Piano player kept it in the family
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Piano player kept it in the family

MARIE JUNE FRANCIS: 1936–2020

Marie Francis was a gifted pianist at the forefront of the Sydney jazz scene during the '70s and '80s. She appeared on Brian Henderson's show Bandstand and was sought after to play at numerous music venues around Sydney.

Marie Francis Family Band: young Marie is on the piano, her mother is on bass and her father is on drums.

Marie Francis Family Band: young Marie is on the piano, her mother is on bass and her father is on drums.

Marie June Francis was born in Wellington, New Zealand, the eldest of seven children, to William and Joyce Francis.

The family grew up on a small farm on the outskirts of Dunedin. Marie was a very smart and talented student and went to a devout Catholic school. The nuns were amazed by her musical skills and one, in particular, took her under her wing and taught her piano.

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Marie was destined to be a pianist; she was renowned for arriving early to her lessons and had to be shoo-ed out so that the next pupil could begin. In primary school, her nickname was "piano legs" as her calves were quite shapely.

Marie Francis in her early years as a professional jazz pianist.

Marie Francis in her early years as a professional jazz pianist.

Her father and mother formed a small band that included all of their children playing various instruments. Her mother Joyce played the bass and her father the drums. In house, they covered piano, singing, guitar, trombone, trumpet saxophone and drums. Marie was the star, playing astonishing jazz numbers that soon got her a reputation throughout New Zealand.

Son Tony, also a musician, recalls: "One of my first memories is my Mum and Dad all dressed up, Mum in a beautiful sparkly glittering gown, leaving me with this strange girl and going out. Later on, my babysitter turned the TV on and there were my parents playing and singing together. I was trying to reach into the TV and get them out. They were wearing the same clothes I’d seen them leaving in."

Pretty soon they were touring and performing across New Zealand as the Marie Francis Band. She moved to Auckland and met up with a budding singer, Ron Polson, who was being featured on radio long before television had arrived in New Zealand. They began working together in a nightclub called the Bel Air. Marie and Ron had a whirlwind romance and got married in a registry office in Auckland. They decided to move to Sydney to try their luck in the big smoke.

Marie Francis.

Marie Francis.

They ran out of money in a couple of weeks and Ron had to go back to his old job as a school teacher while Marie got a regular spot in the Musician's Club.

Marie Francis was a part of the Sydney jazz scene in the 1970s and 1980s along with her partner Lauchie Jamieson and saxophone player Marty Mooney. She lived in an eclectic household in Darlinghurst where many legendary jam sessions were held as they prepared to go out to the various gigs in Sydney.

Regular visitors included Joe "Be Bop" Lane, Bobby Scott, Ed Gaston, Alan Turnbull and Ricky May.
One of the visitors to the household was painter Brett Whiteley, a huge music fan.

Ron and Marie's musical careers gradually took off, but their relationship was stormy, to say the least. Ron auditioned for Bandstand, a regular weekly program compered by Brian Henderson, and got the gig.

Brian Henderson heard about Marie and invited her to come on the show to do a number backing Ron. It was a near disaster. They could not agree on how the song should be performed and, after a furious argument, Ron took off and stayed in a motel for the night. They turned up at Channel Nine without speaking to each another and recorded their number, To Each His Own. The recording was perfect and Brian came over to compliment them on how well they worked together.

Later, Marie and her oldest son Tony had a blues band called The Rhythm Method with a regular gig at a pub in North Sydney. The bass player would always peel off the first $50 to pay Marie, that was not negotiable.

Marie composed hundreds of jazz tunes and was forever scribbling furiously in one of her many manuscript books. She was an early feminist, composing, arranging and performing in a male-dominated music world of the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s. She performed at The Basement, El Rocco, Don Burrows Supper Club, French's Tavern and Manly Warringah Leagues Club.

Marie and Ron had four children together, all very musically gifted, but they divorced. However, a year or so ago they met at their granddaughter's wedding and reconciled completely.

Marie contracted a serious illness and went into hospital with no expectation of ever coming out. Their children visited her every day and Ron came down from Port Macquarie to see her as often as possible. She passed away with her children and grandchildren by her side.

There is a star for Marie Francis on the footpath in Kings Cross not far from the fountain.

Ron Polson

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