Why was that smiling woman on the train asking for her autograph?
Belinda Foxwell just couldn’t understand. And in any case, she couldn’t talk right now.
Struggling with her alcohol addiction, she’d dropped her tinnies of beer as she raced to catch a train and was desperate to retrieve them.
“Cans were rolling down the train station and people were coming up and asking for my autograph,” she says.
“Other people that didn’t know me were looking at [the other] people like, ‘They’re nuts, why would you want this alcoholic’s autograph?’ “
This alcoholic had become famous.
Well-meaning fans were attempting to congratulate Belinda on her part in the wildly successful television show, Choir of Hard Knocks, the surprise hit that cast disadvantaged people in a chorus and tracked their progress in life and song.
At the pinnacle of the choir’s fame Belinda sang on stage at the Sydney Opera House. But offstage she had been sober for just one day, having succumbed to her addiction again, overwhelmed by the attention during filming for the program.
Belinda Foxwell was an original member of Choir of Hard Knocks. (Australian Story: Belinda Hawkins)
Thirteen years on, Belinda continues to stare down her challenges. She credits the choir, especially its charismatic conductor, Jonathon Welch, for the unwavering support she received when she was at her most vulnerable.
As they prepare for his farewell concert at Melbourne’s Town Hall, Belinda tells Jonathon he changed her life.
“You just kept bringing me back,” she says. “I am grateful to you.”
Even after more than a decade, Choir of Hard Knocks still draws a large crowd at some of the country’s finest venues. (Australian Story: Belinda Hawkins)
Giving a voice to ‘hidden gems’
It was a juggernaut no-one saw coming.
Choir of Hard Knocks was put together more than a decade ago for a fly-on-the-wall television series to examine how music has the power to change lives.
Jonathon had run a similar venture for three years in Sydney and was brought on board to lead the made-for-television group.
Over six months of filming, the ABC program brought together people experiencing addiction, mental health issues, homelessness and other disadvantage.
It was a raucous, ragtag bunch of people on the margins of society trying — not always successfully — to sing in tune and in time.
They fought, squabbled and laughed, self-described “class clowns and all the rejects from class”.
“There are these hidden gems,” Jonathon tells Australian Story.
“There’s this light that’s burning within every human being. And sometimes people just need a karaoke machine or the opportunity to kind of show what they do and what they’ve got, and what they love doing.”
The TV series was arguably a precursor to the heavily constructed reality shows of today. Choir of Hard Knocks didn’t exist before the TV show was born.
Rock legend Jimmy Barnes, who took part in the show, said the choir resonated because it had soul.
“It meant so much to them to sing,” he said.
“It brought them so much joy to open their mouths and sing as a group and have a voice. They hadn’t had a voice for years.”
At the helm was Jonathon Welch, at times a leader, at times a counsellor, at times the man in charge of tending to the choristers’ personal crises.
Choir of Hard Knocks won an ARIA Award, a Logie Award and a Helpmann Award. Its first album achieved Gold status. There were sell-out concerts at the Sydney Opera House, invitations to sing the national anthem at the MCG and performances at Parliament House as the newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced his homelessness initiatives.
But in real life, things were still complicated.
The group lost the rights to use the name The Choir of Hard Knocks and for a period of time it was called The Choir of Hope and Inspiration. (Australian Story: Belinda Hawkins)
Money coming in ‘left, right and centre’
As the choir took off, hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations flowed to the Reclink charity chosen to operate the group.
Reclink used the funds for the choir, while also launching similar community groups around the country under the name Choir of Hard Knocks.
But the homeless people in the glare of the spotlight felt they were missing out. Disputes escalated, and Jonathon resigned. Almost all the original choir members left with him.
“The money was coming in left, right and centre,” Jonathon says.
“The choir members rightfully had every natural right to be very curious and very upset about what was happening to the money.
“They were the public face of the choir.”
The set-up was never for the choir members to receive donations directly, but disagreements about how to spend the money grew.
Former Reclink Board member David O’Halloran said that as the donations started to dry up, what the original choir wanted to do became unrealistic.
“Jonathon’s vision was bigger than Reclink’s,” Mr O’Halloran said.
“He understood them. He knew they wanted to sing. They wanted to go places.
“It was a dilemma we were faced with, because it was so important to Reclink, yet it was important to the group.
“It was very heart-wrenching to have a split. It was like a breakup.”
When Jonathon left the choir with most of the original members, they couldn’t use the name, Choir of Hard Knocks. It was licensed to the production company and Reclink for its programs.
So Jonathon went it alone, using his own cash to keep the choir going.
Choir of Hard Knocks in full dress rehearsal for Jonathon Welch’s final concert, Seasons of Love. (Australian Story: Belinda Hawkins)
Clarko is one of the most unforgettable original choir members. (Australian Story: Belinda Hawkins )
The ‘Crier’ Master
Everyone seems to remember the group’s choir master, who would cry on national television on a weekly basis.
The choir members nicknamed him The Crier Master.
What many don’t seem to realise is that 13 years on, the choir still meets every Monday in a community hall in Melbourne’s CBD.
About 30 people rock up to rehearsals — some get up at 4:30am to get the train in from the country.
Until recently, all eyes were on Jonathon, who stood in the middle, a self-professed slave driver, trying but failing to teach them to clap in time to the music.
Jonathon has spent his own time and money on the choir to support members who rely on the musical outlet for friendship and purpose. (Australian Story: Mark Farnell)
The make-up of the choir has changed since its heyday and only a few of the original members remain.
Like Clarko, who dressed in jeans and a black jacket ingrained with dirt — always — comes in and out from smoko breaks, his hair wild and his manner gruff.
He drops into his seat, legs crossed, and rests his head in the crook of his hand. He gently sways his legs in time with the music and his bent over body moves along.
Clarko’s favourite song is Pretty Woman, but he’s yet to convince Jonathon to make it part of the choir’s repertoire.
“Clarko” is an original member of the Choir of Hard Knocks, which is based in Melbourne. (Australian Story: Belinda Hawkins)
Daniel Zaba returned for Jonathon’s farewell concert, staged at Melbourne City Hall in June. Back in 2006 he was gaunt, lank-haired and dressed from head to toe in black when he performed a wrenching version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
He was homeless and destitute, recovering from major trauma. After 10 days of drug-induced psychosis he believed he was being pursued by agents and had to jump through time and space to escape. He ran head-first into three cars but miraculously survived.
Daniel says Jonathon saved his life. He’s since completed his master’s degree in psychology. He lives with his partner and works in hospitality. It is a place he never thought he would be.
“Jonathon was constantly — in the best possible way — badgering me with his positivity and compassion and love, and letting me know that it was going to be OK,” he said.
“The Choir of Hard Knocks was a major factor in being a springboard into getting my life back on track and moving forward.”
But Jonathon’s own life has moved forward, fuelling his decision to leave his beloved choir.
When uncles become dads
Leaving the choir has not been an easy decision for Jonathon Welch. (Australian Story: Belinda Hawkins)
It was the phone call that would drastically alter Jonathon’s life. At 58, he was eyeing off retirement.
It wasn’t uncommon for Jonathon to receive late night crisis calls from choir members in need of guidance or help.
But this phone call was different. It was a family matter.
Without warning, he was asked to take in two young boys he had never met, the grandchildren of his younger sister who has schizophrenia.
“The living conditions for the boys became very unstable,” Jonathon says.
When they collected the 7-year-old boy — the very first time they had met — he was carrying everything he owned in a plastic bag.
Not wanting to separate the brothers, within six months Jonathon and his husband, Matt, brought the older boy into their home, completing what is now their modern, unconventional family.
“It’s just a world I never ever thought I’d experience,” Jonathon says.
“The boys obviously need our time and they’re not happy about me being out at nights rehearsing and working on weekends.”
New co-artistic director Danielle Matthews takes over from founding artistic director Jonathon Welch. (Australian Story: Mark Farnell)
He is embarking on a new mission, social enterprise Play It Forward, and has passed the baton to the next-generation choir masters.
“It’s time for me to let somebody else with a different energy come in to the choir and help lead them to this next stage of their development,” he says.
“A lot of people think maybe perhaps I’m retiring, but I’m not, I’m re-firing. I feel really excited about the future.”
Watch Jonathon Welch’s final concert on Australian Story’s The Final Bow 8:00pm on ABCTV and ABC iview.