MICF: Jon Jackson talks the Andrews Sisters, harmonies and Bugle Boys

Bugle Boys really should be the first name you’d think of when creating a tribute show to the Andrews Sisters. Of course that’s the name –  Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy is their most recognisable song. But really, the Andrews Sisters had such a wonderful back catalogue of harmonies and soul-stylin’ sounds.

The close harmonies throughout their career is recreated for some hearty laughs as part of Bugle Boys, being performed as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. We spoke to one of the trio that makes up the performance – Jon Jackson – who himself is an accomplished singer in opera, musicals and cabaret.

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Firstly, I want to ask about your love of the Andrew sisters. Where did that initially come about? What made you interested in performing the Andrews Sisters? 

I’ve had them in my life since I was a kid because my parents are from that generation. My mum had all the Andrews Sisters records. So I grew up listening to them as she was still listening to them, as they were pop music back in her day, and so I knew about them. I had them in some other shows of mine, but not much because I cant really sing a three-part harmony with myself.

Do you actually have to have your other compatriots in your group, to be with you, to rehearse things like that? Or are you able to rehearse the songs of Andrews Sisters on your own?

You can learn your part, but that is all you can do. And that part – you have to learn like a parrot, absolutely every note. The thing is though, we did that, we hadn’t performed for a while – this last year in fact – and we got together for our first rehearsal and we put a backing track on, and we were all note perfect.

Because we only know our parts, you don’t listen to the others. The only thing, when you harmonise is that you get this really fantastic “oooo” [makes harmony], and all the three voices become one voice, and it is really quite thrilling. If you are off, it sounds rotten.

Is there nervousness at your first rehearsal, when you first get back together, and do all your parts together again after time off?  

Yes you do, because we are all off doing other things. And you think ‘oh god’. I was really worried because we had a three-month break before we did Canberra. I remember thinking: God, I don’t know if I can remember a word of it! But it turned out I did.

All the practicing prior to that more or less pays the way off in the end, I suppose.

Well it does. You think you don’t remember it, but once the music starts, and then the choreography all comes back to you. When we got the show up to Canberra, it was really tight, it was really, really good. Which was lucky, because we did it at the Speigeltent and I think the reason that the Speigeltent is so famous is because it is the one without air conditioning. It was rotten. It was 36 degrees and inside 46 degrees. The audience was melting and so were we. We were like ice cream cakes, with lots of makeup, fake boobs, everything, high heels, and wigs.

Are you relieved to be playing at the Athenaeum at the comedy festival then?

Oh yes. We have air-conditioning, which is brilliant. We did our rehearsals for Canberra up there and it was a lovely room. It was my first  in Melbourne. I was from Queensland, it was 33 years ago, or 34 years a go, I moved to Melbourne because I got a job at the Melbourne Theatre Company, which was based in the Athenaeum Theatre at the time. I was a stage hand. It was kind of funny, 34 years later performing at the same – although I have performed there before. But never in high heels though.

Is it a challenge to also doll up the costumes while singing three part harmonies?

Well its part of the character though. I haven’t done drag before. As a kid I did, I liked to get dressed up in my mums clothes and things, when I was little. But that was the last time, and so now I’m in my 50s, and climbing into, you know, I’ve got 9-centimetre heels and you know, its no spring chicken. There’s also the boobs, and shape wear, and three pairs of pantihose.

But once I am Maxine – I’ve got this fabulous wig – and I’ve got the blue satin costume on, and stuff. I look like a really hot mum. I look fabulous. You think: I look so damn good and so amazing, my own Nonna wouldn’t recognise me. It makes everything easier.

I would think that you’re not unfamiliar with dolling up a costume, as you’ve done cabaret before as well as opera and other different performance styles. Do you think this is an yet another step in the evolution in your performing career?

I think its maybe just another thing, but the good thing is that it uses up a lot of things I can actually do quite well. I can sound very female, which is great, and also comedy which I love doing, and I love doing characters. Normally though, I just do the character. I don’t usually dress up. I just wear a suit and I get the audience to imagine the rest of it. That’s what I’ve done up till now, and it’s a really different thing for me, and for people who have seen me perform for the last 30 years have all come to see the Bugle Boys, and gone “wow” I really just want to see you be this full on all the time. I quite enjoy it too, I must say.

Your performers that sing along side you are Michael Dalton and Andrew Dessmann. Have you worked with them before?

I met Michael in 1991 when he was hosting a show at the comedy club, he was the host and I was the support act, for Rita Rutner, who is an American comedian. It was a very popular show. I think he would be open up in drag, doing Maggie Taberer singing I Will Survive – and I think if my memory serves me correctly – that is what he did about 25 years ago.

How did you meet Andrew?

Well he was cast in Bugle Boys, by the producers. They saw him in a show called North Side Story, which was a drag version of the West Side Story.  He works as a drag character called Christine Andrews. I didn’t know him at all, but he is one of the most amazing transformers I have ever seen.

I’ve never seen someone transform a physical appearance as utterly as he can.No one can ever recognise him after a show; they never ever get a hint.

So in the general chats after a show, he is not necessarily kind of having those people around him “you’ve done a great job in the show” because no one recognises him?

That’s true, no one can recognise him. He taught me drag make-up, which I can now do on my own. It takes quite a while, but I’ve never put on false eyelashes; I’ve never had to wear quite that much makeup. Its way more than what opera singers wear, and we opera singers wear a lot. The drag queens wear even more, although I think we are very tasteful. We are not gaudy and there is no miming naturally. Yhe choreography is very cute, it’s a very, very cute show, I love doing it.

The banter in between songs would be really interesting to hear as well. I’m assuming the production isn’t like a full on musical performance, considering you’re playing at a comedy festival, you have comedy in there and in between. Or am I totally wrong?

Oh of course, its full of gags, gags, gags, gags, gags, the gags, and songs, and bitching. So, you know, we are horrible to each other. Because my character, Maxine, in reality I don’t think she was a terrible drunk, but in our version she is. So she always has a hip glass down each side of her bra, she’s got bottles stashed, all around the theatre. By the end of the show, she is pretty maggoted. Because it is show biz, she can still sing and dance, even though she is completely smashed.

The others are always having a go at her because she is drunk. But Patty, played by Michael, he is kind of the straight one, trying to keep things together. And, LaVerne, who is played by Andrew, is the dum dum, a bimbo, and a total slut! A slut, a drunk, and a good girl in the middle. Patty has been for show, trying to hold the story together, while we try and wreck it.

It’s cool to think that there is a nice little narrative there as well. Being able to bring out a story in the songs that you are performing.

Yes, absolutely.  Michael Dolton – who you may know as Dolly Diamond – is just a fantastic comic. The show is very funny. And of course, he ad-libs as well to the audience. So for example, on the night in Canberra, hen it was hot, he may mentioned the fact that we are all melting, and gag at the audience for bringing blankets, and all that sort of stuff. He is really great. If people come in late, he is fantastic with them.

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Bugle Boys is on now The Athenaeum as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Performances are on each Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the festival. Get tickets here. Check out the Bugle Boys website as well while you’re at it!