Maori-Mentored, Soul-Singing Mom Inspired 'The Sapphires'
In the late 1960s, an all-girl singing group hit it big. But they didn't come from Detroit or Memphis — the four young aboriginal women hailed from the Australian Outback.
At the time, aboriginal people were just gaining basic civil rights, like voting and being counted as Australian citizens. The girls faced intense racism at home, but they took their act all the way to Vietnam to entertain American troops.
A new film, The Sapphires, is loosely based on their story. Its plot might seem improbable, but Tony Briggs, who wrote the screenplay, knows just how true it is: One of the original, real-life Sapphires is his mother, Laurel Robinson.
As Robinson tells NPR's Scott Simon, while she didn't grow up hearing soul music, once she discovered it, she fell in love. "As a young girl, we grew up listening to country and western, or, you know, the likes of Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers," she says. "The first time I heard soul music was when my cousins brought home these records."
Robinson's church group would invite African-American musicians who were visiting Australia to play for them. That's how they caught on to soul, she says, "and we loved it."
In the film, an Irish musician named Dave teaches the four young women how to deliver soul music, exhorting them to sing with "the tone of a woman who's grasping and fighting and desperate to retrieve what's been taken from her." In real life, Robinson says, their musical education came from even more surprising sources.
"We were taught by the New Zealand Maori band that we went over with to Vietnam," she says. "They taught us how to sing and the breathing ... and they loved our harmonies."
The 'Stolen Generation'
One of the film's heartbreaking elements appears in the form of the character Kay, a cousin who lives in the city. She's part of Australia's "stolen generation" — one of the thousands of light-skinned aboriginal children taken from their homes and given to white families elsewhere in Australia. Just this week, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered a national apology for the policy of forced adoptions. "By saying sorry, we can correct the historical record," she announced. "We can declare that these mothers did nothing wrong."
The "stolen generation" may have made international news this week, but it's always been a personal issue for Briggs and Robinson. As Robinson explains, "My mother['s] three sisters were taken away — the oldest sister was 16 — to a home where they were taught to do domestic work, and then they were farmed out to different families."
Robinson's mother escaped purely by luck; just 3 years old at the time, she happened to be in the hospital when her sisters were taken. She didn't see them again until she was 16.
"When they were taken away, my grandmother was heard moaning just out in the field, crying and moaning. That was so heartbreaking," Robinson says. "Even when she used to tell us as we got older — our grandmother finally, you know, talked about it — we would cry for her, because [of] the heartache she went through, that hundreds of aboriginal families went through."
Briggs says there's a reason he decided to make this national tragedy part of his screenplay.
"It was impossible for me to tell a story from this period without talking about these issues," he says. "It's vitally important that I express these things, otherwise I wouldn't be doing justice to the people who have done things for me, that have allowed me to be sitting in a studio in New York talking to [you]. It would not be right."
Adventures In Vietnam
Briggs says that the real story of his mother's singing career is even more astonishing than what's in the film. "The stories that Mom had told me, they were so rich in adventure," he says. "They had not only gone to Vietnam, but they went to the Philippines and Singapore, as well... I had to extract little bits and pieces from her adventures in most of those places."
But Robinson's real trip to Vietnam didn't go as smoothly as it does in the film. In protest against the Vietnam War, two of the band members didn't go with them. "We sort of just parted ways for a while, and now all we do is sing at family reunions or community get-togethers," she says.
Still, there are parts of the trip that will stay with her forever, like an outdoor show that didn't look very promising when they first arrived. "I thought, there's nobody here, there's no audience, no chairs or anything; it was a makeshift stage," she says. "But they said, 'Don't worry about that; get the show ready.' So we did." The girls stepped into the back to get changed for their show.
"We heard all this noise," Robinson continues. "When I peeked out to have a look, I could see all these tanks rolling in — with soldiers all over them, you know — coming to see the show. I think it was one of the best shows we ever did. When we finished we went off-stage, and when we came out there was no one there. We just saw them disappearing into the jungle. That's a vision I'll always carry with me, for the rest of my life."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
In the late 1960s, an all-girl group hit it big in South Vietnam.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
THE SAPPHIRES: (Singing) What a man, what a man, what a man, what a mighty, mighty good man. Yes he is.
SIMON: Singers didn't come out of Motown or Memphis but the Australian outback. Four young aboriginal women living in a time when aboriginal people were just gaining basic civil rights, like voting and being counted as Australian citizens. They auditioned and were hired to go to Vietnam to entertain U.S. troops there, as casualties climbed and America was itself divided by the war and the struggle for civil rights. The singers called themselves The Sapphires. And that's the name of a new movie written by the son of one of the group who sang their way through the war. Tony Briggs and his mother, Laurel Robinson, one of the original real-life Sapphires, joined us from our studios in New York. Ms. Robinson, Mr. Briggs, thanks very much for being with us.
LAUREL ROBINSON: Thank you for inviting us.
TONY BRIGGS: Thank you, Scott. Thank you for having us.
SIMON: Obviously, Motown music remains popular all over the world, from fjords of Scandinavia to Australia. But was there something particularly in Motown that appealed to you living in aboriginal Australia?
ROBINSON: Well, as young girl, we grew up with listening to country and western. And then the first time I heard soul music was when my cousins brought home these records. Back then, we used to go to a church group. And we'd invite all the different visiting black entertainers or sportsmen who came to Australia. And that's how the soul music sort of we caught onto. We loved it.
SIMON: Tony Briggs, were you around at this time?
BRIGGS: I was born in 1967. And, you know, as a young boy in the '70s, I used to listen to the music that my mom had in the house and played in the house and that was around me and around my family quite a lot. And, yeah, groups like the Temptations, Jackson 5, and the list goes on. And I used to sit in the car and just play this one, "Motown's Greatest Hits," over and over and over again.
SIMON: We want to play a clip, if we could, from the film. And this is when Chris O'Dowd, playing Dave, your piano player-producer-press agent-everything, in the film is trying to give some instruction on how you sing soul music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SAPPHIRES")
CHRIS O'DOWD: (as Dave) In soul music, they're struggling to get it back and they haven't given up. So, every note that passes through your lips should have the tone of a woman who's grasping and fighting and desperate to retrieve what's been taken from her. Do you understand? Now, what it is that you're searching for, that's up to you.
SIMON: Wow. Was that part of the music and how you were able to put yourselves across to GIs?
ROBINSON: Very similar, yes, yes. We had to be taught a little bit how to sing it and how to get it across. We were taught by the New Zealand Maori band that we over with to Vietnam.
SIMON: The New Zealand Maori band taught you how to sing American soul music.
ROBINSON: Yeah. Well, we started off, you know, I was 16 years old singing in a club in Melbourne. After we had finished our night shift as telephone operators, that's how we got a little bit of fame. But they taught us how to sing and the breathing and that, you know. But they loved our harmonies. And so, it sort of started.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
SAPPHIRES: (Singing) When I, when I, had you, had you, I treated you bad...
BRIGGS: The story is - it's set in Australia and then they go to Vietnam - but the stories that mom had told me, they were sort of rich in adventure. They had not only gone to Vietnam but they went to the Philippines and Singapore as well. Is that correct, mom? Yeah. She's nodding her head yes. And, you know, I had to, like, extract little bits and pieces from, you know, her adventures in most of those places.
SIMON: There's a particularly heart-piercing episode, I think, in the film when you have a cousin in the family in the film named Kay who is light-skinned, and you learned that her story, she was part of what sometimes in Australia, I gather, called the stolen generation. These are light-skinned aboriginal children taken from their homes and given to white families elsewhere in the country. Is this something that your family knew personally and directly?
ROBINSON: My mother, her three sisters were taken away. The oldest sister was 16. They were taken away to a home where they were taught to do domestic work. And then they were farmed out to different families. My mother was in a hospital at the time. And she was three years old. She didn't get see them until she was 16. But she was lucky to be in hospital 'cause they missed her instead of taking her away. When they were taken away, my grandmother was heard moaning just out in a field, crying and moaning. That was so heartbreaking, even when she used to tell us as we got older, our grandmother finally, you know, talked about it and we would cry for her. Because the heartaches she went through, that's hundreds of aboriginal families went through.
SIMON: Tony Briggs, it was important to you to make that part of the story, I guess.
BRIGGS: Yes, sir, it was. You know, it's important to me to express myself from art and express who I am through that. And a huge part of who I am is what has happened to my family members and, you know, many other people's families who I know personally.
SIMON: Laurel Robinson, was there a performance in particular you sometimes replay in your mind or think about?
ROBINSON: Yes. There was a particular show. It was outside, and I thought there's nobody here in our audience, no chairs or anything. It was a makeshift stage. So, I said don't worry about that. Just, you know, get the show ready. So we did everything; changed in the back. And we heard all this noise. And when I peeped out to have a look, I could see all these tanks rolling in, rolling up to the stage with soldiers all over them, you know, coming to see the show. I think it was one of the best shows we ever did. When we finished, we went off stage and when we came out, no one was there. We just saw them disappearing into the jangle. That's a vision I'll always carry with me for the rest of my life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
SAPPHIRES: (Singing) When I had you near...
SIMON: Laurel Robinson, one of the real-life members of the Sapphires. Her son, Tony Briggs, is the writer of a new movie by that same name. And this week, Australia's prime minister, Julia Gillard, delivered a national apology for the policy of forced adoptions. She said by saying sorry we can correct the historical record. We can declare that these mothers did nothing wrong, that you loved your children and you always will. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.