David Williams (Owner, 1973-78): French’s became French’s in mid-late 60s when Ray French, who worked at the ABC, bought it as a run down “four penny dark” wine bar. He loved wine and music but had a strict policy of only using bands who didn’t use amplification.
It worked well for a few years with mainly traditional jazz bands: Harbour City Jazz Band, Colonel Crint’s Regimental Band Of Foot And Mouth Deserters (who won New Faces or something similar), Dick Hughes Trio, Graeme Bell, but that didn’t last as a successful formula too long and he had to make exceptions to his rule for The Original Battersea Heroes and Foreday Riders, who were also working as Bluespirit (’69-73), as they drew crowds of a weekend.
I was talking to Ray at the door one night when he was approached by Greg Quill and other members of Country Radio (Gypsy Queen) who asked for a job there. When they told him they used amplifiers and were miked, he ended the conversation. I told him he was mad. He denied that.
Even when Ray French had it, weekends only, there could be up to 100 people lineup up outside waiting to get in, it would be one in as one leaves, as it was overcrowded, later some times weds to saturday there could be a lineup, but no bouncers needed, people were there for the music. Big Ray was a customer there back in Ray Frenchs days.
At the time I had a day job and worked a few nights for him, there was never enough money taken to pay me or the band, so I asked if he would sell, he said yes. We agreed on a price, but I had no funds, so I approached my former brother Paul to see if he was interested. He was so we got a loan and went ahead.
Up to that time his only interest in music was going on New Faces, thinking he was a singer and the judges kindly gave him 1 point out of ten for turning up. He denied it was him, but he has lived his life in denial. This was around 1973, the start of changes there, also the end of the traditional jazz period there.
PR: In the very early 70s, when I started going there, the bands playing were a mixture of blues bands such as the Foreday Riders and small groups playing traditional jazz. The latter were led by pianist Dick Hughes and included clarinettist Johnny McCarthy and drummer Alan Geddes. Dick also played solo boogie/stride piano and sang on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. from 5 to 7 (or thereabouts).
JK: Started drinking at French’s in 69 which was a nice change from the dear old Oxford and slightly safer, my only complaint at the time was that they only sold wine and cider and because I didn’t drink wine had to drink draught cider but finally adjusted.. Friday nights , Oxford , French’s then Adams Apple .. Them really were the days , many fond memories…xx
DW: To those who don’t remember Colonel Crint And His RegiMENTAL Band Of Foot And Mouth Deserters, they had a record release called “The Only Way To Eat A Horse Is With Sauce”. Back when Ray French had the place and I worked there part time, Colonel Crint, alias Sid Smith, had a run in with Ray French and Ray was stopping him entering. Ray had a big black labrador, Ray was telling me to throw him out, I said no that he’s a friend of mine, Sid was pissed as, so Ray said to Sid that unless he left he’d set the dog on him. Sid got down on his hands and knees and started barking at the dog, who proceeded to go to Sid and lick him to death, funniest sight. I lived with some of the band, all true alcoholics, bouncer Ray lived there for a while also, Ice St, Darlinghurst. good times, about ’72 me thinks.
BC: I remember Mr. French in his grey cardigan – pre bouncer days when The Foreday Riders performed there regularly. Hound Dog Taylor performed there one night. There was even a group who played Baroque music on Tuesday nights for a short time.
NP: By the late sixties the crowd had changed as had the name. Jug bands, washboards and harmonicas were the live music on Fridays. No downstairs. The most haunting memory for me, musically at least, was weekday late afternoons, with the room still lit by daylight and Dick Hughes playing to no one and happy at it.
A little more context for French’s. Yes, the eras. It was the end and the beginning at that moment. Sydney was scattered with the old style operations, the licences for which were being taken over by another generation making use of them for alternate ventures to pubs which were pretty brutal in the culture of alcohol and Australian drinking traditions. The wine bars in the mid 1960s were your last chance to see drink in the corner of a society that had held on since the nineteenth century.
But also at that moment, fifty yards in either direction, you had Babalou (downstairs, corner Oxford and Crown) and Pipestrello (downstairs, just west of the Oxford Tavern at Taylor Square). Not sure of the status of their licence but they had both appropriated inner city space for alternate cultural use. The interim style of the neighbourhood in another era of transition. Both joints were European ‘continental’ (ie. Mediterranean/latin dance bars. Pre Sergio Mendez and very cool.
And this was a moment before French’s and a moment after. Anglers could still buy skeins of greenweed from the tobacconist window above Bourke Street if they were after blackfish in the harbour, there were four fishmongers between the Burdekin and Taylor Square, dominant culture was Greek, as were all the delis and full barrels of olives were on the pavement. The north side of Oxford Street was very alive with post war migrant culture. Across the road another old wine bar licence was taken up and Adams Apple was in existence. At 207 Oxford Street (where we opened Exiles Bookshop in 1979, now the landmark, The Bookshop) was Whitty’s Wine Bar. If you went further east there was Traffic Light and Oddy’s. And then a great milestone in the eras wine bar licences, Chez Ivy. Each of these were important as markers of venues for changing musical taste as well as an amenity for open sexual preferences. But hey! I almost forgot the Birdcage…
PL: when I first visited Frenchs in 1969 , Dick Hughes , Fourday Riders and a Trad Jazz Band were regulars. Men had short hair , wore corduroy pants or jackets , some smoked pipes or rolled their own cigs from Drum . Women smoked Sobrani cigs . They were from the beatnik era of late 1950s . By 1973 they had almost disappeared and the Woodstock generation had taken over.
That era in the sixties was not unreminiscent of the Wine Bar culture we enjoyed in Sydney for many years prior, which also took in the same clientele as the Rocks Push. Along with the” Rocket Range” in Pitt Street, Frenchs was one of the last of the inner city wine bars..At Frenchs I met a lot of Push people who had carried the culture to Oxford street. As a Countercultural “Woodstock” generation person, I, as did many of my cohort loved the music of upstairs Frenchs, especially the Riders.
PL: In 1969, after a bloody confrontation with the Police (and 21 squad) who broke up our protest while marching up in George street (500 people) , we would escape to the sanctuary of Frenchs. The anti – Vietnam war placards were left against the front of the window outside and around the door. By 5pm the place was packed with protestors who were mostly Uni Students, Uni staff, some Trade Unionists & regulars. This became a ritual after all the Vietnam War Moratorium Protests until about 1974. On this particular night in 69 Dick Hughes was on piano.