WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following may contain images, story and voices of deceased, by and about persons. Discretion advised.
11 July 2021 // Olive & Eva
Olive and Eva were a ground-breaking musical act. Eva Bell (later Eva Mumbler) was born in Orange in (1938-), the third of six children. Two years her senior, was Eva’s cousin Olive McGuiness (1936 -). The Wiradjuri cousins who spent their early childhood on the Erambie Mission in Cowra, New South Wales.
When Bell was eight her family moved to Sydney and settled in the Redfern area. In Sydney’s inner-city Aboriginal community, Sunday evenings became a popular time for friends, families and neighbours to come together and have a sing-song. The young Bell was fun-loving, confident and always ready to perform popular numbers from her favourites: Lena Horne, The Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald.
McGuiness didn’t leave Erambie until she was in her mid teens. She came to Sydney and stayed with Bell’s family while trying to find work. The two would occasionally sing together at the Sunday night sing-songs and one evening they were heard by Sydney socialist Grace O’Clerkin, who believed she’d found something special.
O’Clerkin and her husband Cornelius had moved to Sydney from the Townsville region of Queensland. They enjoyed close friendships with many of the Aboriginal families in the area, and had already spent some time encouraging the singing talents of Bell’s older brother Teddy. Their houses, first in Newtown and then La Perouse, became regular gathering places for informal concerts. In the mid-1950s these gatherings nurtured the career of Jimmy Little after he arrived in Sydney with his brother Freddy. O’Clerkin was a talented guitarist, poet and songwriter and she began to teach McGuiness and Bell a small selection of songs.
The O’Clerkins soon had Bell and McGuiness playing gigs at local Socialist Party gatherings in halls and community centres, and their popularity began to grow beyond their immediate community. Before long, they felt confident enough to enter the nationally syndicated Australian Amateur Hour radio show. The duo made the 1955 national final as one of 10 very different and talented acts.
Their success on Amateur Hour and their increasingly popular performances around Sydney drew them to the attention of Reginald (Rex) Shaw of Prestophone Records. He’d already released discs by a variety of local acts such as bandleader Frank Coughlan and pop crooner Ray Melton. In early 1955 he took Olive and Eva into the studio with a small band and they cut four songs on two discs for the Prestophone label: Old Rugged Hills, Rhythm of Corroboree, When My Homeland Is Calling, and Maranoa Moon.
The 78 rpm discs caused a sensation within Bell and McGuiness’ community. No-one there had ever had the chance to listen to a record made by someone they knew. Olive and Eva continued to perform for a few months after the record came out, but eventually McGuiness decided she wanted to go home to Cowra. She was keen to start a family and had always enjoyed a quiet life.
Bell stayed in Sydney and continued performing publicly for more than a decade. She won the NADOC Music Quest in 1962 and could often be found singing at shows with the likes of Jimmy Little and the Silver Lining Band and was a regular entrant (and winner) of the many talent shows run by inner city pubs at the time.
Olive & Eva were pioneers of the Australian record industry. They were the first commercially available records by an Aboriginal Australian act.