Another possible first for the FORGOTTEN ARTISTS series – I don’t think we’ve featured an Antipodean band before!
The Black Sorrows hail from Melbourne, Australia, and started life as an R&B covers band. The founder and mainstay of the band is multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter, Joe Camilleri, who had fronted popular blues rock band Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons; a band that had a series of Australian chart hits in the late 70s/early 80s. Camilleri is a fascinating character. Born in Malta in 1948, one of ten children, the family relocated to Australia when he was two years old. Heavily into music from a very young age, he first started working as a professional musician in the mid-60s, singing and playing the saxophone with Australian blues and R&B band The King Bees and then the Adderley Smith Blues Band. He came to National prominence with Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons – zep was the nickname his mother had given him as a child and he had become known as Jo Zep around the local music scene. The band were extremely successful in Australia from 1975 to 1983 and, when they broke up, Camilleri was left looking for a new band and a new direction.
He formed The Black Sorrows with, initially, other ex-members of the Falcons and they started out as an informal outfit playing acoustically and featuring mainly blues and R&B songs but with the occasional inclusion of some Zydeco tunes. Though they started out as an acoustic covers band they quickly moved to a full band line up, though actual membership remained fluid. Their first album was released in June 1984, ‘Sonola’ followed by ‘Rockin’ Zydeco’ just 10 months later. Both albums were made up entirely of blues and R&B covers from the likes of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and John Lee Hooker. In 1985 Camilleri met, and started writing with, Nick Smith and this is where their music starts to move away from strict R&B and Blues and starts to incorporate more of a country and folk sound, with the inclusion of a wider range of instruments including fiddle and mandolin. The band had always flirted with the sounds of Zydeco, a music Camilleri was particularly interested in, and this drift towards a more countrified sound would see the band establish a real musical identity for themselves, away from the limitations of a covers band.
What is considered the band’s classic period, a time that will be of particular interest to Americana fans, started with their fourth album, 1987’s ‘Dear Children’. With its acoustic title track, Springsteenesque lead single, ‘Mystified’, and the rockabilly infused follow up, ‘Daughters of Glory’, this marked a significant change in their style and direction and, more importantly, made major record label CBS sit up and take notice. CBS distributed the album and signed The Black Sorrows to the label.
The band got another boost in 1988, with the addition of the Bull Sisters to the band. Vika and younger sister Linda were daughters of a Melbourne father and Tongan mother and were possessed of particularly fine voices that brought another dimension to the band. Vika was a strong, soulful singer with Linda having a sweeter, softer voice making for a particularly good combination on the band’s newer material. The sisters had grown up singing in their Tongan community church choir and had a strong background in gospel music. They were introduced to The Black Sorrows by drummer Peter Luscombe, who knew them from their work with their own band, The Honeymooners, and their voices immediately provided more depth to the backing vocals than had previously been present. The sisters would come to have their own solo spots on live gigs and were an important part of the band’s new sound. Their arrival also meant that Nick Smith would stop performing with the band, though he would continue to write with Camilleri. The band’s fifth album, 1988’s ‘Hold On to Me’, was a significant step up and helped the group achieve wider recognition outside Australia. It reached seventh position on the Australian charts and spawned two hit singles in ‘Chained to the Wheel’, which heavily featured the Bull Sisters and the harmony vocals and gospel-style singing they brought to the band, and ‘The Crack-Up’. Internationally, the album would achieve significant chart placings in the Norwegian, Swedish and New Zealand charts, justifying CBS’ faith in the band.
The following album, 1990’s ‘Harley & Rose’, is considered by many to be the band’s finest hour and is the one that should be of particular interest to Americana fans. The title track achieved significant radio play in a number of countries, including the UK, and the album went to number three in the Australian album charts, staying in the top 50 for nearly a year. Again, it charted in Sweden and Norway and the band looked set for a significant future – but there was a problem brewing. Camilleri had never lost his passion for Blues and R&B and in 1989, between the recordings of the band’s fifth and sixth albums, he had formed The Revelators – a band made up of some of his old friends and some members of the Black Sorrows – this side project was his means of getting back in touch with his rockier sound but it started to pull Camilleri away from the more roots-based music of The Black Sorrows. By the time they recorded the final album of this incarnation of the band, 1992’s ‘Better Times’, there had been a noticeable shift in the sound. Two members of The Revelators had moved across into The Black Sorrows and fiddle player Jen Anderson, whose contribution to ‘Harley & Rose’ had really accentuated the folk element of the band’s sound, had left. Nick Smith, whose lyrics had become an important part of The Black Sorrow’s songs, was replaced as Camilleri’s songwriting partner by Laurie Polec and the shift back towards their earlier blues/rock origins was well underway. ‘Better Times’ did become the bands third successive top 20 album in Australia, but it didn’t rise as high as its predecessors and it didn’t perform as well outside their native country. There was a Greatest Hits package the following year, ‘The Chosen Ones’ and a supporting tour, at the end of which Camilleri dissolved the band.
Camilleri has continued to operate as The Black Sorrows to this day, though he has been the only long-serving member of the constantly shifting line-up. From the time he reformed the band, in 1994, they have returned to the blues/rock and R&B music that is, obviously, Camilleri’s first love. The Black Sorrows remains an active and very good band – but they’re no longer the roots tinged outfit of their most commercially successful period. From a purely personal perspective, I think that’s a shame. ‘Harley & Rose’ remains a favourite song and album for me and I’d have liked to see the band build on that sound – but that clearly wasn’t Joe Camilleri’s long-term vision of what he wanted his band to be and you have to respect that decision; but I still wonder what might have been if they’d stayed on that path.