MY CAREER IN THE PALM COURT ORCHESTRA – by Robyn Stokoe Godfrey

top left. Evan Elsley, John Godfrey, Barbara Janee, Andrew Tait front row. Jan Junor, Linda Sherrington & Robyn Stokoe Godfrey

It was November 1974 and a small group of student musicians had gathered on the veranda of a terrace house in Queen Street Woollahra to perform at the annual Queen Street Fair. The house (no. 77) was the home of dilettante musician and would-be entrepreneur John Godfrey. He had a broad interest in music, history and music history and was a great champion of the “obscure” composer.

Today he had a small pile of orchestrations from early C20th composers in the “salon” style. His interest in this era of music began with the revival of ragtime in the 1970s and broadened from that point to other styles of music from this period.

A crowd gathered around us and we joyfully played all day. John had wheeled his piano outside and was joined by a violin, me on cello, flute and clarinet. Our repertoire varied from the jaunty ragtime mentioned, to the sinuous waltzes of the time, to popular classics and song arrangements that had our audience dancing and singing along. I found myself in my element. I felt that this was the kind of music I was destined to play. In fact, it was the waltz “Destiny” that I particularly remember being captured by. The music was lyrical, emotional, immediate and beautifully written for the cello (and for the other instruments). I felt I had been playing these pieces all my life.

Passing along the street, Jimmy Stewart, song-writer, music producer and manager of the singer Doug Ashdown stopped outside no. 77 to listen. Before the end of the day he had signed the musicians up for a record deal with Festival Records, and by the beginning of 1975 “The Palm Court Orchestra” was in the studio at Pyrmont laying down our first tracks.

John, as a resident of Queen Street, was already known by the locals; fitted in beautifully with the eclectic, arty, antiquey crowd. Queen Street people were well-heeled of course but the area still retained its slightly Bohemian character. Suddenly we became all the rage and were playing for gallery openings, parties, dinners etc. Our first professional gig was for Leo Schofield.

We soon had a residency- two nights a week at Russet and Brown’s, a French-style restaurant in Oxford Street. We were becoming well known, with articles in the newspaper and appearances on TV- particularly daytime TV.

Robyn & John on The Nights of Gladness Record Cover

Word got about that a large music library was for sale in Queensland. The Benvenuti family arrived in Australia from Italy in about 1860 and set themselves up in Brisbane, organising orchestras for balls, vice-regal occasions and later for silent films and also as their music collection expanded hiring out music all over the state. This collection had been continuing to expand as the next generations of the family took over, into the 1930s. Estimates were that the collection contained more than 20,000 orchestrations (i.e. sets of music arranged for numbers of instruments). The Palm Court Orchestra acquired this collection which became known as the Benvenuti Orchestral Collection. It gave a unique historical perspective on contemporary music of its day. Having been collected in Australia (items were ordered from overseas publishers and mailed out) there is music from England, America, France, Germany, Argentina, Italy etc. There are also Australian items. Unfortunately there was a lot of loss and damage caused to this collection by an arson attack in 1987. One thing that can be seen from this collection was the coming and going of dance crazes (fashions) over the period- from waltzes, polkas and galops to grizzly bear, cake-walk, shimmy, black bottom and of course the more known fox-trot, quickstep, two-step etc.

John and I, as the longest-serving and founding members of the orchestra had a great musical affinity and love for this style of music. We played at many, many wonderful events, met many interesting people. We ended up with a vast repertoire and a knowledge of the composers and styles of the music. We listened to old 78 recordings of performers and admired the very expressive way of playing, that is probably considered old hat these days. Who has time to linger and love every note?

The orchestra made quite a few more recordings, some of which are still available. John, who had become my partner, died in 1998, and although I have kept the orchestra going to a certain extent (yes, we are available for bookings in Mudgee (Central West) and Sydney), and I still curate the music collection, that wonderful spark that comes from playing this beautiful music with a like-minded soul is missing from my life.