6th June, 2004  Volume 10, Issue 47

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Seeking his island

L-R: Keith Potger, Bruce Woodley, Judith Durham, Athol Guy

By Rupert De Alwis 

On a warm day in Colombo in February, 1948 an impressionable young lad, barely seven-years-old, was to embark on a journey of migration that would lead him to a world of music and fame. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka was still dancing in the streets. Celebrating freedom from British rule, rejoicing in nationhood, renewing old traditions and going back to their roots.

But the Potger family was travelling.

Off to Lucky Country Down Under in the care of his parents and grand parents, young Keith, was not to know that fate will lead him up a path that would make him for a space, as famous as the Beatles. For now, there were more immediate and basic concerns. The family had settled in Melbourne - a city that was later to become one of the most popular destinations for Sri Lankan migrants - and his parents were busy striving to improve their lot in life.

Arriving in Melbourne on  February  29,1948 Keith Potger celebrated his eighth birthday on March 21, in a city that was later to become the birth place of the Seekers. Little did he know then that he would be touring Europe as one of the most successful folk bands in the '60s and topping the music charts for years to come.

Born in 1941, Keith Potger was a child of the war years. So were Athol Guy, Bruce Woodley and Judith Durham - the other members of the Seekers. Surely this must have influenced their thoughts, their music. And in the height of their triumph in the mid '60s, their music brought hope and inspiration to a world now being introduced to rock n' roll and the Beatles.

Port of call

When the hugely popular Seekers were travelling to London in 1964, Colombo was one of their ports of call. Keith, now famous and sought after, still had several family members living in his country of birth. His uncle Barandt was captain of the tug that brought in his ship - the Fairsky into the Colombo Harbour. Another uncle, Trevor Bilsborough was the Harbour Master at the time. Indeed, Keith's father, Vere Potger had served in the Ceylon Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (CRNVR) and his uncles were in the airforce during WW2. Despite these connections, it was to be 28 years before Keith visited Sri Lanka again.

In 1992, he accompanied his mum, Joan on a holiday to the island. The first stop on his itinerary so he could dust off his travelling shoes was the Bishop's College Old Girl's Ball - which event he happily attended as an 'old girl'. At the age of five Keith had spent a profitable year at the Colombo school and his cousin Jennifer Ingleton mischievously arranged an invitation for Keith to the gala event as an 'old girl'. Such rocking times aside, for Keith and his mum, the visit to Sri Lanka was a frenzy of tourist activity as they visited many of the land's best attractions and took in the spectacular Esela Perahera. In late 1992 early 1993, Keith had also agreed to perform at a number of hotels managed by the John Keells Group. This tour was a great success.

Now, Keith Potger has drawn upon his many images of Sri Lanka, his experiences, his belief in the Buddhist teachings and his life in Australia to write a deeply personal and poignant new album. Based on his extraordinary life experiences and his memories of Sri Lanka during his most impressionable years, Keith Potger has released Secrets Of The Heart, a collection of nineteen inspirational songs that will warm the soul and thrill the heart.

'High time'

"It's about time" was the comment made by an Australian radio industry guru when told of Keith Potger's first solo CD. As founding member of the internationally acclaimed Australian group the Seekers, with over four decades of accolades, Keith is already well known, dearly loved by his fans and respected by his peers. So how come it took so long to release his first solo album when by 1968 the members of the Seekers had officially split up to pursue their own careers?

Says Keith - "I was busy with the Seekers, helping other artistes and writing songs. Then in late 2002, I lost my voice and virtually went into hiding while I worked on curing my problem with the aid of a speech therapist. The happy ending was that I slowly regained my voice and was able to complete the 2003 Seekers tour. Shortly after, I resolved to make demos of my songs in case something similar happened in the future. "I booked the recording studio for a few weeks to put down some basic versions of songs I had written during the past decade. Before I knew it, I had 19 tracks and was singing better than ever." Keith describes his first solo CD as a 'window to my experience.'

As I write this article, I listen to; Secrets Of The Heart. The deeply reflective songs, inspirational lyrics and soul searching tunes move me greatly and I am compelled to echo dreamily the Australian radio industry guru's sentiments. "Yes indeed. It is about time."

For Keith though, Sri Lanka remains very much a part of his experience. He is surrounded by friends of Sri Lankan descent. He still thinks of Sri Lanka as his first home. In his new song Island Nights featured in the CD he sings poignantly.

"Staring down the halls of silence leading to my lonely room I feel my bar-coded life... Everything changing but staying the same... I need more of those lazy island nights With the sand crunching under our feet As we crashed down the beach water like wine and my soul on fire.. I need less of this stress and more of those island nights... Wasted lots of chances waiting for the grand parade to start I wanted trumpets and lights. Somehow they never came out to play.. that's not what I had in mind. Give me the dream any day I need more of those lazy island nights.."

Perhaps Keith articulates in his own inimitable way the song that burns in the heart of every migrant, far away from his/or her island yearning for those sunny days and breezy nights, the care free attitude, the stress free life.

With his music playing in the background I am prompted to ask the famous crooner, what is his most burning image of the land of his birth?

With the innocence and wonder of one not having experienced the horror and hatred of the JVP onslaught in the late '80s and the blood bath perpetrated by terrorism in the '80s and '90s, Keith tells me, "the freedom to move about."

Says Keith "My younger brother and I had a loving extended family and we felt comfortable in the countryside and visiting the 'big smoke' Colombo. Being barefoot was a major part of our attitude."

A 'glorious period'

I reflect for a space at this wonderful answer echoed no doubt by many a Sri Lankan fortunate enough to have lived in that time. That glorious time before 'Sinhala Only', disharmony, greed and ethnic cleavage.

But Keith is not one to forget the island that gave him such lovely memories. And Keith has long had an idea. An idea of how he could help promote Sri Lanka worldwide. An idea that, if Sri Lanka were astute she would soon support and help realise. Keith proposes to develop a music programme based in Sri Lanka. To make a music video of his inspirational songs in Sri Lanka, featuring various scenic spots.

"The main thrust of the programme", Keith clarifies, would be to show a Sri Lanka that has bountiful sites and sights. However these would not be limited to the acknowledged historical venues but would delve a lot deeper into ecological and spiritual issues."

"My performing would be a side issue", he adds humbly, "but I could be a wandering minstrel taking the viewer along for a unique ride in a unique country."

It is a splendid idea. The Sri Lanka Tourist Board and other relevant authorities must take note.

Here, Keith talks of his early recollections of Sri Lanka, why he left, his belief in the teachings of Lord Buddha, kismet, and how he yearns to go back.

Q: What are your early recollections of the land of your birth?

A:The freedom to move about. My younger brother and I had a loving    extended family and we felt comfortable in the countryside and visiting the 'big smoke' Colombo. Being barefoot was a major part of our attitude I believe.

Q:Who were your parents, where did you live in Sri Lanka and have you returned at any time during your immensely successful career as a Seeker?

A: My parents are Vere and Joan Potger. My mother's maiden name was Meier and I am lucky enough to have genealogies of both sides of my family going back to the mid 1700s when my forebears arrived from Holland and Germany. I was born in Bambalapitiya and my mother's parents had a home in Ambegahawatte where I lived until about the age of four. Then we lived in Colpetty prior to moving to Australia.

When the Seekers were travelling to London in 1964 Colombo was one of our ports of call. I had several family members still living there. I did not have a chance to return until 1992 when I took my mother for a holiday that included the August perahera. During that holiday I made contact with the Keells Hotels Group management who booked me to perform at some of their hotels at the end of that year and going into 1993.

Q: Has Sri Lanka or images of your motherland influenced you, your music, your life, your beliefs?

A: I always felt that Sri Lanka provoked in me a positive attitude that is reflected in my lyrics. Also, one of the songs on my new CD, Island Nights, is very much influenced by my image of Sri Lanka. My beliefs are strongly influenced by Buddhist teachings and I look forward to following this up by spending time in Sri Lanka as soon as I can.

Q: What is the foremost image of Sri Lanka that has been etched in your mind?

A: Early recollections are strongly coloured by the family photo images that have survived. However I can recall places and events that were not 'enhanced' by being in photos.

One vignette that comes to mind is when my brother and I fell into rice paddy fields and had to sneak in the back door of the house to change into clean clothing before my parents saw us. Another was the day we were in the care of my Uncle Lucien down at the beach (forgotten which one) and were swept out by a rip. If he hadn't rescued us I would not be here to tell the tale. I was forever thankful for his quick thinking and bravery. The memory of aromas such as the fragrance of cashew flowers came flooding back after many decades when I wandered through a cashew grove in Bali some years ago, taking me right back to my early childhood in Sri Lanka.

Q: What drives you? What is your force? Or is it only all about music?

A: My force is giving. I have been lucky to have had wonderful experiences and wish to give some joy to those folk I come in contact with. Music is for me a tangible medium through which I can try to achieve this. Another song on the CD, Everything In Your Love, while it can be construed as a love song, really has a more all-embracing message of thanks in the lyrics.

Q: Your work throughout the years reflects more than ever that music comes from your heart, but why is this particular CD a 'life event' for you?

A: I believe that there are certain thresh holds in life that can only be attained when one is prepared. There are many other thresh holds that seem to occur when one is not prepared but that's a different story. Somehow I feel that the making of this CD was something I had prepared for without really knowing as much, all through my musical career. I may record more CDs, who knows, but this one is special because it happened almost like I had nothing to do with it apart from being there at the right time.

Q: Do you maintain any links at all with Sri Lanka?

A: My mother's cousin Jennifer Ingleton is the only blood relative I have in Sri Lanka. I let other influences distract me through the years but now I wish to reinstate my contact and forge fresh links. Jennifer Ingleton is the head of the successful condiments manufacturer and exporter, DAFI Foods. This was started by her husband, but after his death, Jennifer took the reins and has developed the company from its humble beginnings into a much larger operation than anyone could have imagined. Australia is one of the main export destinations.

Q: Do you have any recollection as to why your parents came to Australia from Sri Lanka originally?

A: My father served in the Ceylon Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, and my uncles were in the airforce during WW2. After 1945 countries worldwide were feeling the impact of the protracted hostilities and Ceylon was no exception. My parents and my uncles were aware that opportunities were opening up in Australia and Canada with new industries growing out of the war effort. So, in 1947, my father and my mother's two brothers decided that Australia was to be the destination and migrated in September to Melbourne. My father found work at Fisherman's Bend in the fledgling car industry and he prepared the way for my mother, my grandparents, my brother and me to come to Melbourne in 1948. We arrived on February 29, it being a leap year. My seventh birthday was on March 21 that year.

Q: Did you attend a school in Sri Lanka even for a short period. If so, which?

A: I attended Bishop's College at five years of age for just over a year. This being a girls' school, I have been ragged about it occasionally by those who know this obscure piece of my past.

Keith Potger a founding member of the Seekers, is a self taught guitarist and excels on a 12 string guitar. He also sang vocals with the group. During his school years Keith enrolled for subjects that were necessary for his chosen path of medicine, but half way through secondary school his hobby of music began to take a more important role in his life. In 1957 he started his first vocal group and began arranging and conducting performances at school level. The rock n' roll era was 'too exciting for him to ignore' writes Keith in the book Celebrations - Fifty Years Of Sri Lanka -Australia Interactions, edited by C.A. & I.H. vanden Driesen.

In 1959, Keith immersed himself in the music industry and got involved in every aspect - performing, writing, arranging and marketing. His vocal group the Escorts were soon established on national and local television music shows. Meanwhile folk music was becoming more influential in his life and says he, in the book 'Celebrations et al;' "from the ashes of my previous group The Escorts, a few casual singing sessions turned into a group that was to dominate the rest of my life - the Seekers. Though the Seekers started out as an all male group in 1963 one member left and the remaining three asked a young female vocalist making a name for herself in Melbourne jazz clubs to sit as a replacement. Thus came together Judith Durham, Athol Guy, Bruce Woodley and Keith Potger as the main line up of the Seekers. Following a visit to London in 1964, the group were signed to the Grade Agency and secured a prestigious guest spot on the televised Sunday Night At The London Palladium.

The Seekers also appeared on the Tonight Show on BBC TV, and a few days later appeared in Blackpool, supporting Freddie and the Dreamers. They soon became regular guests on Call In On Carroll, a popular Friday night TV programme, and were offered an album deal with the World Record Club.This album, entitled simply the Seekers, was so well received that the group was immediately offered another album by the WRC. This next album, Hide And Seekers, included several solos for Judith, as well as a cover of Bob Dylan's Blowin' In The Wind. Tom Springfield, of the recently-defunct Springfields, soon realised that the Seekers could fill the gap left by his former group and offered his services as songwriter/producer. Although 1965 was one of the most competitive years in pop, the Seekers strongly challenged the Beatles and the the Rolling Stones as the top chart act of the year.

A trilogy of folk/pop smashes on November 4th, 1964, the Seekers recorded I'll Never Find Another You by Tom Springfield at EMI's Abbey Road Studios, and the record was released a month later. This soon reached the Top 40, and by the beginning of 1965 was attracting considerable airplay and climbing rapidly up the charts. By February, it knocked The Kinks' Tired Of Waiting For You off the No. 1 position to top the UK charts. The record also reached No. 1 in Australia and No. 3 in the USA, selling almost two million copies. This was followed by another Tom Springfield song, A World Of Our Own, which soon reached No. 1 in Britain, No. 2 in Australia and No. 15 in the USA. Soon the group released another album, A World Of Our Own (released as simply The Seekers in Australia). The same year, the Seekers had their third No. 1 single, The Carnival Is Over, again by Tom Springfield. At its peak, this sold over 90,000 copies a day.

Apart from Tom Springfields's compositions, such as Walk With Me, they also scored a massive chart hit with Malvina Reynolds' Morningtown Ride and gave Paul Simon his first UK success with a bouncy adaptation of 'Someday One Day'. In early 1967, the breezy Georgy Girl (written by Tom Springfield and Jim Dale) was a transatlantic Top 10 hit but thereafter, apart from When Will The Good Apples Fall and Emerald City, the group were no longer chart regulars.

Two years later they bowed out in a televised farewell performance, and went their separate ways. Keith Potger oversaw the formation of the New Seekers before moving into record production. In 1975, the Seekers briefly re-formed with teenage Dutch singer Louisa Wisseling Replacing Judith Durham. They enjoyed one moment of chart glory when 'The Sparrow Song's topped the Australian charts. In 1990 Judith Durham was involved in a serious car crash and spent six months recovering. The experience is said to have inspired her to reunite the original Seekers, and they played a series of 100 dates across Australia and New Zealand, before appearing in several 1994 Silver Jubilee Reunion Concerts in the UK at venues which included London's Royal Albert Hall and Wembley Arena.

The group Seekers received several accolades which include the first group ever to reach No. 1 in the UK with their first three singles, the first Australian group to reach No 1 internationally (I'll Never Find Another You), the first Australian group to reach No 1 on the American charts (Georgy Girl), and they attracted the biggest concert crowd in the southern hemisphere (200,000+ people). Their 1965 No 1 hit The Carnival Is Over has won a legendary place in the UK Top 100 Singles Chart of All Time, the group was named Australians of the Year in 1967 - the only time this annual honour has been awarded to a group collectively, the record holders for Australian television ratings for their TV special The Seekers Down Under 1967 inducted to the ARIA Hall of Fame 1995.

NOTE: Keith Potger's solo CD Secrets of the Heart may be purchased by email circle@vianet.net.au

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