John Sidney's old time piano music, an aviator's passion

By Graeme Pope  (September 2004 )

During 1997 and 2000 I was flying with a company operating B727 freighters within Australia. Every third or fourth weekend we were rostered to spend a four day weekend in Hobart, Tasmania. As fate would have it, during one of those weekends in November 1998, I happened to meet John Sidney, a well know entertainer in Tasmania.

I was in the foyer of a hotel making a phone call when I heard a piano begin to play right on 12 noon. To this day, I still marvel at our meeting. I was at this hotel briefly making a future reservation. Why, on leaving the hotel I took coins from my pocket to use their pay phone to call home when I could have returned to the company accommodation to make a free call, I don't know, but it was this delay at the pay phone that was the key to my meeting John.

John played the piano at this hotel each Sunday lunch time for two and a half hours. As a lover of piano music, I couldn't wait to finish my phone call and investigate this wonderful sound coming from the dining room. You have no idea how thrilled I was to hear such beautiful piano music being so skilfully played. I decided to order lunch and stay to listen to John's complete performance. Once he had played the last note I moved towards the piano and introduced myself. John was promoting his music by selling eleven home recorded audio tapes of his music. I just loved his style of playing. I was so impressed with his style on the keyboard that I baught all of his tapes. Later, as I listened to the tapes, I recalled hearing all those lovely old tunes that my mother played on the piano at dance halls when I was young. I grew up in the tail end of that era, and still remember those years well.

I could hardly wait to pick up my next Hobart trip. Due to the Christmas shut down period and my involvement in the office at work, it was almost three months before my next rostered weekend in Hobart. I was somewhat concerned that John may no longer be playing there. Fortunately for me he was, and it was this second meeting that formed the beginning of what turned into a lasting friendship.

John's style of playing is so unique, as it is very much ‘family round the piano' type of music, just as it was before TV took over. I knew once John's generation passed on, so too would that style of playing. I was, also, keenly aware that it is almost impossible to buy this type of piano music in music shops, particularly as good quality studio recordings. I therefore began to focus on how best to preserve his works.

During my second meeting with John I asked him if I could put his tapes onto CD as this was to be my first move towards preserving his works. He said I could so long as I didn't sell them. Tapes deteriorate with time and I knew once his music was on CD it would be much easier to preserve. At that time I knew absolutely nothing about putting music onto CD but I was about to learn.

The next time I saw John, I had not only transfered his music onto CD for my own collection, but I delivered a number of CDs to him to sell along with his tapes. John was most grateful for this. Some time later, I asked him if he would attend the studios in Hobart to professionally record his works for my own personal collection. John was quite chuffed that someone thought enough of his music to want to professionally record it. Towards the end of 2000 John entered the Hobart studios to record Easy Listening Piano Volumes 1 and 2 as we know them today, followed by Volumes 3 and 4 which were recorded in early 2001.

Some time later I was in Hobart on one of my trips when John called by my hotel room to pick me up to go to one of his gigs. At that time I was doing a lot of work on my computer for the airline, and when he noticed my computer, he asked me straight out if I would put him on the Internet. John knew nothing about computers and assumed anyone who knew anything about computers, knew everything about computers. Little did he know, I knew little of the Internet then myself, sending and receiving mail was about it. I didn't let him know of my limited knowledge of course, and just said I would do it for him.

I was just over the steep learning curve of mastering the transfer of music from audio tapes to CD when it all began again with learning about the Internet. By the end of November 2001, I finally launched for him to market his music. (Who said you can't teach an old dog new tricks!!). At that stage there were the four Easy Listening Piano volumes which John had recorded in the studio for our personal collection. This web site is now dedicated to John's wonderful piano music and is managed by myself.

John wasn't only a great pianist, but also a great entertainer. He was a very clever magician and ventriloquist, with his famous doll, Charlie. John and Charlie became very famous when John ran and compered the Children's show for many years on Hobart television. John also played piano live on television with fellow musician and organist Peter Richman, on a program called Tea Time Tunes, which later became Teletunes when the time slot was moved away from tea time Sunday evening. Oh how I wished I could have witnessed those years. I often experience moments where I wish I had met John thirty or more years ago however I then remind myself of how privileged and grateful I am to have ever met him at all, albeit for only a few short years.

During the four years I knew John, I organised tours for him to mainland Australia, where he would perform and entertain at many retirement villages and nursing homes in and around Melbourne. John was the showman, and I naturally enjoyed my support role working in the background organising his shows, and producing and promoting his music. His shows were very popular and hard to grow, as every place we visited wanted him back again every time he visited the mainland, and there was only so much we could fit into the four or five days off I had in between trips.

After a show John was never in a hurry to leave, but would mingle and chat with the people. If he did rush off it was only because he had another show to perform. John was a very warm and kind person and was very well received everywhere we visited. The elderly folk just loved him and their response to his music was amazing.

John recorded most of his professionally recorded albums in the Hobart studios during 2002 - both volumes of “The Four Hands Of John Sidney”, his famous rag, “Ragtime Rhythms”, “Dance Music By John Sidney” and “Sing-A-Long With John Sidney”. Mid 2002 John was about to enter the studios once again to record two Christmas carol CDs when he accidentally tripped and fell in a shopping centre car park breaking his left wrist. Tragically, John never recovered from his fall and sadly died November 2002. John and I had so many plans to record so much of his work, and have him perform at shows all over Australia, especially once I retired from flying.

My life was all about aviation and farm type activity prior to meeting John, but this ‘brush' with the entertainment world was destined to change my life. By June 2003, when my contract with Qantas expired, I had adjusted to the reality of John no longer being with us, and being retired I decided to do something serious with John's music. I am absolutely dedicated to keeping his music alive, (as I promised him I would). Realising I had something quite unique and precious in my hands, I set about to share it with as many as possible who I knew would treasure John's music.

At that point I wasn't sure what form or how this would take place, but I knew with my enthusiasm for his music, I was certain to find a way to achieve this. John left me the ownership rights to his works, and I had toured with him enough to realise the value of his music to elderly folk as I observed them responding to him and his music. I have never been involved with selling before but I did man a table at his gigs. After John's shows, the CDs just seemed to evaporate off the table. With this in mind, I figured selling his CDs shouldn't be too difficult to do. How wrong this perception proved to be. I was back at that learning curve once again!

I began marketing John's music to aged care facilities in Perth July 2003 after holidaying with our daughter and her family. I took a hundred CDs with me, and when my wife returned to Melbourne, I decided to stay on in Perth with the idea of marketing these CDs to aged care facilities. Oh what a challenge that proved to be! Believe me, flying aeroplanes was much easier!

After a couple of weeks marketing John's music to aged care facilities in Perth I was beginning to struggle with the idea of selling and felt quite disillusioned. The response wasn't quite what I had expected, but then, fate would have its way once again, for I was fortunate enough to meet Ruth Wilson the diversional therapist at Waminda Hostel, who's enthusiastic response to John's music was the emotional boost I needed to deal with the challenges I was currently facing. A day or so after our meeting I received a wonderful positive email from Ruth which, with her permission, I have reprinted below.

Since July last year just over 1,600 of John Sidney's CDs are now being enjoyed by residents in aged care facilities throughout Australia . Feedback I have received from those playing his music at their facilities has just been wonderful. One lady from a rather large retirement facility contacted me a couple of months ago, as she had previously bought a John Sidney CD at an aged care conference we had attended. She asked if we had any more of John's music. She said she had a rather large and comprehensive music library, but since she had baught the John Sidney CD, her music library had almost become redundant, as all the residents wanted to do was to listen to John's piano.

Although I feel as though I've had my right arm cut off by not having John around anymore, it is this kind of encouraging feedback that has made the effort so worthwhile.

I am eternally grateful to those working in the aged care industry who have supported and encouraged my wife Sandra and I in our efforts to share John's music with those whom we know enjoy it the most. I'm sure many elderly folk are equally grateful to them for having embraced this music on their behalf. For them, it doesn't get much better than this!

Dear Graeme,

Thank you so much for the CD's today, I was totally amazed, and grateful. The residents had a lovely afternoon listening to some of them.

I am determined to spread John's music around WA (and also Australia wide) as the value of music such as this, in our recreation and leisure programmes, for the frail aged and those people with dementia in residential care and Day Centres is immeasurable.

I do hope you have a pleasant stay in Perth and a good flight back to Victoria .

Kind Regards, Ruth Wilson