23 May 2010
Lover, fighter: Naomi Mayers rises as the occasion demands. When she and her high-singing little sister Beverly and their alto cousin Laurel combined their harmonies as a trio in 1960s Melbourne, the bossy Mayers supplied the name: The Sapphires, after her engagement ring from her boyfriend.
Mayers’s marriage didn’t last, but the group shone for a little while there at the Tiki Village club in St Kilda’s Fitzroy Street, reprising the Shirelles’
, the Ronettes’
Be My Baby
and Martha and the Vandellas’
. They backed a Maori band, learning to sing calypso, not so unlike harmonising at home on
Ngarra Burra Ferra
, a song about Moses in Yorta Yorta.
In 2005, their brief singing fame would be dramatised in a musical written by Laurel’s son Tony, and is now being reprised with a new cast at the Seymour Centre as part of a national tour. Christine Anu’s bossy character is based on Mayers, who became the long-serving CEO and company secretary of Redfern’s Aboriginal Medical Service.
Today the trio have gathered at Redfern to reminisce. Beverly Briggs and Laurel Robinson (nee Briggs) work by Mayers’s side here, with duties in welfare and aged care respectively. (They’re understandably close: Mayers and Briggs’s father and Robinson’s father were brothers – and those brothers had married two sisters. Confusing, no?)
Naomi was nine and Beverly was five when their parents Alick and Evelyn Briggs split, and in the early 1950s the pair found themselves at St Aidan’s Orphanage in Bendigo in Melbourne. Were the nuns OK?
“Some were nasty, some were lovely,” says a bespectacled Beverly Briggs, who at first screamed because she thought these white nuns were ghosts. “One hated her,” she nods towards her elder sister, “because she stood up for herself.”
“Oh, I fought all right,” says Naomi Mayers. “You know when they have this month of May [celebration], walking along and singing in Latin, carrying [an effigy of the Blessed Virgin] Mary?
“This one girl called me a ‘nigger’. So I grabbed her like this,” Mayers raises her right arm to a headlock position and forms a fist with her left, “and I hit her, and I said, ‘Go on, say it again’ and she said, ‘You nigger!’
“Bang! I hit her three times, and then she shut up.”
The racist urchin of the story, explains her younger sister, “was the boss until Naomi came, see? She was the boss girl. Then Naomi came and took over”. So Mayers was smart enough to pounce when the nuns were otherwise occupied? “But I saw it!” mock-protests Briggs, “I was embarrassed; ‘Look at me sister, she’s fightin’ again!’”
The trio dissolve into laughter. “I had to fight me way through, protect my sister, because we were the only Aboriginal kids there,” explains Mayers, who turns 69 in June – she looks much younger – and who started here as secretary-organiser in 1972, after the medical service’s first year.
Fighting is in the blood. Mayers was Naomi Briggs in 1941 at Erambie Mission in Cowra. Two years earlier, her father Alick and mother Evelyn, who already had four much older children, had been among more than 150 indigenous people who had walked off Cummeragunja mission on the NSW side of the Murray River.
“They were controlling us like a lot of cows, and that’s what we kicked up a stink about,” says Mayers of the first-ever mass strike of Aboriginal people in Australia. This family history would influence the Briggs children to become active in Aboriginal advancement causes.
The girls’ maternal grandmother, “Nanny Theresa”, rescued Naomi and Beverley from the orphanage – despite having had some of her own children taken away by authorities years earlier – and gave the girls a new life back in the bosom of family in Shepparton in country Victoria.
Nanny Theresa would not stand for bad language. Once, when Mayers was 21 and training as a nurse in Melbourne, she uttered the word “shit” in the presence of her Nana, who slapped her face. “You didn’t muck around with these old people,” recalls Mayers earnestly.
Singing had come naturally to the girls during their simple life of living around country Shepparton. Their mothers, Evelyn and Geraldine, were always organising singalongs; Evelyn would make the decorations and dresses for performances, while Nanny Theresa made ball gowns. “Back in the day there was no other entertainment,” says Robinson. “There was no TV. We were lucky to listen to a radio hooked up to the battery of a car.”
Their uncle Doug Nicholls – Pastor Doug – ran a church parish in Fitzroy, and Mayers and her siblings and cousins would travel about singing to raise money for the church. (Mayers is “not so big on religion” today; she doesn’t like the way it attempts to “control” people.)
One day the three women were walking along a street in St Kilda – where Beverley and Laurel had begun sharing a flat – when a band having a smoko outside a club called The Tiki Village invited them in. “We were frightened; we’d just come from the bush,” recalls Briggs. They couldn’t hula dance as requested, so could they sing? “They asked if we wanted to jam with them, and that’s how we started.”
A Sapphires feature film is due to start production in January; perhaps, the real Sapphires joke, they’ll get to play extras. Just like in the script, there was a fourth Sapphire, though they never all shared the stage at once: Robinson took her sister Lois Peeler to Vietnam to sing backup as a duo in 1968, but racism forced the pair to sleep on the stage. “It was so scary – one night a bomb went off, the bed fell down and the place shook,” says Robinson.
By then, however, Naomi Mayers had moved to Sydney, and given birth to the first of her two children, a son, Joseph. She probably wouldn’t have gone to Vietnam anyway, given her participation against the war in the Sydney moratoriums.
Then she worked her way up the ladder in Aboriginal community health. Redfern’s would be the first of 139 Aboriginal medical services around Australia. Mayers and her colleagues called on no less than Gough Whitlam to stave off a budget cut in 1975 then, in 1978, got the service into its current bigger premises, convincing the Catholic Sisters of Mercy of the Sacred Heart to give over the title deeds to the Turner Street building.
She and the other original Sapphires are rarely coaxed into singing in public these days, but will get together now and again as part of the local Cummeragunja choir – “they don’t fuss over us”, says Briggs – or on stage once or twice with their stage musical doppelgangers.
Singing takes a backseat to activism and the hard slog of overcoming Aboriginal disadvantage for Mayers, her sister and her cousin. As she approaches her 70th year, Mayers shows no sign of giving up – propelled by frustration with what she sees as a lack of action by the federal and state governments on Aboriginal health; the Rudd Government, she says, “is as bad as the Howard Government” for ignoring recommendations.
“When she decides she’s going to do something, she’ll do it, no matter what,” says Briggs, citing their Nanny Theresa as the biggest influence on her elder sister. “In the show – I gotta say this – that girl Christine Anu, the bossy one, that’s Naomi. Plays her to a tee! They’re all scared of her here!”
The Sapphires opens at the Seymour Centre on [Thursday] May 27, with a preview on May 26. 9699 3444