show was due on Thursday. With help from the 7 crew, the show went off without a hitch. Nat went on to produce a number of Brisbane, then Sydney and Melbourne, TV shows for both the 7 and 9 networks. Among them were episodes of Swingin’ School, National Top 40, The Late Show, In Brisbane Tonight, Saturday Date and Teen Beat.
Nat’s introduction into the recording industry came via a business partnership with Ivan Dayman. Dayman ran a circuit of dance halls in Adelaide, Melbourne and the delightfully named "Cloudland Ballroom" in Brisbane. In late 1964, he and Nat opened another dance hall in Sydney, and started the Brisbane-based record label called Sunshine Records. Nat’s first productions for Sunshine were on Normie Rowe’s 1965 hit LP, It ain’t necessarily so. One of the highlights of that LP was "She used to be mine," a song written by Nat and his son Steve. Nat’s production tasks for Rowe then extended to a number 1 single, a scintillating cover of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ "Shakin’ all over".
In June 1965, Sunshine released another of Nat’s productions, "My baby"/"No" by Toni McCann and the Fabulous Blue Jays. Although it wasn’t a hit, the record is now regarded as one of the finest of Australia’s early punk singles.
Nat had also written comedy skits and parody songs for a TV show called Theatre Royal featuring Queensland comedian George Wallace Jr. Nat’s connection with the Brisbane "Theatre Royal", the venue, had begun in the 1950s. Nat had run a record shop with an Australian-Greek businessman, George Giannopoulis. The shop sold Greek and ethnic records (appropriately enough, since the shop was behind a Greek club); the record store was in Elizabeth Street, near the Theatre Royal building.
Nat had also befriended comedian Lucky Grills and country musician Geoff Mack, the writer of "I’ve been everywhere". Nat had encouraged Geoff to publish the song, and it had been a number one for Lucky Starr. Geoff Mack and Nat occasionally wrote songs together. Nat also teamed with Lonnie Lee and Johnny Devlin to write rock’n’roll hits like "I found a new love" and "Penny for your thoughts".
In addition to writing songs, Nat and Johnny Devlin also ran a small music publishing company, Johnny Devlin Music. So by the time Nat moved from Brisbane to Sydney sometime late in 1964 to run Ivan Dayman’s "The Bowl Soundlounge", a nightclub in Castlereagh Street, he was able to bring with him an enviable list of contacts and experiences in show business. He wrote songs and comedy skits and TV scripts, he was a music publisher, he produced records and TV shows, he booked artists into venues, he scouted for talent, he helped manage a record label and he had owned his own record store.
"The Bowl" proved to be a remarkable success. After initially leasing the space, he and Dayman were able to buy it after only a few months. They had ripped out the tables and chairs, turned the night-time venue into a day/night operation, and ran a disco and dance hall in three shifts from 1 in the afternoon to 4 in the morning. Prior to the renovation, the club seated 300. Now up to 5000 were reported to go through the doors in a day. "The Bowl" featured Dayman’s Sunshine label acts like Tony Worsley and The Blue Jays, Marcie Jones, Peter Doyle and Normie Rowe and the Playboys. Other acts to appear there were the Missing Links, Jeff St. John and the Id and New Zealand bands, Max Merrit and the Meteors and Dave Miller and the Byrds (later to be known as the Dave Miller Set).
If this all wasn’t enough, Nat began to write a small music column for a local Sydney newspaper. He also continued to freelance as a TV producer, mostly for Saturday Date, a Channel 9 music program for teenagers. He still wrote songs, and conducted auditions for the TV shows. Over the years, these auditions in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne had discovered talent like Marty Rhone and Billy Thorpe. After a frantic 12 months in Sydney, Nat says he sold his share in Sunshine Records and "The Bowl" to Ivan Dayman. Using Dayman’s range of pop activities as his blueprint, Nat set out to, unconsciously or not, emulate his former business partner’s operations.
He contacted Everybody’s magazine. Four of the magazine’s directors were in the process of launching a record label in conjunction with Clyde Packer from Australian Consolidated Press. The label would also be called Everybody’s, and after some negotiations, Nat was appointed the Artist and Repertoire chief (A&R), in effect, the operational manager.
Nat quickly contracted 4 local talents. One group was right under his nose – his son Steve had a new band, Steve and the Board. Nat had a cute little novelty song, "Giggle eyed goo", that he felt would suit them fine. He asked Tony Barber, ex-Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs’ guitarist and songwriter, to prepare some tunes. He signed Toni McCann for another single release. Lastly he rang Big Norm Miller. Norm, blessed with a distinctive semi-operatic voice, was a great fan of Roy Orbison. Recording sessions were booked at the Festival studio at Harris St., Pyrmont.
The Board’s single, and Tony Barber’s own composition "Someday" were issued in October 1965. They sold moderately well. It became apparent that record buyers were confused about Everybody’s association with the label. Many thought the records came free with the magazine. A name change was in order. Everybody’s magazine asked for suggestions. By January 1966, the Everybody’s label decided to re-brand itself as Spin Records which now included new partner, Sydney entertainment entrepreneur, Harry M. Miller. Kipner was again A&R manager, this time with a financial interest.
The last pair of Everybody’s four singles was issued that same month. Big Norm Miller’s version of the Everly Brothers’ "All I have to do is dream" was released alongside Toni McCann’s "Saturday date"/"If you don’t come back". Once again, the modest sales were no reflection on the high quality of the performances. All the Everybody’s releases are now much prized by collectors. When all four were re-issued in February 1966, McCann's "Saturday date" on Sunshine Records, the other 3 singles on Spin. Steve and the Board’s "Giggle eyed goo" made the charts.
The emergence of Spin at this time synchronised perfectly with the Bee Gees’ disaffection with Festival Records, and with Nat Kipner meeting Ossie Byrne.
Ossie’s St Clair Recording Studio at 56 Queens Road, Hurstville, had only been open a few weeks. While hardly salubrious, it did offer taping equipment comparable to the other small studios in Sydney at that time, ie 2 mono recorders. Sydney’s only commercial stereo recording facility was at Festival. They’d installed a four-track system at their Harris St. studio in Pyrmont in early 1966. Carol Rodgers’ pop column in the Sunday Telegraph, 27 Mar 1966, said the Bee Gees’ single, "Cherry red"/"I want home" was "the first from Festival’s spanking new four track equipment, and it’s the first that producer, Joe Halford, late of EMI, had been responsible for".
St. Clair was significantly cheaper than the other studios, 5 pounds ($10) per hour, and friendlier, with owner and sound engineer Ossie Byrne tossing in sandwiches and tea and biscuits for free. Artists were also not restricted to two-hour sessions, as had happened to the Bee Gees at Festival. Ossie was a past master of making-do: the soundproofing included old mattresses and carpet, the echo chamber was a bricked-in toilet and the recording equipment had been recycled from his previous home-studio in Tarrawanna. All the wiring and carpentry had been done by Ossie himself. Nat Kipner’s can-do spirit saw a lot of potential in Ossie’s make-do talents. He immediately began to use the studio for taping demos and master recordings for the Spin artists.
The first Spin artists to use St. Clair were Steve and the Board, Geoff Mack, Marty Rhone and His Soul Agents, Jeff St. John and the Id, Chris Hall and the Torquays and Tony Summers and the Echoes. Their respective singles were issued in March and April 1966, after recording sessions in either late January or February. Marty Rhone recalls the sessions were always at night, and while the music occasionally escaped through the soundproofing in the studio, the neighbours never complained.
Nat’s old friend Geoff Mack had his single "I’ve had everything"/"Give it a go, Joe" released in March, followed by his Spin LP, Geoff "Tangletongue" Mack and his Mack-Anicks. Geoff recorded the 11 songs in 4 hours one evening at St. Clair. Nat produced and Ossie was the engineer. The LP took so little time to record since Geoff’s band knew the songs backwards. "In at 7, out by 11. Simple really! Some of the young ones today won’t believe how long it took to record that whole album."
Geoff had been in the RAAF during WW2, at one time stationed in Borneo, but he didn’t know Ossie or Nat during the war. He remembers meeting Nat at the Coolangatta Hotel one Thursday night in the mid-1950s. Geoff and Lucky Grills were partners in a show at the hotel, and Nat arrived to catch their act. Nat continued to come to the hotel each Thursday, insisting each time that Geoff publish a song that Geoff had written called "I’ve been everywhere". Geoff hadn’t been so sure – "It was only my opening number, you know, but Nat kept on at me." The song was eventually recorded by Lucky Starr, stormed to number one across Australia, was covered by the Canadian country star, Hank Snow, and is one of the most successful songs ever written by an Australian.
By March 1966, Nat Kipner had taken the Bee Gees to the St Clair studio, and recording sessions began for the group sometime in April. Festival Records in 1998 released some 30 songs from all the 1966 St Clair sessions on a 2CD set called Brilliant From Birth. From these recordings, Spin Records in 1966-67 had issued 1 LP, Spicks and Specks, and 4 Bee Gees singles. One single, "Monday’s Rain", appeared twice with a different b-side. Its first appearance had incurred a ban from Sydney radio stations who insisted it sounded too much like the Beatles. This charge of plagiarising the Beatles’ sound would dog the Bee Gees for much of their early career.
The failure of the Bee Gees’ first Spin single coincided with more announcements of the Bee Gees’ plans to head off to England. As early as January 1966, the Bee Gees were telling the Sunday Telegraph Under 21 columnist, "Sue", that they’d be "off to Japan and England in April." Everybody’s magazine on the 25 May announced "Bee Gees for UK", and in case you missed the story, repeated "Top Australian group the Bee Gees are off to England soon" in the 8 June edition.
June and July witnessed the Bee Gees virtually living at the St Clair studio, with all night recording sessions involving themselves and other artists for whom they provided songs and musical backing. Production duties were shared around between Nat Kipner, Ossie Byrne and the Bee Gees themselves.
One of the new Gibb compositions was "Spicks and Specks". Barrington Davis, who recorded 2 excellent singles at St. Clair, recalls that his father was in the studio when Maurice started plunking away on the piano. The riff ended up as the basis of the new Bee Gees’ single. Barrington’s dad was friendly with Hugh Gibb, both men coming from near Manchester. Barrington recalls that in many ways St Clair was better than the Festival studio: "Festival was clinical, St. Clair’s sound had "oomph". It was a real "scene", not a workplace. The drums and amps were always set up and ready to go, and there was tea and coffee…a lovely atmosphere."
The drummer on several of the Bee Gees' St. Clair sessions was 17 year old Russell Barnsley, a member of the band, Kevin Bible and the Book. Fittingly for a studio made out of a converted butcher's storeroom, Russell was an apprentice butcher. Russell first heard Barry Gibb playing "Spicks and Specks" on guitar. Barry was seated on the bonnet of an old butchers delivery van in the studio's backyard. The Bee Gees invited Russell to travel to England with them: "They liked my drumming style. I thought about it. They were very, very talented, but I couldn't see the security in it." Russell has since worked as a sign-writer and commercial artist as well as in the butcher trade. Any regrets? "No," Russell says, "I'm happy with my life. Lots of fun times."
The budget to record a 1966 Spin single was about $50. Nat recalled the horn players used on "Spicks and Specks" were given $5 for their trouble. Singer Jon Blanchfield, who recorded the Gibbs’ "Town of Tuxley Toymaker" for Leedon at St Clair, remembered the horn section for "Spicks and Specks" came from the Oceanic Hotel at Coogee. There was a delay while the players finished their set and piled into a car to come to Hurstville. Nat Kipner thinks there were possibly 11 dubs, 3 associated with getting the brass sounding bright enough. Ossie, who played trumpet himself, had earlier demonstrated some arrangements for the Gibbs so they knew what to expect. The bass on the recording had been boosted with the piano doubled in the dubbing process.
The trumpet player, Geoff Grant (aka Geoffrey Grant Streeter) recalls it this way: "I was there for about 2 nights. Did "Spicks and Specks" and "I am the world" by myself, no other brass. My wife and son were with me. I did the session as a favour for Ossie. He rand me mid-week and asked me to come down from Padstow to play. Never got paid. I had a show band that had recorded some demos there. Barry Gibb hummed the trumpet part he wanted, and I doubled tracked it. The Bee Gees' "head arrangements" were quite amazing."
When Ron Watford and his band The Mystics arrived for a St. Clair recording session, their prize for winning the Canberra section of Hoadley’s 1966 Battle of the Sounds, Ossie played the young group the master tape of "Spicks and Specks". The single was yet to be released. The Mystics were most impressed. "We sat there and thought, Wow! It was great". The Mystics then recorded 4 songs, of which 2 appeared on their single, one side being "Don’t you go, I need your love", written by Nat and Maurice Gibb. Maurice helped supervise the session, sitting with Ossie Byrne in the control room. Ron recalls, "Ossie was very quiet, a very nice bloke. The musicians all played in a circle in the centre of the room, and Ossie made sure we could all see and hear each other properly before we started." The Mystics, originally a Sydney band, returned to a residency at a Cooma hotel. Their single sold well in Cooma, but wasn’t a hit elsewhere. Ron is still a professional musician, his music career taking him all over the globe. His verdict on life with The Mystics? "Wonderful…we had the time of our life."
The flipside of "Spicks and Specks" was "I am the world", one of Robin Gibb’s first compositions. Robin’s soaring and tremulous vocal matched big brother Barry’s soulfulness. At just 16 Robin had now perfected his adult singing style, a style jokingly referred to in the Gibb family as "the quavering Arab". The Sunday Telegraph’s Carol Rodgers, in her 4 September column, called Robin’s song "by far the best record of the week." She was also very complimentary about the A-side: "Spicks and Specks" is quite out of the ordinary and for sheer imagination…merits a lot of listening to." The production on "I am the world", with huge, crashing cymbals, was as dramatic as "Spicks and Specks", and very different to the raw r’n’b sound of most of Nat’s previous studio work. So different to previous Nat Kipner productions, in fact, that Sydney DJ John Laws was pictured eating a copy of the single after saying it wasn’t Nat at all.
While the Bee Gees continued their schedule of club and TV appearances, Nat involved himself with yet another venture – "Nat’s Place", a "dance place for teens" in George Street. Everybody’s magazine mentioned this venue in their 3 August issue. Nat’s duplication of Ivan Dayman’s pop interests was continuing apace, with Nat’s booking agency (Spin Agency, 54 Park St., Sydney) added to his resume. Cherie Gardiner, then the office secretary for Spin Productions (148 Castlereagh St., Sydney) oversaw parts of this operation, while Laurie Smith from Brisbane’s Theatre Royal helped send acts to Sydney from Queensland and beyond. Nat says he made deals with clubs and hotels across Sydney and in Newcastle. At one time in 1966, 22 clubs were booking acts through Nat Kipner’s agency.
In September the Bee Gees’ single "Spicks and Specks" made its first appearance in Sydney’s Top 40. It eventually climbed to number 3, spent nearly 5 months on the chart and was named Go-Set’s Record of the Year and 2UE’s Best Australian group recording for 1966. It was issued in Britain on 24 February 1967, and became their first European chart entry. The Bee Gees’ elusive hit had well and truly materialised.
Nat tells what happened next:
"Following this success the Bee Gees and their Dad arrived at my office one day [about November 1966] and said that they would like to go back to England to further their career. They asked me to go with them but I found I could not leave Sydney as I was heavily involved in other recordings. Their father Hughie Gibb asked me to release them from their management contract, which I subsequently did. In the meantime, I contacted Brian Epstein, who I had previously met in 1964 on the first tour of the Beatles to Australia, and also met a Mr. Peter Gormley, who was the manager of Cliff Richard and The Shadows, and asked them to see the group on their arrival [from] Sydney which they subsequently did. I kept the Bee Gees’ recording rights for Australia and released them from their management contract, (which of course was one of the dumbest things I have ever done). However we had completed one entire album of songs and Ossie Byrne decided to go with the Bee Gees to London and there they met Robert Stigwood who at the time was interviewing groups for Brian Epstein. He heard the tapes we had produced at Hurstville and immediately signed the group to himself and quit his job at Brian Epstein. [sic - actually Stigwood remained with Brian Epstein until Epstein’s accidental death in 1967.] He took the tapes to Polygram Records in London and they gave him a huge advance which enabled Robert Stigwood to open RSO. Ossie Byrne continued to assist the Bee Gees but was eventually disconnected from the group and wound up opening up a studio in a suburb of London. I met him again when I was in London in 1969 and unfortunately he became ill and died in approximately 1970[sic – actually it was 1983]. He was a very good Engineer and was very instrumental in not only the Bee Gees but many other Artists who I recorded at Hurstville".
For a short time, November 1966 to February 1967, Ossie Byrne assumed Nat’s co-managerial role for the Bee Gees. Ossie sailed for England with the Bee Gees in January 1967, and, like the Gibb brothers, never lived in Australia again. When the group signed with the Robert Stigwood Organisation, the Adelaide-born Stigwood became sole manager, and both Hughie Gibb and Ossie were sidelined. Ossie became the co-producer of their first British single," New York Mining Disaster 1941" and then co-producer of the Bee Gees First LP. He didn’t work with the Bee Gees again after the release of the First LP.
Ossie’s St. Clair studio closed in December 1966. Some of the equipment was sold off, some of it handed on, other bits and pieces were junked. The old butcher’s shop and its storeroom were demolished in the mid-1970s.
Nat Kipner’s son Steve disbanded Steve and the Board and formed a duo, Steve and Stevie with singer/songwriter Steve Groves. The duo went to London and transformed into Tin Tin. They had a world-wide hit in 1970 with "Toast and Marmalade for Tea", produced by Maurice Gibb. Steve has since gone on to write hit songs for artists such as Oliva Newton-John, Chicago and Christine Aguilera. One of Steve’s hits in the 1980s was Dolly Parton’s, "My potential new boyfriend". Australian singer, Doug Parkinson, had previously recorded the song.
Nat continued his Australian record production work, his booking agency, his TV show production, his song writing, his music publishing, his Nat’s Place venue, his music column etc etc until about October 1967. Nat then took New Zealand singer John Rowles to the UK. A managerial team was formed with the Australian Peter Gormley, manager of Cliff Richard and the Shadows. John Rowles had two massive hits in England, "If I only had time", and "Hush not a word to Mary", plus two much-loved Australasian hits co-written with Nat Kipner, "Cheryl Moana Marie", and "Tanya, my song is for you".
Nat’s greatest successes as a songwriter came in the 1970s. "I spent approximately 11 years in London and wrote and produced many acts and wrote many songs and in 1978 I had two very big hits in the USA with Johnny Mathis ("Too much too little too late" and "I just can't get over you") and at that time the English tax system was horrific and would have taken 75 Percent of my royalties so I took the opportunity to go back to Los Angeles. I am actually an American and I was born in Dayton, Ohio."
More recently Nat has written songs for the 1991 film An American Tail, and music for the 1993 video adaptation of Mercer Mayer's book Just me and my dad. He is still involved with production and has, in 2002, negotiated with several Australian record companies to produce childrens' songs and pop material in Australia.
Nat Kipner’s contribution to the Australian music scene goes far beyond the 70 or so recorded songs he either wrote or co-wrote while he lived in Australia. It goes further than his TV and record production work, further than the booking agencies and the nightclubs he helped manage. His main contribution is contained in Toni McCann’s description of him as, "This crazy little guy, full of enthusiasm". Nat’s enthusiasm helped inspire a self-belief in the acts that he produced, that they were capable of great work, and that coming from Australia was no bigger handicap than coming from Tupelo, Mississippi or Liverpool, England. Nat said of his TV career, "I didn’t know things were impossible, so I went ahead and did them." That same energetic can-do spirit informed all of his dealings in the Australian music industry.
That infectious enthusiasm was not without drawbacks, however. Remember Geoff Mack worn out by all that Kipner zeal? "There are three months difference in age between us, and he’s still got twice the energy I ever had!" Remember the police car Nat failed to notice? Ossie Byrne lost an eye in WW2, and had a glass prothetic. Nat worked with Ossie, both in Hurstville and in London, and never noticed. Maybe, when you’re that focused on the music, you just don’t need to notice.
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Copyright 2002. Bill Casey
Thanks to Peter Cox at the Powerhouse Museum, Garry Paige, Mark Crohan and of course, Nat Kipner.