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Remembering Coogee Crooner Tommy Rayburn

By Madeleine Gray on August 4, 2017 in People

The Coogee Crooner, Tommy Rayburn.

While lamenting the demise of the ‘good old days’ can sometimes seem like a fatalistic kind of attitude, there is also much value in remembering and honouring an older, more traditional way of consuming culture.

Local Coogee performer Tommy Rayburn (real name Tom Dunnigan) passed away in mid-June this year at the ripe old age of 85.

Tommy did not grow up, nor did her perform, in a world where music can be streamed from the ether without human contact.

Tommy was born in Glasgow in 1932, the second youngest of eight children. After discussing Tommy’s life with his wife, Bev, Tommy’s great niece Kelly O’Rourke told The Beast how, “after losing two sons and her husband to WWII, Tom’s mother couldn’t bare the thought of another son being enlisted to war, so she decided to send 16-year-old Tom to Australia as part of the ‘Big Brother Movement’ as a ‘Ten Pound Pom’.”

Though scared and sad to leave his family, Tom was welcomed in Australia by the man assigned to be his mentor and ‘big brother’, a lovely potato farmer based in Walcha, New South Wales. The farmer helped Tom save the money to buy his first truck, and he went on to make a good living with his own ‘potato run’.

Despite this success, Tom was clearly dreaming of something bigger. He became an amateur boxer, represented his town in rugby league, and then at age 19 entered a singing competition on a popular wireless program called the ‘Radio Amateur Hour’, which he won.

Tom’s performance garnered him an agent who recommended that he change his name to Tommy Rayburn, and, as luck would have it, his new promoter had a contact at Miller’s Brewery, which owned the Oceanic Hotel in Coogee (now the Crowne Plaza).

Tom moved to the Eastern Suburbs (and he eventually lived on Leichardt Street, Bronte for 27 years) and joined the house band at the Oceanic, the Lenny Hutchinson Band. He became their lead singer and also played the double bass, an instrument he mastered through study at the Conservatorium of Music.

There were definitely no jeans and sneakers allowed at the Oceanic in those days; on stage, Tom always wore a black dinner suit and a black bow tie.

“During the 60s and 70s, the Oceanic was the place ‘to be’,” Ms. O’Rourke said. “Every night (except Sunday) there was live music, dancing and a show.”

Tom’s wife still has fond memories of the time.

“People were ‘dressed to the nines’ in black tie, gowns, fur coats, etc.” she said.

“Couples would foxtrot and twist all night.

“Tom was a baritone, and people said he sounded like Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole.

“The Oceanic was always a fabulous and fun night out. Everyone loved going there, and people really made an effort for these nights out.”

During his performing career, Tom also started a band called ‘Top Five’, which often performed at the Coogee/Randwick RSL, and he was the permanent weekend act at the Maroubra RSL for 15 years.

Though times have changed, live music in the is still alive and kicking in the Eastern Suburbs, it just needs the locals to dress up, get down, and support it.

Vale Tommy Rayburn.