Remembering a Mentor: Why Human Nature Will Always Be Indebted to the Great Jack Neary
Posted by Andrew C on Friday, May 30th, 2014
One of the most touching and emotional performances in Human Nature’s career came not in a packed stadium or nationally televised concert, but on a somber day in the spring of 2000, when the young group sang “Danny Boy” at the funeral of one of their earliest mentors and champions. That man was Jack Neary — a giant in Australian entertainment who spent the majority of his 84 years devoted to the promotion and success of homegrown Australian talent.
“We had a lot of support from a whole range of people in our very early years,” recalls Toby Allen, “but Jack [Neary] was definitely one of our greatest mentors. He had sung in a vocal group himself when he was younger, and he always praised us on having a very special sound when we sang together. He was really instrumental in filling us with the confidence to look for new and exciting inspirations.”
As Toby mentioned, long before Jack Neary became a famed talent promoter and producer, he got his start as a performer in his own right—as a singing policeman, no less! After serving as a member of a police choir during World War II, Neary decided to form a proper vocal quartet, which he dubbed The Four Guardsmen. That group went on to win a major radio singing competition called Australia’s Amateur Hour (the ‘40s equivalent of your various Idol shows) and developed quite a following in the process.
Having broken into show business at the ripe old age of 30, Neary soon turned his attention to helping other acts achieve the same goal. He started up one of Australia’s first major theater agencies in 1946, and went on to manage the careers of popular radio and TV stars like Bobby Limb, Shirley Abicair, and John Laws, among others. Perhaps more noteworthy to an international audience, Neary also became a major factor in bringing big-name acts into the country, as well, including the Beatles’ legendary swing through Sydney in 1964. Where it concerns the Human Nature story, however, it was Jack Neary’s work later in his life—after he was supposedly retired—that really had the greatest influence.
In the early 1980s, after working in television production for a spell, Neary partnered with Australia’s Department of Education on some exciting new initiatives designed to help young people develop their talents and have a showcase through which they could share them. This began in 1984 with the first Schools Variety Spectacular in Sydney, an annual youth talent show that celebrated its 30th anniversary last year with hundreds of performers taking the stage—including a special appearance from four old veterans of the Spectacular: Human Nature. You can see their performance of “Amazing Grace” from the 2013 event below.
With the success of the School Spectacular, Jack Neary started the Talent Development Project in 1991, which pairs driven students from New South Wales schools with top professionals from the entertainment industry. Nothing motivated Neary more than seeing young people aspire to greatness and reach it, and during his 10 years of involvement with the TDP, it’s hard to say any graduates of the program made him more proud than a certain singing quartet from Hurlstone Agricultural High School.
“I think he saw a little bit of his own history in us, and took us under his wing,” says Phil Burton. “He told us if we were serious about making a career of this, we needed to listen to the classic groups. Not only Motown ones like the Four Tops and the Temptations, but also older ones like the Mills Brothers. It made us become a lot more aware of where the roots of what we were doing came from. We just fell in love with the Motown groups, and it gave us such a great grounding. We’re so grateful for his help in setting us off in the right direction.”
In 1999, Human Nature was already a hugely successful pop act in Australia, but they still made a point of returning to that year’s Talent Development Project graduation ceremony, performing “Danny Boy” as a special homage to Neary, who was in the audience. Jack was noticeably moved by that performance, so when it came time to honor the man at his final resting place a year later, there was no doubt as to what the song should be.
Fourteen years later, Neary’s legacy remains as strong as ever, both in the popularity of the School Spectacular and the international success of his beloved Human Nature. In terms of understanding the man himself, Neary’s longtime friend, singer Col Joyce, provided a pretty hard-to-beat summation several years back:
He was against the cut and thrust of showbiz. That just wasn’t his nature. He’d do a deal, shake your hand and that was the deal. That doesn’t happen anymore. He fought for Australian talent all the way through. I think he only retired to redirect his energies. When he believed in something he’d drive ’em mad until they gave in. He knew we had to have an Entertainment Centre in Sydney and he didn’t let up until we got one. A lot of people don’t make a splash, but Jack made waves that just keep on going.