Aussie swing singer Greg Poppleton is lauded by critics for his “authentic” vocal stylings. But the radio DJ and actor—whose screen credits include Moulin Rouge and Chronicles of Narnia—isn’t putting on a voice or acting a part, when he steps out with his band.
“It’s the only way I’ve ever sung,” said Greg. “I’ve been singing ever since I was a kid, but never in public. I remember being aged three and seeing a Louis Armstrong soundie on TV. Whenever a programme broke down they would show a test card, or a musical short. The sound of the cornet just grabbed me.”
Growing up in the Five Dock suburb of Sydney, Greg immersed himself in all the jazz he could find. His dad’s old platters offered some listening material, as did community radio, which would become Greg’s other great love. “My dad had about three dozen 78s of people like Artie Shaw and Red Nichols,” he said.
“I would stumble across music on the radio or on TV, particularly when they played the Merrie Melodies cartoons, and I would tape them to listen again later. There was one station which was a great source of this music, playing one hour on a Saturday and one on a Sunday,” he added. “That was a real education.”
Greg now has fans all over Australia, but his childhood infatuation cost him a few friendships. “None of my friends were into jazz, so it made me a bit of an outsider,” he said. “Some found me annoying because I didn’t like rock. I did go to gigs but then I would go home and listen to Eddie Condon, just to get all that crap out of my system.”
He got no more sympathy from his dad, who grew up in the 1930s. “Last time I played one of his records, he told me to smash it,” said Greg. “Being a modernist, he thought I should be listening to contemporary music. He was worried about me fitting in with people my age.”
But the obsession was no born-in-the-wrong-time nostalgia for decades he never knew; it was strictly a love of the timeless music. “The standards were so beautifully-constructed,” he explained. “The lyrics appeal to everyone. In modern music, the lyrics tend to have something to do with the songwriter’s personal journey; that’s why they do interviews explaining what the songs mean.
“But Tin Pan Alley lyricists wrote about everyday experiences. That’s why these songs have ongoing appeal; because they are well written and universal. Irving Berlin once said that song titles should be taken from turns of phrase that people use every day.”
He added: “I don’t see what I’m doing as nostalgic; I didn’t live in that time and I don’t wish that I had; I like modern science and technology and medicine. I’m a modernist at heart, like my dad and uncle were.”
Nonetheless, he often finds himself in double-breasted suits, performing at vintage celebrations and civic centennials. Once strictly kitchen crooner, Greg is now popular at jazz weekends around Australasia. High-profile appearances include Sydney Festival, International Jazz Day, the 60th Anniversary Film Australia, and 75th Anniversary Sydney Harbour Bridge, plus Waiheke Jazz in New Zealand.
“We’ve played in harbourside mansions and the backyards of bungalows too,” he said. “For six years there’s been a 1920s festival in the Blue Mountains. They host the Great Art Deco Ball at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba. These people dress the part, dance well; they expect authenticity. Last year they booked someone else and there were so many complaints that they asked us back. That was a great feeling.”
So what about Greg’s music makes fans, fellow musicians and critics worldwide praise his “authenticity”? While other jazz revivalists put out polished records evoking interwar opulence, Greg goes for the stripped back simplicity of an early recording studio, with minimal editing.
“I adore the studio sound of that era; the way the records were made, direct to disc, colours it in a way I just love,” he said. “There’s a brilliant video of Elton John recording in a 1930s studio with a single vintage microphone and the result sounds just like a 78. That’s the way I’m recording. People who come to my gigs say: ‘I thought it was some kind of studio trickery, but when we saw you live it was like stepping back in time.’”
But the “authentic” accolade has even more to do with his voice and personality, Greg insists. Clear as a bell and with a slight Aussie accent, his whimsical vaudevillian style hints at a former careers emceeing events and presenting children’s TV.
“They tended to over-sing back then,” he added. “They sang across the rhythm, ahead of it or behind it. But the key thing is that they could easily slip into a sung talking style. They could easily adjust to the audience and really sell the song to them. I’m talking about the great early jazz singers, like Scrappy Lambert. They had magnificent voices and didn’t really need microphones.”
Some training helps, Greg says, but even better is imbibing these old masters. “This is music I’ve always listened to and I’ve just absorbed the style,” he said. “It never occurred to me to sing any other way. I’ve learned bel canto technique, and I have a decent voice. But critics say that when I open my mouth I sound like someone from the 1920s, which I’m very proud of.”
Moreover, Greg doesn’t aim for perfection and tries to keep things appropriately light-hearted. “A 1920s jazz singer doesn’t sound how they look,” he said. “Some singers look at their stuffy photos and assume they were very po-faced. But these guys came from the vaudeville circuit; they were very funny.
“They would improvise on the melodies and the lyrics, adjusting the words to suit the moment. They might be backing dancers or acrobats, but they would go out of their way to entertain an audience and keep them geed up.” He added: “Bing Crosby was fantastic at that. There’s a great recording of him singing at Coconut Grove in 1931 where he riffs on lyrics and makes a big joke of it.”
Greg tries to carry this happy-go-lucky attitude from the stage into the studio too. “An interesting psychological thing happens when you’re in there,” he said. “Some of the spontaneity tends to go because you’re being more careful; you’re paying by the hour.
“But we try to just play it as if we’re playing a gig. We try to make the recording as clear as possible, with no colour added. We might do a little EQ, but there’s no special effects put on it. So it’s just the sound of the instruments and the singer; it’s very freeing.”
Less was more, for Greg’s newest release; 20s 30s Tin Pan Alley Vol 1 is available digitally and as a limited press of just 50 CDs. “We used a washboard instead of a drum kit, as I wanted to get away from that modern sound,” he added. “The guitarist put steel strings on a Spanish guitar, which gave it a much more authentically old feel.”
Old radio broadcasts, which Greg replays on his own radio show at 2ser.com, provide a major inspiration. “Those performers weren’t focusing on the recording but the audience, performing to them,” he said. “Maybe we need a studio audience in our recording sessions.”
Despite an enviable IMDB [Internet Movie Database] page, the professional actor considers his onstage and onscreen work totally separate. “I don’t think the acting helps the music at all, actually,” he said. “I’m not playing a character or putting on a funny voice onstage; it’s just how I sing. People have suggested that I put on a character when I sing, but I’m not into that idea. I want audiences to say yes, I can relate to that; he’s not overacting it.”
Big festivals and grand balls aside, Greg and his musicians (formerly called the Bakelite Broadcasters) still play clubs and bars, where Greg feels he can really shine.“We mostly play places like the RSL [Returned Services League] clubs,” he said. “I like it there because on a big stage you’re kind of trapped. I like to get down from behind the mic into the audience and sing directly to them.”
Greg’s career highlight came at one such small venue. “I was playing the Builders Club in Wollongong, near Sydney,” he said. “My son Damon was learning alto sax and I asked hm to come and sit in with the band for a song. Well, he stayed on for three hours. He took a solo on the first song and just kept taking them; I was so impressed, and so were the musicians. He’s jazz mad too and wants to be a professional one day. He won a Generations in Jazz scholarship, the youngest person to ever win one.”
Damon has already surpassed his dad in technical knowledge. “I should admit that I can’t read music and I don’t know anything about chords; I do everything by ear,” said the elder Poppleton. “But I’ve read about plenty of successful jazz singers who couldn’t read music either, so I don’t feel too bad about it. I’m more of a Slim Gaillard than a Slam Stewart.”
Greg’s fascination is not with how the music looks or works though, but how it sounds. “I think it’s amazing that we know just how people sang a century ago,” he said. “People in 1920 could have no idea how people sang in 1820 or even 1870. I’m not trying to reproduce these old recordings, as I can’t do it any better than they did. But I think it’s amazing that I can hear this great body of work and learn that style of singing, with the benefit of modern technology. I don’t think a lot of people have cottoned on to that yet.”
A very limited run of 50 copies of Greg’s latest CD, ’20s ’30s Tin Pan Alley Vol 1, is available to buy from gregpoppleton.bandcamp.com. Tune into DJ Greg’s nonstop weekly music marathon, Phantom Dancer, on 2ser.com.