If you’ve guessed The Osmonds or Jackson 5, you’re close. Those clean-living singing siblings were fully present in the popular mind. But we’re talking The Ormsby Brothers from New Zealand’s Waikato region here. Three part-Māori vocalists, who had a massive 1973 Australian hit with their defiant take on ‘You Don’t Own Me’, a song Lesley Gore took into the US Top Ten a decade earlier.
The Ormsby Brothers’ ‘You Don’t Own Me’ would occupy Go Set’s Australia-wide singles chart for 16 weeks between September and December 1973, spending 11 weeks in the Top Ten and peaking at No.2 in November. The teen pop symphony had been charting high in all the Australian state radio markets from mid-1973 on.
Neville (16), Michael (14) and Adrian Ormsby (11) were in the capable hands of New Zealand’s best studio production and arrangement duo, Peter Dawkins and Mike Perjanik, who – like the brothers Ormsby – now made their home in Sydney. Together, they squeezed out one of the top five biggest-selling Australian records of 1973.
Despite ‘You Don’t Own Me’ being one of a string of strong singles, plus a self-titled album recorded with Peter Dawkins for EMI Records in Australia between 1973 and 1975, The Ormsby Brothers have almost disappeared from the music histories of Australia and New Zealand.
That’s almost, but not completely. The teen trio and their big hit, ‘You Don’t Own Me’, were well remembered enough to be compiled on For The Record, volume one, an international collection of Australian radio hits put together by Shock Records in 2002.
By October 1969 the Ormsby family was living and working in Auckland.
New Zealand got to see the sonorous siblings first in 1967 at talent quests and stage spots in the Waikato, backed on guitar by their father Edwin, a primary school principal at Matangi on Hamilton’s eastern edge. Temple View, the religious and educational centre for the Mormon (Church of Latter Day Saints) religion in New Zealand is nearby.
By October 1969 the Ormsby family was living and working in Auckland. It’d been a busy two years. The brothers had won six talent quests and were runner-up in two. They’d been on radio, toured with the Sam Pehi Spectacular, Lou and Simon’s Tenth Anniversary special and reached the finals of TV’s Studio One.
When New Zealand Herald spoke to them that month, The Ormsby Brothers had just placed third at the Tiri Talent Contest at Auckland Boat Show at Epsom Showgrounds. Two weeks on, they had an evening guest spot on The Country Touch.
Weddings, dinners, concerts, A&P Shows, charity functions. You name it, they played it. In January 1970, The Ormsby Brothers took out Joe Brown’s Search For Stars contest before going on to sing alongside Bunny Walters, Corben Simpson and Shane at the rain-soaked Superpop 70, the special Western Springs concert in late March for the visiting Prince Charles and Princess Anne. TV music show Happen Inn soon featured them as well.
Having already moved once to aid their children’s singing career, Edwin and Janet Ormsby did the Tasman hop to Sydney in September 1971 with their four sons – the singing trio and youngest Nathan. It was back to performing in shopping malls for a while.
The Ormsby Brothers and their dad had talked about recording a single as early as 1971, but it wasn’t until November 1972 that they got one out. ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ was an old Christmas chestnut originally taken to the top of the American charts by Jimmy Boyd in December 1952.
Producer Peter Dawkins and arranger Terrence Eldon were more likely inspired by the version Phil Spector cut for The Ronettes on A Christmas Gift For You, a critically acclaimed non-hit album from December 1963 of Philles Records artists tackling Christmas favourites. More recently, Jackson 5’s version with young Michael out front featured on 1970’s Jackson 5 Christmas Album.
The Ormsby Brothers handle ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ with ease, steering what could easily be a gimmicky song into fresh-faced wide-eyed territory with an expressive and assured take.
There was better to come in the shape of ‘You Don’t Own Me’. At first glance, Lesley Gore's song about empowering women seemed a strange choice for the boys, but with the initial evolution of the rock and roll era already under popular review, why not chance a great teen song from 1963?
‘You Don’t Own Me’ had recently been dusted down by Ohio group, Bo Donaldson and The Heywoods, who toured with The Osmonds, for a single released in America, Europe and Great Britain in late 1972 and early 1973. Produced by co-writer John Madara, The Heywoods’ version is slower than The Ormsby Brothers and the voices deeper, although the music has a similar dynamic.
With Mike Perjanik Arranging, Peter Dawkins came up with an even better version.
With New Zealand arranger Mike Perjanik now onboard, Peter Dawkins came up with an even better version. The production is busy with swelling horns and strings, winsome lead guitar, and a beat that is consistent, but never cluttered. Adrian Ormsby’s assured lead vocal grabs firm hold of the song. It’s a quantum step on from the first single. Mormon or not, there’s a rebellious edge there that bites and lingers.
In later years, Peter Dawkins would rate the track as one of his best early productions. The Australian public certainly agreed, as did the local radio industry. The Ormsby Brothers won the Easy Listening Vocal Award for 1973 from the Australian Federation of Commercial Broadcasters.
The made-for-television trio edged in on another piece of Australian history, when on 7 October 1973 they appeared at the newly opened Sydney Opera House on Sunday Night At the Opera House, an “all Australian Variety Spectacular” hosted by Barry Crocker. Photographs of The Ormsby Brothers performing there would later appear on the back cover of the vocal trio’s only album.
For single number three, Peter Dawkins found ‘Sweet Virginia’, not the Rolling Stones song but a more obscure recent composition written by Swedish pop duo Malta (Claes at Geijertam and Goran Fristop) and produced by Bengt Palmers for EMI in 1973. This was a return to a classic New Zealand formula that Peter Dawkins knew well: find a great song unreleased locally or confined to a B-side or album track.
The Ormsby Brothers were on a creative roll. Their upbeat take on ‘Sweet Virginia’ has them sounding older than their years, over a bed of horns and fuzzed lead guitar. Released on 22 November 1973, ‘Sweet Virginia’ climbed to No.80 on the Australian national charts in early February 1974.
The Ormsby Brothers changed down a gear next up and had a crack at The Walker Brothers’ melancholic ballad, ‘The Sun Ain’t Going To Shine Anymore’. Handling the demands of a downbeat yet hopeful lyric – with a first line of “Loneliness is the cloak I wear” in a way that defied their years – it was another standout Dawkins/Perjanik collaboration evoking The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. The Ormsby Brothers’ third single should have been another hit.
Only Brisbane listeners agreed, sending the song to No.21 in April 1974. Nationally, ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’ made No.93 that month, staying in the Top 100 for just two weeks.
In New Zealand, the classy ‘Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine ...’ was relegated to the flip; a take on The Crystals’ ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ being the favoured side. A pity because the Australian B-side is a mighty fine version of The Everly Brothers’ ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ that was good enough to be an A-side. As with ‘You Don’t Own Me’, the New Zealand single wasn’t a hit.
Meanwhile in Sydney, the brothers Ormsby were dealing with an outbreak of teen hysteria. ‘You Don’t Own Me’ had sold over 45,000 copies and herds of teen girls were hanging around the family home in Sydney. The phone didn’t stop ringing all day, prompting an unlisted number.
Hits or not, The Ormsby Brothers had a convincing brace of quality songs to perform live and on television. They were regulars on The Ernie Sigley Show, broadcast in black and white out of Melbourne, performing ‘You Don’t Own Me’ on 24 January 1974, and their latest single, ‘Bad Day For Love’ along with ‘Baby Blue’ on 5 September 1974.
‘Bad Day For Love’ was a trio favourite, captured at a time when they were listening to lots of R&B. It was a song The Ormsby Brothers felt could have been a hit, if radio had picked it up.
Originally a James Last instrumental called ‘Finale/ Lover’s Dream’ from his 1973 BeachParty4 album, ‘Bad Day For Love’, added noted American lyricist Carl Sigman’s words. In the hands of the Ormsbys and Dawkins it’s a beautifully paced soul ballad full of lyrical worries, sounding like sadder Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys.
Faltering record sales aside, EMI Records okayed a self-titled Ormsby Brothers album to be released in Australia just after Christmas 1974.
With all but the group’s first single included, Dawkins and the Ormsbys threw in at least two album tracks of equal worth. ‘There Ought To Be A Law’ was another John Madara composition that had been included on the Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods album, Special Someone.
In The Ormsby Brothers’ hands, it’s an uptempo soul stepper with vamping horns and urban grit, the sort of song that would soon be labelled Northern Soul. A third Madara-composed and produced and Heywoods-recorded song ‘All Over The World’ also featured on The Ormsby Brothers album.
Stranger still is their psychedelic version of ‘Love Potion #9’ with wiggy period guitar to boot. All up, it’s a pretty solid album and one that deserves more recognition.
The Ormsby Brothers hadn’t given up on singles just yet. Early 1975 saw the release of ‘God Knows, I’ve Tried’, a cover of a song by the Doyley Brothers on the film Percy’s Progress, about a man with a penis transplant. The Doyleys, a black British septet, had first charted with the song in October 1974.
‘God Knows, I’ve Tried’ was the last Ormsby Brothers hit single, edging into the Australian national charts in March 1975, where it peaked at No.76 during a three-week stay. Brisbane, clearly a regional stronghold of the trio, saw the single climb to No.25 after entering the chart in February 1975. A second album was recorded and got to the acetate stage, but remains unreleased.
Back home in New Zealand for a visit in early January 1976, the boys Neville (18), Michael (16) and Adrian (13) and their parents sat down with New Zealand Herald’s Susan Maxwell to look over the trio’s Australian success.
Being Mormons, the brothers reserved Sundays for songs of praise
They’d gone as far as they could in Auckland, father Edwin explained, and although they hadn’t ruled out New Zealand work, an offer of $250 for a week’s engagement fell far short of what they would have received in Sydney. They’d get that amount for a one-hour slot. The economic recession hadn’t hit them in Australia, because the cabarets were packing in the big spenders with top performers.
Their Mormon faith still intact, the brothers reserved Sundays for songs of praise. But apart from that, they were like any other teens, with the snooker table in the basement getting good use.
“Of course, we think about the dough,” Neville told Maxwell. “But lots of it goes back into our costumes and musical arrangements that could cost over $100 each.” Adrian, who sang lead on ‘You Don’t Own Me’ as an 11-year-old, could no longer sing the song that way because his voice had broken.
There was a new addition to The Ormsby Brothers’ stage act. Youngest sibling, Nathan, now eight, closed the evening with a “squeaking” version of ‘Rockin’ Robin’. “He never once had stage fright,” mother Janet said.
And that’s were we leave The Ormsby Brothers. They soon headed off on Mormon missions. Adrian currently lives in the United States, while Michael and Neville remain in Australia.