In 1959, it took Geoff Mack just two hours to write one of the most successful songs in Australian music history, and it’s fed him ever since. He’d been back in Australia for five years, plying his trade as an entertainer, travelling constantly with his wife Tabbi Francis and business partner Lucky Grills with their big tent show ‘Carol’s Varieties’, playing to up to 1,000 people under the canvas on a big night.
Albert Geoffrey McElhinney was born on December 20th, 1922 at Surry Hills in Sydney. He joined the RAAF in 1942 as a mechanic, but his heart was in music – he had played in dance bands since he was 18. By war’s end he was an accomplished performer, and while singing and playing guitar behind Gracie Fields in Borneo in 1945, he was spotted by staff members of Sydney radio station 2SM. On his return to Australia he did some radio broadcasting work and toured with Barton’s Follies – the biggest tent show in Australia – but was soon back abroad, this time in Japan as part of the Commonwealth Occupational Forces. Here he performed for the forces and ended up as the main radio announcer for station WLKS – the ‘voice of the C.I.F.’ His exit from Japan, Geoff admits, was not exactly covered in glory. “I was deported – given 48 hours to get out – for black marketing. I was getting coffee, sugar, soap and things from the canteen and selling it to the Japs. I didn’t see anything wrong with that and I was making a lot of people happy and making a bit of money for myself.”
Geoff’s next stop was London, but it wasn’t his first choice. “I tried to get a ship to Canada but I couldn’t – I would have had a completely different life if I had gone to Canada. So I jumped onto a cargo ship that only had twelve passengers. It took eight weeks to get to England, and it was the best eight weeks I’d ever had, stopping at all the ports, and the other passengers were really interesting people. I got to London with forty quid, and that lasted five weeks; mind you I was a bit hungry! All the out of work Aussies would go to Australia House and someone I’d worked with in Japan asked me if I wanted to go to work in Germany, and I said ‘Yeah, too right’. So he put me onto this Scottish agent, who was a crook, but I went and was in Germany off and on for four years working as a guitar player, first in bands and then as a cabaret act.”
It was while in Germany Geoff met the love of his life; English dancer and comedienne Tabbi Francis, and they went on to perform together at Moulin Rouge in Paris as well as touring Italy, Egypt, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia. By 1954 Geoff felt it was time to bring his bride back to Australia, but not by the conventional means. “In England I had a side-valve Sunbeam Marsdon bike with a sidecar which served me very well, but when we decided to ride back to Australia I bought a 600 Panther sloper. I reckon it had fewer moving parts than just about anything, and it was easy to work on. If we had to cross a river I could even take the dynamo off – it was just held on with a strap – hang it around my neck and refit it when we reached the other shore. The Lucas electrics gave no trouble, but the rotten Amal carburettor did, the needle kept falling out. It was the first model Panther 600 with a swinging arm frame, and the sidecar had a swinging arm for the wheel too, although it wasn’t swinging too well by the end of the trip. The sidecar had a Canterbury chassis with a tandem chair, which could carry one adult and a child. But for the trip it was full of our gear plus extra water, tinned food and so on – Tabbi rode on the pillion. There was no petrol around in 1954 and we had to carry ours in silver tins, actually Tabbi had to carry it in her lap some of the time so the tins wouldn’t puncture.”
Departing London in September 1954 with the Panther/Canterbury loaded to the gills, the first stop on the Continent was Ostend, then to Bruges and down to the Mediterranean coast via Zagreb in what is now Croatia. “What petrol we could get was terrible stuff, about 60 octane, and I had to run the magneto on full retard almost permanently – if you advanced it, the engine would just pink.” Macedonia and Turkey passed under the Panther’s wheels as the roads deteriorated to the point of non-existence and the pair just followed the telegraph poles through the desert. Mending punctures was a daily chore. The swinging arm on the Panther broke in Turkey and had to be repaired by forming a piece of quarter inch steel into a horseshoe shape and welding it into place. “The bike also sheared the bolts holding the rear springs, they were just mild steel, so the rear mudguard just fell onto the rear tyre. Luckily I found a little engineering shop in Turkey who made up some high-tensile bolts – they are still on the bike to this day. By the time we got to Persia (Iran) the sidecar body had fallen to pieces, so I took that off and threw it away. I took the canopy off and turned it upside down and filled it up with all our gear which included a tent that we hardly ever used. The US forces had a system called Point Four to keep communism out of Persia (instigated by President Truman in 1949 as a Cold War ‘technical assistance’ program) which was in operation. We needed to make contact with people who could help us as we needed supplies, so I looked for people wearing shoes as this was generally a sign that they were educated and may be able to speak English or German. By an incredible chance we met up with a school teacher who had seen a copy of Stars & Stripes magazine which had a picture of me and Tabbi in it and he recognised us. He invited us to stay at his place in Qom for a night and arranged for some blokes to watch over our bike. When we left to go to Kerman we stopped in the middle of the desert to make a cup of tea and have something to eat. All the food tins were in the bottom of the sidecar with everything piled on top. Before we left Qom I thought I’d check that all the cans were there, and there was nothing missing, my bag was there. Anyway when we stopped I pulled a can out and it was light as a feather! The blokes who were supposed to be looking after the bike had opened the bottom of the cans and emptied all the food out! So we still made a cup of tea and carried on to Kerman where we met a Doctor Meyer who put us up for a couple of nights. Tabbi went into the bathroom and put her dress on and I got my bag out with all my clothes in it and opened it up – it was stuffed with newspapers! They’d taken all my clothes. So I came out to dinner still dressed in my travelling gear. Tabbi was furious with me and wanted to know why I hadn’t got dressed for dinner and I just whispered, ‘I’ll tell you afterwards.’ In one of the bags she had her stage costume which was fairly outrageous, and they pinched that too – I don’t know what the hell they were going to do with that!”
The next destination was Bombay, India via Pakistan and the Khyber Pass, and there were still no roads to speak of. Mounted on the pillion, Tabbi had to nurse the precious cans of extra petrol to stop them from puncturing. “We thought we were doing it rough, but out in the middle of nowhere in Pakistan we came across this young English couple on a Triumph twin. They had never been out of England before!” In Pakistan Geoff managed to buy some clothes and replenish supplies. They boarded a ferry to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and on arrival in Columbo booked a passage to Fremantle. “We had five days to wait so I got hold of a wooden crate and pulled the bike to pieces and shipped the lot as a trunk, which cost nothing. When we got to Fremantle we had it customs cleared and I asked the customs official if it was alright if I put it together right there on the wharf. They weren’t too keen on that but they put me on to a local carrier who let me use his shed to reassemble the bike. I kept three or four planks from the crate and wrapped everything in the tent and set off to cross the Nullabor. On the way the rear chainguard fell off and Tabbi’s skirt got caught it the chain. It just ripped the skirt off leaving her sitting there in her bra and pants!”
In the December 1954, thirteen weeks and 13,000 miles after leaving London, Geoff, Tabbi and the bedraggled Panther rode into Sydney. “When our gear came out from England I had a big theatrical basket, so I put that on the sidecar chassis with a bit of canvas over the top and all my gear in that. There was plenty of work around in those days and we got a deal to play at the Theatre Royal in Brisbane, so we rode up there. In the mid 1950s everyone was getting electric guitars and you can’t carry an amp on a bike so I had to get a car – a Vanguard panel van. They were a good motor, wet sleeves, and you could do a valve grind with no tools. You could push the valve keepers out just with your thumb – took me about four hours to do a valve grind.” By this stage Geoff and Tabbi had bought a house in Mount Kuring-gai in Sydney’s north, and the Panther went into a well-deserved slumber under the house.
Then, in 1959, came the break every entertainer dreams of. “I’d been working in a hotel in Coolangatta for two years and it came time to go back to Sydney. I’d written a lot of stuff while we were on the Gold Coast, but it was all to do with the Gold Coast – typical stuff that would only last a couple of weeks. So I needed a song for an opening in Sydney – it was a throwaway like everything else I wrote – for the purpose of getting back home. It began with a line – “It’s nice to be back in Sydney, you ask me where I’ve been. If you settle back and listen, I’ll tell you exactly where I’ve been…” Geoff performed the song as part of his act for several years and thought nothing special of it until he had a phone call from New Zealander Johnny Devlin – one of the earliest local rock ‘n roll stars. “Devlin started a (music) publishing company – he wasn’t bright enough to keep it going – and he rang me up and said he wanted some songs. I sorted out about five songs that I thought people might like and took them in and he said, ‘What about the one with all the towns?’ I said that nobody would want that, it’s just my opener – I haven’t even got it written out. Graham Bell, the jazz band leader who I’d worked with some years before was there and I said, ‘It hasn’t even got a verse – in those days you had to write the melody line and the lyrics – and he said, ‘Well sit down and write one!’
A bit later I was working in the Afro Cuban club in Kings Cross which was a terrible dump. I had a two-week contract, I hated that place. It was an all-male audience because they had tassel dancers – a girlie show. Nobody was interested in me but I learned a lesson; no matter how bad the audience is, always do your very best because there might be someone, maybe an agent, who can see something in you. Anyway, this young bloke came up to me after the show and said, “Hey, any chance of getting that song with all the towns in it?’ I said, ‘Yes, every chance, just go and see Johnny Devlin.’ That was Lucky Starr. So the next thing, I’m on tour in a town called Milmurina in Queensland and we were pulling down the tent after the Saturday night. We’d been there for a week and we had about 850 chairs to pack up, and a wife of one of the musicians called out, ‘Hey Geoff, come and have a listen to this!’ So I went over to the caravan and there was Lucky Starr singing ‘I’ve been everywhere’. It was top of the Top 40 for fifteen weeks!
The song went on to be recorded by some of the world’s leading country music artists, including Johnny Cash and Hank Snow – more than 20 different versions have been recorded using place names from New Guinea to Canada. Over 130 cover versions have been released since 1962. “ The most successful version was the American one. I got an atlas and a magnifying glass and found all the towns that rhymed. It (the Hank Snow version) sold a million copies in 1963.’ The success of the song in the US resulted in Geoff being inducted into the International Songwriters Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee in 1963, into the Hands of Fame at Tamworth NSW in 1978, and receiving the Tamworth Song Writers’ Association Song Maker Award in 1997. In 2005 Geoff was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to country music and for his work in the community, particularly senior citizens groups.
And it’s not only Geoff’s effigy that is everywhere in Tamworth – the Panther is there too. Displayed in the Tamworth Visitors’ Centre, the old warhorse looks surprisingly dapper considering it has more than 150,000 miles under its wheels. “In the seventies I had the bike restored by Jim Eade in Sydney, it took two years. I wish I hadn’t done that – it would have been better left the way it finished up. The tank was originally cream but they did it black, that was a shame too.”
In December 2012 Geoff Mack will celebrate his 90th birthday, while Tabbi has clocked up 86 and is still as vibrant and effervescent as she was when she trod the boards. “She’s nuts,” says Geoff, who still leads a full life himself. “I’ve got a few problems with my feet, that’s from kicking over that Panther I reckon’, but you get the impression that if he had his life to live again, he wouldn’t change a thing.
Thanks to Allan Tomkins for the suggestion for this story.
Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: David Brown, Rick McElhinney and Geoff Mack archives.
Note: Geoff Mack died in Queensland in 2017 aged 94.