Entertainer John Rayward at his home in Maryborough.
Entertainer John Rayward at his home in Maryborough. Robyne Cuerel

Rhythm of life a powerful beat for M'boro entertainer

HE DATED Shirley Bassey, lost and won at poker to a young Scot named Sean Connery, sipped coffee with Michael Caine and he's never sung a bum note in his life.

John Rayward's eyes shine as he tells of meeting Bassey at a pyjama party.

But like a true gentlemen, the Maryborough troubadour won't kiss and tell.

"Norman Newell, who was a song publisher on Denmark St in London, knew that I knew Shirley and asked me to take a song around to her because he thought it might suit her," he said.

Long story short: The song was Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me and became one of her first big hits.

An original Black and White Minstrel, international entertainer, John Rayward calls Maryborough home.
An original Black and White Minstrel, international entertainer, John Rayward calls Maryborough home. Robyne Cuerel

A walk down memory lane beside John is worth the stroll.

Sit down with the gracious gentleman in his Maryborough home and he will take you through the decades, from radio spots to dizzying success in London where he met Queen Elizabeth after a Royal Command Performance.

Famous names light up his memories, but the rhythm of John's life began with a simple beat at the age of 12 when his mother paid for singing lessons.

Following success at a talent quest and armed with the self confidence that he had talent, his course was set.

But for someone with a genetic hearing impairment, it was never going to be easy. That was only one of the many obstacles John faced but saw as surmountable.

"I only felt nervous when auditioning and I couldn't hear what was being said a few rows back in the auditorium."

His partner Daphne, who also has also lived a lifetime in the showbiz industry, said she never heard him sing an off note.

Before tripping the light fantastic in London, a 16-year-old John, with a burning fire in his belly, scored a segment on Sydney's 2SM.

"I had an uncle in New York and used to con him into sending me all the latest records from Capitol. It was possibly the rarest collection in Sydney and that got me a Saturday morning spot on the radio."

From there John left Australian shores for the United Kingdom en route to New York.

"It was easier in those days to get to the States via England, and I wanted to see my uncle."

However, travel costs money and that was now in short supply, so a job at Selfridges became a means to an end.

After finding accommodation in Soho, new acquaintances suggested he join the Film Artists Association for stand in parts or work as an extra.

That's where he met and was befriended by Petula Clark who was starring in a film Don't Ever Leave Me.

"Petula invited me over to her place for Christmas lunch with the family, she was only 17, too. Nothing else happened there, we were only ever friends."

Shirley Bassey, 17, and John Rayward were an item for about four months after meeting at a pyjama party in London.
Shirley Bassey, 17, and John Rayward were an item for about four months after meeting at a pyjama party in London. Robyne Cuerel

John also changed his name to Johnny Powell.

He said that whenever there was a break in the hectic schedule, a young Scotsman would ask if there was a poker game at his place on Friday night.

His name was Sean Connery.

"I think he had a couple of lines in South Pacific; he was doing a bit of film work.

"He was pleasant but not overpowering - he played a good game of poker.

"It was at our Friday night poker schools that he mentioned he was going to go into the acting side of things.

Johnny wasn't keen on the idea.

"That was too much of a hard grind for me. I was enjoying myself too much in musicals in the West End.

"There's no money in that (acting) - I'm staying with the singing."

Sean went out on the road, on the circuit that's where he honed his acting style.

And the rest is history.

" Michael Caine was another - he went out on the road, did the hard grinds," he said.

"We were always bumping into each other in coffee lounges, just like we do in Maryborough."

Johnny had an opportunity to audition for the George Mitchell Singers by this time he was about 25.

He signed up with The George Mitchell Singers, performed in the Norman Wisdom Show at the London Palladium. Then there was the Harry Secombe Show where he was part of a group called the Jackpots who performed before a young Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.

A portait of John Rayward taken on the Gold Coast.
A portait of John Rayward taken on the Gold Coast. Robyne Cuerel

"She was so beautiful, we were speechless," he said.

"After the Harry Secombe Show closed, I remained with the George Mitchell singers."

That was when the idea of the Black and White Minstrels started forming and became a headline show.

John said there were no issues with racial discrimination at that time. But apparently they were having problems in America.

"I was what you call a 'fill in' singer for the Black and White Minstrels. I was not a regular; I just filled in for someone who was sick."

Sunday Night at the Palladium were big shows and were televised. Television came to London before it came out to Australia.

"I was never one to sit around and wait for the phone to ring, so I kept myself in film work as stand in."

"There was a five-month stint in a movie with Deborah Kerr, The End of the Affair. I was standing in and doing long distance doubling for one of the stars, Van Johnson."

"It was all great fun - I mean going out to the studio every day, working, on a film, being active in the business all the time."

"I was in a movie with Tyrone Power which he died on. It was Solomon and Sheba, and filmed in Spain. I went over for a working holiday. After I left I was told that he died and that Yul Brynner took his place."

Singing has always been the pathway through John's life.

" I'd never go broke - I could always make money singing. I was more keen in singing than anything else I ever did because I love the lyrics and the melody and the romantic things in a song."

And at the age of 84 the rhythm is as powerful as ever.

He is considering auditioning for The Voice.

"An 84-year-old - wouldn't that be sensational?" he said.

"I've gone from London to Paris to Sydney to Brisbane to Maryborough."

Like the lyrics of one of his favourite songs, "as long as there is a song to sing, I shall be younger than spring".

And the beat goes on.

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