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Harry Bluck (1915–1991)

by David J. Hough

This article was published:

Harry Bluck (standing) with Ray Hartley, 1961

Harry Bluck (standing) with Ray Hartley, 1961

National Archives of Australia, SP1011/​1:2348.3

Harry Bluck (1915-1991), musician, band leader, and trade unionist, was born on 15 June 1915 in Perth, eldest of three children of Welsh-born Harry Bluck, railway employee, and his English-born wife Alice, née Paskin. The family lived in Aberdeen Street in a cosmopolitan neighbourhood, with many European migrant families, from whom Harry acquired ‘epicurean’ tastes, and a multicultural outlook (Bluck 1985). He began piano lessons at five years of age, and then studied with Joseph Nowotny, developing a preference for jazz rather than classical music.

A life-changing experience occurred in April 1923 when Bluck saw the Oscar Asche Company perform Chu Chin Chow at His Majesty’s Theatre. Musical theatre became a passion, as did the theatre building, which he would do much to save from demolition in the 1970s. Between the ages of ten and thirteen, he sang with the St George’s Cathedral choir; at fourteen he performed frequently on Australian Broadcasting Company (Australian Broadcasting Commission from 1932) radio, toured nationally with a Young Australia League band, and played the organ at his local Anglican church. He gained his Junior certificate at Perth Boys’ School, then proceeded to Perth Modern School for his final two years.

Bluck began work in the pathology department at Royal Perth Hospital, before joining the Western Australian Police Force in 1936. From 1937 to 1938 he served in Wiluna and formed the Wiluna Musical Society. Then in Geraldton (1938–41) he became a regular broadcaster on radio station 6GE, and staged ‘Coppers Community Concerts.’ Serving in the Australian Imperial Force from 13 January 1942 to 10 May 1946, he was employed in a variety of supporting roles and, in 1944-45, as a signalman with the 3rd Divisional Signals and the 2nd Divisional Signals in New Guinea and New Britain. In his spare time he led a band and entertained the troops. He finished as an acting sergeant.

On discharge, Bluck started private teaching, opening Harry Bluck’s School of Music in the Bon Marché department store building. He was appointed a music director for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (1947-72), arranging and composing under the name Richard Johns. After establishing, with Sammy Sharpe, the annual Jazz Jamboree in 1947, he became well known in the city. This big-band festival lasted more than thirty years before coming under the umbrella of the Festival of Perth.

Having joined the Western Australian Musicians’ Industrial Union of Workers in 1935, Bluck worked to improve wages and conditions, and to raise the standard of musical performance; he was instrumental in establishing a benevolent fund but did not achieve his aim of a minimum wage. He filled the roles of president and secretary until 1982, became a member of the Trades and Labour Council of Western Australia in 1963, was elected to the State executive of the Western Australian Labor Party, and as a delegate to the International Federation of Musicians (1976-81). In 1975, with the Australian Council of Trade Unions president, Bob Hawke, he was a delegate to the International Labour Organization conference in Geneva. He was chairman of the Western Australian Alcohol and Drug Authority, chairman of the Western Australian Arts Council (1984-90), and a foundation member of the Australia Council. A long-time advocate for a conservatorium of music, he saw this realised in 1979 with the founding of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. In 1982 he was appointed AM for service to music.

Six feet (183 cm) tall and in later life weighing 235 pounds (107 kg), Bluck’s ‘rotund, genial’ appearance was a ‘walking tribute to his own cooking’ (Mirror 1952, 6). Although he had titanic energy and a high public profile, he was a very private man. He was married three times; on 1 January 1938 to Annie (née Braund), and on 23 March 1946 to Marjory (née Fisher); both ended in divorce. On 3 June 1959 he married Kathleen Bass, a jazz singer. A diabetic, he died on 12 December 1991 in Hollywood Hospital, Nedlands, Western Australia, and was cremated. He was survived by his wife, a son from his second marriage, and two daughters from his third. The Art Gallery of Western Australia holds a portrait by Clifton Pugh.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Bluck, Harry. Interview by Rhonda Jamieson, March-July 1985. Transcript. State Library of Western Australia
  • Katherine Bluck. Personal communication
  • Mirror (Perth). ‘Perthonalities of the Jazz Jamboree.’ 1 November 1952, 6
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, WX39364
  • Western Australian Police Historical Society. Service record of Harry Bluck, Regimental Number 1821

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David J. Hough, 'Bluck, Harry (1915–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2015, accessed online 19 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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