The king of the Saturday night dance
John Alfred Papworth, OAM, Musician, dance band leader, 1910-2003.
As an anniversary, it passed unremarked. But it is worth noting that on March 26, it was 51 years since the doors of the Sydney Town Hall were ordered shut by police for safety reasons. An estimated 3000 people were inside, and thousands more were turned away. The occasion was the first dance in Sydney to be broadcast on radio and they packed the hall, filling the seats and the dance floor and even sitting behind the band.
The band leader that night, Jack Papworth, has died aged 93, two years after giving up public performances. That night at the Town Hall helped usher in an era of dance in Sydney that diminished only with the advent of rock’n’roll in the mid-’60s.
Papworth was born in Singleton, the fourth of nine children. The family moved to Newcastle when he was eight. His father, a trombonist in the Newcastle steelworks band, soon discovered his son’s interest in music and sold his own instrument to buy a cornet for Jack, teaching him at home.
Young Jack became a fixture in bands around Newcastle, at 13 performing in his school band, a combined school band and the Newcastle C-grade and A-grade bands, with the Newcastle A-grade band travelling with a box which their young trumpeter mounted in order to be seen.
He left school at 14 to take up an apprenticeship as a glass beveller but five years later was laid off because of the Depression. To earn a living, he played trumpet in a dance band, had a mobile lending library which travelled the Hunter region, and provided background music for silent movies at the Lambton theatre.
One of his skills was accompanying himself on the piano with his left hand while playing the trumpet with his right.
He joined Phil Furley’s dance band in Newcastle. Furley, an Englishman with what was dubbed a “golden voice”, was a radio announcer who promoted dance music on 2HD in Newcastle, and it was he who promoted the Sydney Town Hall concert.
In 1956 2UE began regular broadcasts of dance music from various venues throughout Sydney – including the Rivoli Ballroom in Parramatta and Leichhardt’s Albert Palais. For 12 years the music was recorded at dances on Friday night and was played through more than 50 stations on the eastern seaboard on Sunday night.
The 11-piece Jack Papworth band was renowned for its music, with between 500 and 700 dancers crowding the floor every Friday night.
After the radio shows finished, Papworth had his own dance at the Auburn Town Hall, noted for its beautiful tallow wood dance floor.
With no alcohol served and strict dress regulations, the Saturday night dances soon became known as places for young people to meet prospective partners, so much so that they were nicknamed the “Papworth Marriage Bureau”.
The band also played at the Kogarah RSL from 1961 to 1998 – a 37-year engagement, which must set some sort of record – and for 30 years at the Blacktown Workers club, and were a regular feature during Seniors Week.
Jack Papworth died in December. He is survived by his wife, Adrienne, and two of his sisters, Irene and Christine.