“I thought they’d have no interest whatsoever in a jazz piano player from Newcastle, absolutely no chance,” John says when we visit him at his Melbourne home ahead of his 50th on April 24.
He was wrong. Thanks to his teacher’s urging, John scored a place. By 1987, he’d become ‘Discovery of the Week’ on Young Talent Time.
But it was a chance meeting with Bert and Patti Newton that turned out to be John’s biggest break. Thanks to them, he became musical director on Good Morning Australia when he was only 19.
“It was a fancy title. In the beginning it was a band of one ... myself,” jokes John, who was first taught to play ‘Chopsticks’ on the keyboard by his father, Phil. “I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
“I did a little show with Bert and Patti up at Twin Towns Services Club in 1991. It was so much fun. They were dressed as various characters, and sang and performed skits.
“Unbeknown to me, Bert was negotiating with Network Ten to return to television in 1992 with two shows, The Morning Show and New Faces. He offered me a job and I never looked back.
“When you’re 19, you don’t realise how young you are – and I don’t think I realised how much of a risk Bert was taking by giving me that responsibility! It was absolutely wonderful. Bert’s bemusement at my terrible daily jokes was often funnier than the gags themselves!”
Since his small-screen debut, John has experienced many ‘pinch-yourself’ moments – from the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony in 2000 to performing with Shirley Bassey and Reba McEntire.
“When I was a kid, I hoped and dreamt that music might be something I could do professionally,” he says.
“My first Schools Spectacular made me think it might be possible. But really, the big opportunity was meeting Bert and Patti … seeing two wonderful artists in action.”
So, it was a “no-brainer” to ask Patti to perform at his Aussie Pops Orchestra’s concert for Mother’s Day, although he was “a little reticent” to invite her after Bert’s passing last October.
“When someone’s grieving it’s sometimes hard to know what to say,” John says. “But because she’s such a great professional, I figured there was no harm in asking.”
To his delight, Patti accepted and will now take centrestage at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on May 8 alongside John, former Australian Opera star David Hobson and The Voice favourite Harrison Craig.
“Patti has always been a wonderful singer – a fact that is sometimes overlooked. I reckon Bert will be looking down from above, cheering her on, saying: ‘You go get ’em!’”
Tickets for the Mother’s Day concert are available through the Arts Centre Melbourne. Visit this link.