Justin Burke, courtesy of The Weekend Australian Review, 28/29 October 2017 where the title is “Homecoming Queen”
When opera superstar Danielle de Niese returns to Australia next month to perform in The Merry Widow, among the audience will be one particular fan from her past: Johnny Young. For it was in the final year of Young’s long-running TV talent show in 1988 that de Niese, then a precocious nine-year-old singing Whitney Houston ballads and musical theatre standards, got her first big break.
“Young Talent Time never ‘made’ anybody’s talent, Danielle’s wonderful voice was a gift from God,” says Young, of the series that aired on Channel 10 for an astonishing 18 years. “Danielle was a sweetheart, and she became more and more relaxed as that season went on, and by the time she won it you could see this girl was going to be something special.”
Young, 70, who splits his time between Perth and Sydney while hosting a music program on Sydney’s 2CH radio, says modern versions of the talent show are “classy” but can’t replicate the heart of his series.
“Some of them are Young Talent Time-ish,” he says. “But we were on the air for 52 weeks a year for 18 years, not the 10-18 episodes the current talent shows are,” he says, “so the performers can’t build the same audience following. They are more commoditised, but so is the world. I’m not knocking them: the quality of presentation, the music, and the venues of shows like The Voice is just fantastic.”
Young is proud of the show’s alumni who have gone on to fame as performers — such as de Niese, Tina Arena, and Dannii Minogue — but he has more expansive definition of success. “We had 40 kids over two decades, and most of them have done well in their lives,” he says. “It was a bit like a university degree: learning to sing, dance, and more importantly how a TV station operates. Today you would need to go to WAAPA (Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts) or uni.”
Young says in addition to his well-known love of rock’n’roll (he began his career as a pop singer and songwriter, perhaps most famously writing The Real Thing for Russell Morris) he has a soft spot for opera. His granddaughter sang in the ensemble of Opera Australia’s Turandot last year.
“I appreciate all kinds of music. I’m not too into the current doof-doof music, but my parents probably felt the same way about my era’s tastes.”
FROM YOUNG TALENT TIME TO MAJOR STARDOM
After starring on Young Talent Time from 1977-83 — making her the show’s longest-serving cast member — Arena has gone on to be one of the Australia’s highest-selling female artists. Upon Arena’s induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2015, fellow Australian songstress Kylie Minogue paid tribute to Arena. “I remember being blown away when she sang MacArthur Park on Young Talent Time,” she told The Australian’s Iain Shedden. “I tried countless times to try and sing that song the way she did it and couldn’t do it. She has the pipes. She could teach us all a lesson.” Several years ago, Arena moved back to Australia after two decades in Europe, and recently starred in an episode of Anh’s Brush With Fame and will play the role of Eva Peron in Opera Australia’s Evita next year.
It was full circle for Dannii Minogue, a Young Talent Time team member from 1982-88, when she became a popular talent show host, most notably on the local version of The X-Factor. She will be performing with British band Take That on its Australian tour next month. “This is the first time I’ve done a national tour, performing my music,” she told The Daily Telegraph, “I can’t wait.”
One of Young Talent Time’s earliest stars, and noted for possessing an uncanny vocal maturity, Jamie Redfern had a run of hits in the 1970s, and even toured across the US with Liberace in 1972 (you can hear them performing Waltzing Matilda together on YouTube). Redfern later opened his own talent school in Melbourne.
One of the original team members from Young Talent Time, Jane Scali went on to appearances on The Don Lane Show and Hey Hey It’s Saturday and also performed in musicals including Annie and Grease: The Arena Spectacular. In the past two decades, Scali has performed the Australian national anthem at sporting fixtures from soccer World Cup qualifiers, to the AFL Grand Final and the Bledisloe Cup.
After a successful pop singing career in the 70s, Byrne made a comeback as a musical-theatre star in the 1980s and 90s in shows such as Cats and Les Miserables, and more recently in Mary Poppins. She made her battles with drugs and alcohol, sexual abuse and depression public in a 2006 book Not Quite Ripe: A Memoir. Byrne will perform the songs of Carole King with Vika Bull in February next year across Victoria. Johnny Young says “Debbie is a wonderful talent — but a complicated person — she can act, sing, and do just about anything.”
See our cover story in Review tomorrow, where Danielle de Niese talks about her long awaited homecoming to perform in Opera Australia’s The Merry Widow.