01 February 2023

Disappearing acts

The other day some bloke tweeted, "Anyone remember Dionne Warwick?"

Dionne Warwick answered, "Doesn't ring a bell."

When I wrote about a Top 20 hit by Sydney singer Jennifer Ryall I said that she was "lost to history". I hadn't been able to find out much about her, and there was nothing after the mid-1970s. 

Jennifer Ryall
Jennifer Ryall finally emailed to tell me she wasn't lost, and her own history turned out to be rich and varied. In the following days she gave me a lot of information, full of interest, which I used to write up a decent account of her career. 

I now avoid suggesting that people are lost, or that they disappeared or vanished, just because they haven't released any music for a while. 

It's a trap that fans can easily fall into. When a performer we know only through their media persona stops performing, there is a sense that they have literally disappeared. 

We might even sympathise with them for their downfall, even if we have no idea what they are doing these days. However fulfilling their life away from the music (or film or TV) business might be, their absence suggests that they no longer do anything. They exist for us on the public stage and when they've gone it's as if they don't exist. 

The jazz trumpeter, composer and bandleader Red Perksey migrated to Sydney via France in 1951. He soon established himself on radio and records, and in live gigs, and he became Musical Director for a Sydney record company. 

Red and his orchestra had a hit with (A Little Boy Called) Smiley from the film Smiley Gets A Gun (1958), and they backed Vic Sabrino on his version of Rock Around The Clock (1955), a record some call as the first Australian rock'n'roll record. He was clearly a bright and likeable personality who pops up here and there in the newspaper archives. 

Red Perksey 1950s
In 1958 he was photographed joshing around poolside at a deejays' convention, and he was giving lunchtime concerts at a Sydney music store. 

Then there is nothing. No more listings in the radio guides, no more gigs advertised, no more affectionate write-ups. He disappeared?

I had written what I believed was the definitive biographical sketch of Red Perksey. He was born Siegbert Perlstein in Berlin in 1921, of Jewish German-Polish background. I traced his progress from Berlin in the 30s, to Palestine in the mid-40s and Paris in the late 40s. He and his wife Zizi came to Australia by refugee ship in the early 50s, and were later naturalised here. The only later date I had was his death, in 1995, but from 1958 until then, nothing. 

Eventually, someone emails. A niece, his closest living relative, emailed from Paris with some answers. 

To Australian audiences, to the Sydney newspapers, and (retrospectively) to this archival forager, Red Perksey had disappeared. 

Meanwhile, a couple known as Bert and Anne were living in a remote French village where Bert painted, sculpted and made furniture. They grew vegetables and spoke to their dog Lassie only in English. Bert was also a musician, and sometimes he joined in with local groups.

To us, they had disappeared; in France, Red Perksey and his wife were in plain view to their fellow villagers. 

I guess my point is, there are more places in this world than the public stage. 


• My series Obscure Originators collects pieces about lesser-known artists who recorded a song that was later covered in Australia. Most of them fit into the theme of this post.

• Dionne Warwick's tweet 30 January 2023

Full stories at my website:

• Jennifer Ryall - Everything’s Alright (1972)

• Red Perksey & His Orchestra - (A Little Boy Called) Smiley (1956)

Images: Jennifer Thomson, Mia Cahen, with thanks.

Update: Thanks to Jamie for alerting me to a parallel in novelist Thomas Pynchon who has intentionally disappeared himself from public scrutiny. He carries on an unremarkable life in a Manhattan neighbourhood and dismisses the idea that he is reclusive. Pynchon told CNN he believes recluse is a "code word generated by journalists... meaning, 'doesn't like to talk to reporters.'" (linked from Wikipedia).


Bob Wilson said...

Fascinating as always Lyn. Also did you know Disappearing Act is a song by the Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, about whom we hear little these days, despite his 17 albums (the first in 1985 aged 21).
Bob W

Lyn Nuttall said...

Huh! I remember Sexsmith but not the song. I now see it's an incredibly common song title. None of the few I sampled at Spotify were Sexsmith covers either. Thanks, eh.