Edwin Duff was sometimes billed as a Sinatra copyist, but he was so much more. He was a flamboyant pop and jazz singer, colourful in dress and gesture, with a voice that was true in pitch and time. Just yesterday, when blogging about the Stebbing re-issues, I was reminded of him, as several tracks by Duff are included. Then, a few hours later, I came across an obituary of him that had just been posted on the Sydney Morning Herald site. He was 84, and had been singing professionally for 74 years. While the SMH tribute neglects the years Duff spent in New Zealand, it begins evocatively:
“If anyone personified the image of pre-Vietnam Kings Cross in the bohemian post-war era, where the Roosevelt nightclub summed up its glamour and and its edginess, it was Edwin Duff, the irrepressible talent who as a 10-year-old won a singing contest on board a ship to Australia.”
Duff could scat bebop choruses a capella, was described “as much a pint-sized Danny Kaye’” as a Sinatra acolyte, and was famous for wearing stage clothes that needed a volume control: red trousers, green tuxedo, pink socks. A musician who played with Duff told me he was “straight-laced in his singing – but not much else.” To the end, Duff stopped traffic in his outfits, as this recent image shows.
He already had a fan club in Melbourne when he arrived in Auckland in the early 1950s. While here, he performed and recorded with Crombie Murdoch’s combo, with several sides being released by Stebbing (and available in the recent re-issues). He recorded mainstream pop in New Zealand, which wasn’t really a challenge (an example is this Frankie Laine cover, ‘I’m Just a Poor Bachelor’). He left for the States in 1954, intending to join the Australian Jazz Quintet, but they had already become established there as an instrumental group.
Back in Australia, he became a regular on television variety shows, appearing with guests such as Dizzy Gillespie, drummer Gene Krupa, the Ink Spots, Carmen McRae, Buddy Rich, Art Tatum and Shirley Bassey. He became a leading figure in the King’s Cross nightclub scene, appearing in clubs owned by the notorious Abe Saffron, and the musician-friendly Sammy Lee (whose band was influential when visiting New Zealand in the late 1930s). A clip of Duff performing in early 1970s chic on the Australian show Saturday Night Live is below. One last anecdote from the SMH obit, which is great reading:
“A quirky, good-humoured character, [Duff] was once caught by a security guard trying to climb a fence, having found himself locked in a television compound. Challenged, he declared he was ‘Mary Poppins, I have lost my umbrella!’ ”