Last weekend, The Artists Formerly Known as the Choir of Hard Knocks sang for their supper at Costa Hall in Geelong, Victoria. It was a testimony to the quality of the show and the high regard in which the audience held them that, following the afternoon and evening performances, the choir added over $4000 to the total revenue above ticket sakes by rattling collection buckets in the foyer. This meant that the entire enterprise made it over the profit line, albeit modestly, and even paid for the band. Speaking as the pianist, this is good news, but I still would have done it for no money.

In some ways this was a return to their roots for the choir, leaving behind the Hard Knocks brand which had become a millstone, and moving forward boldly as the Choir of Hope and Inspiration, equipped with invaluable experience, a large repertoire, confidence and independence.

The signature song Halleluja is still spooky after close to a hundred live performances. Helped by good acoustics, a Steinway grand and a hushed audience, the “Cry” button was found and pushed. I still have no idea what this song is about but when this motley crew sings it, their faces shine like 35 moons and listeners are transported to a mysterious place where sorrow and joy collide, producing tears.

Other highlights showcased individual talents, none of whom would belong on Australian Idol. When our solo talent performs, they are absolutely in the moment and there is nothing they need to fake. Our “torch” singer for the night teetered to the front of the stage, eyes fixed on the microphone, and her afflictions seemed to fall away. She leaned into a cracking performance of Billie Holiday’s Fine and Mellow and followed it up with a brief account of the car pile up that turned her life upside down. We she finished with an expression of heartfelt thanks to be a part of this choir, yes, I did get teary.

I think because these moments are never rehearsed or contrived and always catch me off guard. Towards the end of the show the energy ramped up and people were dancing in the aisles. A great night was had by all.

I have sometimes been asked how the choir members are “bearing up” against the pressure of success, as if all the attention might be somehow driving them over the edge. It’s strange that we can think that “vulnerable” or “damaged” people should be able to handle the pressures of mental illness, alcoholism or finding enough money for a meal or a room for the night, and yet be unable to handle the pressures of success. Success, recognition and self esteem have breathed life into these individuals.

This is understood innately by the staff and volunteers who work at “the coal-face” with this choir and it’s understood most visibly, by Jonathon Welch, the director who has trained, cajoled, bullied and cuddled them through hundreds of performances and rehearsals. He brought his knowledge of singing and stagecraft together with entrepreneurial skills and help from the right places to propel this choir to unexpected heights. Little wonder then that the Australian public who had followed this good news story must have been disheartened and confused when the negative reports began to appear in the media last March. Given that I fall on the side of the choir and the director on this issue, I will explain as I saw it.

Under the auspices of Reclink, the Choir of Hard Knocks became a marketing dream that helped attract the funding Reclink needed to roll out their charitable recreational programs interstate. But the choir’s career was a difficult challenge. Reclink was hitherto a small community welfare organisation with no show business background. You can find this statement on the Reclink owned website www.choirofhardknocks.com.au.

“The high profile Choir of Hard Knocks program is just one of over 150 sports and arts programs Reclink provides…”

This overview seems a little dismissive when put up against all the gongs Reclink accepted on behalf of the choir.

The ongoing success of the choir and the “high profile” Jonathon Welch also became vexatious for FremantleMedia Australia who developed the Choir of Hard Knocks TV format, and own the brand. Their brand name was steaming off — without their input and beyond their control though production partner, the ABC, was providing very visible support for the choir through all it’s arms. This was a troubled period in high places, while down on the ground, all we heard was that threats were being issued from various legal departments.

Meanwhile, we had places to go. Shows to do. Music to record. Merchandising to sell.

Late in 2008, Jonathon Welch, due to what he saw as problems with management and procedure at Reclink, proposed that the choir be independently managed but that a “partnership” with Reclink be maintained. He issued a deadline in early March 2009, the date he would resign. Reclink must have viewed this as an unwelcome ultimatum and did not respond until the actual deadline date.

Leading up to April this year, the choir was very busy rehearsing an entirely new repertoire for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. At one of these rehearsals, Jonathon Welch found a moment to ask the choir, with his typical theatrical emphasis, “If I was called Peter, would I still be the same person as Jonathon?” The choir knew they were being prepared for what might come. Meanwhile Reclink had firmed up an allegiance with FremantleMedia Australia over use of the Choir of Hard Knocks brand. It seemed that they now had a common foe in Jonathon Welch.

At the general meeting in early March it was high noon and Reclink’s CEO informed the choir and choir director that it would not accept the proposal for independence. Choir members now had the occasion to directly ask the CEO the questions that had been unanswered or ignored for too long. There were still no answers forthcoming and the choir chose to walk with Jonathon Welch, the support staff, volunteers (and the pianist). By the end of the session it’s fair to say that Reclink was rattled — I don’t know if they expected this outcome.

With the help of a public poll, the decidedly sunny name “the Choir of Hope and Inspiration” was chosen together with a new volunteer board of directors. At their first ever voting session they voted to sack one member and suspend four others for talking to the media against the express wishes of the group. This move towards independence took solidarity, courage, and faith in the partnership that had delivered many rewards. If Reclink never intended for it to happen, why were Jonathon Welch and choir the support staff never contracted to the organisation?

Writing this account knowing that it might reflect poorly on some with whom I have had passing involvement has not been an easy choice for me. On the other hand, I think, stuff you! I provided all those piano tracks for free on a CD that sold Double Platinum and made a mint for complete strangers. But then, that was my fault for being an idiot and overall, I am very happy with the outcomes for myself and the people I work with.

Reclink provide excellent recreational services to the homeless and disadvantaged and some of these services are still used by members of the Choir of Hope and Inspiration. Fremantle Media will want to reclaim and exploit their Choir of Hard Knocks brand again, sell it globally, and we might see more homeless and disadvantaged people achieve celebrity status. More power to them.

Having got this far in my article I believe I have finally arrived at some understanding of Leonard Cohen’s Halleluja lyrics and an application to this whole Hard Knocks to Hope and Inspiration saga.
If my paraphrasing can be forgiven:

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
that David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music do you?…

Thank you Reclink, and thank you FremantleMedia Australia for helping us get relaunched under a new banner. If we had not outgrown the relationship with you, we would not have found the strength to leave it behind.

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, we really, what’s it to you?”…

We acknowledge that the brand name Choir of Hard Knocks is your property, is important to you and in good faith, we leave it with you.

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Halleluja…

We have taken the music with us.

*The Choir of Hope and Inspiration is actively seeking support and sponsorship. For enquiries visit www.choirofhopeandinspiration.com.