American president John F Kennedy had a drastic situation over his standoff with the Soviet Union in the 1960s with the Cuban Missile Crisis, but his namesake, Australian musician John Francis Kennedy, has no crisis over his new musical concept, Sons of Sun.
A well-known Australian musician, John Francis Kennedy has developed an intimate stage/dinner/music show about Sam Phillips, best known as the recording engineer who discovered Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Kennedy has the perfect background to present such a show, growing up in Liverpool in England just as The Beatles were exploding, all the while listening to his parents’ country music.
“There was a fascination with country music. If you live in a sort of grey, miserable, industrial town in the north of England, this image of wide open spaces and cowboys is very appealing,” he says. “My parents were into country and western music. I used to hear that as a kid.”
As The Beatles were taking off, Kennedy was embarking on a voyage of his own arriving in Australia in the mid-sixties with his parents, who were looking to take advantage of the economic opportunities in the Lucky Country.
Kennedy spent his formative years in Brisbane and formed his first group, JFK and the Cuban Crisis, with friend James Patterson in 1980 quickly establishing themselves on the local scene. During this time, he released two albums and supported major acts, including Ian Drury and the Blockheads, and The Pretenders. The band relocated to Sydney in 1982 and added a new rhythm section, becoming the resident band at the Southern Cross Hotel in Surry Hills.
Then comes the rather depressing tale of leaving Sydney at the end of the 1980s, facing the break-up of his then-current band, Love Gone Wrong.
“We’d broken up and I had the choice of either starting a new band again, with a new lineup, recruiting new members and basically developing a new band, to get it to a point where I had been,” he says.
Faced with this unappealing prospect, he instead packed his bags and guitar and headed to the US, spending six months in LA, New York and Texas. During this period, he played gigs wherever he could, including solo acoustic sets and small gigs in bars and clubs. He then he travelled to London but found it difficult to break into the scene there. It wasn’t a totally lost cause though– contacted by a contemporary in Berlin, he found himself invited to sit on a panel about independent music, and to record an EP.
He spent four years in Berlin and became instrumental in the small but thriving music scene there, and formed another band, John Kennedy and the Honeymooners. He released another EP with that band.
Kennedy also met met his wife in Berlin during this time, and the freshly minted couple wanted to see the world. They packed up and travelled to Singapore and eventually to Lamma Island off Hong Kong – widely known as a mecca for Western backpackers because of its cheap rents and alternative lifestyle.
Renting a performance space at the Fringe Club, Kennedy cut his teeth on small theatrical shows where he developed the intimate art of relating to a small audience.
“That was pretty much the first experience I had doing little theatre-type shows… doing them still primarily as a solo artist… lent itself a lot more to talking. In a sit-down situation it just gives you the opportunity to talk more, and makes it easier to relate to people.”
After an extended stay in Hong Kong after an extended stay, the couple settled in Holland, where Kennedy again quickly established himself as a must-see live act in clubs and bars all over the country, which boasted a very healthy live music scene at the time.
Kennedy and his wife then headed for Australia, where he eventually released two CDs – ‘Sons of Sun’ volumes one and two. These consisted of cover versions of songs by artists that started their careers at Sun Records in Memphis – and that’s where the idea first started to form for the stage variant. Kennedy had always been fascinated by these musicians and, in particular, by Sam Phillips.
“Before he found these white hillbilly cats like Elvis and Carl Perkins, his mission was to have black rhythm and blues heard by a wider audience,” Kennedy says. “There was all sorts of cross-pollination going on.”
He had always found the music intriguing, and he wanted to present these songs live, without the conventional performance tropes of a cover band. The idea was developed in conversations with a Melbourne colleague, playwright Kieran Carroll, with whom John had previously developed music for another show Carroll then developed the show with three actors playing multiple roles, with Kennedy and a three-piece backing band on a small stage, almost taking on the role of the famous performers from days gone by playing the classic hits of these recording superstars
But Sam Phillips remains the main focus of the story. The stage play, specifically crafted for small intimate dinner/theatre restaurant venues, and featuring 35 songs, is proving to be very successful. Kennedy is certain that is due to the appeal of the music but you can be sure that whatever the reason for its success, the passion this musician has for live independent music will never see him in crisis.