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The Chicks: The girls next door who became Kiwi music royalty

The Chicks had a three-year residency on the NZBC weekly show, C’mon.

Suzanne Lynch and Judy Hindman were the Donaldson sisters, but for generations of New Zealanders they will always be The Chicks. Sharon Stephenson catches up with Kiwi music royalty. 

Judy Hindman is trying to remember the words to “Tobacco Road”. “Grew up in a rusty shack/all I had was hangin’ on my back/only you know how I loathe/this place called Tobacco Road,” she sings softly, the lyrics at odds with her tasteful surroundings on Auckland’s North Shore.

Even at a distance of 52 years, Hindman’s voice finds the gravelly D notes as easily as it did when she and younger sister Suzanne recorded the track as teenagers. “Tobacco Road” was, she says, the song that launched their career as 60s vocal duo The Chicks (New Zealanders of a certain age will know them by their maiden name, Donaldson).

Back then, the Tawa-born popstrels were Kiwi music royalty. They toured with Sandie Shaw and Dinah Lee, lent their vocal cords to Sir Howard Morrison and John Rowles, and had a three-year residency on the NZBC weekly show, C’mon.

Lynch was the blonde one, Hindman the brunette. Both were tiny, with thick, winged eyeliner, calf-length boots and colourful sweaters pulled from the David Bain style manual. They were cheerful and innocent – girls next door who set the charts alight with 13 singles, three EPs and five albums. 

“It really was the most amazing journey,” recalls Lynch. “We’d gone from singing and dancing in our bedroom to playing live on TV and in front of huge audiences. I remember Ray Columbus having to push me onto the stage. My legs were trembling so badly, you could see my dress shaking!”

Hindman was 17 when success found them; Lynch, three years younger, was still at school.

“My reports would say things like, ‘Suzanne is a good pupil when she’s awake.’ But we were performing and touring the country, and school wasn’t a priority,” Lynch recalls.

In 1970, five years after being discovered, The Chicks were no more. “We’d grown up a bit and felt like we’d done our dash,” says Hindman. “Besides, the musical landscape was changing and three-girl groups were becoming popular. We didn’t want to find someone else to join The Chicks, so it seemed easier to call it a day.”

Both went on to solo careers: Hindman in Australia and Hong Kong before she married Ross, a bass player turned pharmacist. Three children and four grandchildren followed.

Lynch, meanwhile, had toured New Zealand with Irish crooner Val Doonican, who invited her to appear on his BBC TV show. She and (now former) husband Bruce ended up spending eight years in London, where Lynch sang with everyone from Lulu and Leo Sayer to Charles Aznavour, Neil Sedaka and Cat Stevens. She has two adult children (son Andrew has been in the bands Zed and The Feelers) and one granddaughter.

These days, Lynch is busier than ever, teaching NCEA-level vocal technique at three Auckland schools and performing in a jazz trio, a 60s group and covers band The Lady Killers with Tina Cross and Jackie Clarke. She’s also worked as a vocal coach on New Zealand Idol, Stars in their Eyes and New Zealand’s Got Talent. In 2001, she was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to entertainment.

Then and now: Playdate magazine in 1966 and the sisters today. Photo/ Ken Downie

North & South: Was yours a musical family?

Lynch: Our mother sang and her father, Stanley James Smith, was a well-known tenor. At our first home in Tawa, we had a piano Mum used to play. The neighbours tried to save it when the house burned down, but we lost everything. Our parents moved north, first to a dairy farm at Waimauku, and then a poultry farm in Huapai. We were their only children.   

N&S: So how did it all start for The Chicks?

Hindman: We were living in Henderson and the legendary guitarist Peter Posa was visiting our neighbour’s house. I was desperate to get his autograph, but he said we had to sing a song first. So we sang “Tobacco Road”. Two weeks later, Pete’s manager, Ron Dalton, rang and asked us to come into the studio, where we recorded a 1949 song, “The Hucklebuck”, which went to number one.

N&S: You were called The Chicks, which today would be considered quite sexist. How did you get the name?

Hindman: Mike Walker, the musical director at our first recording session, suggested it. Back then, people called you a “groovy chick”, which was meant as a compliment.

N&S: What was the highlight of your career?

Lynch: There were lots of great moments, but one of my favourites was singing in front of my idol, Joni Mitchell, at Madison Square Garden [in New York]. I was onstage with Cat and looked down to see Joni sitting in the front row. I also met her backstage, which was an absolute thrill.

Hindman: When we performed for Prince Charles and Princess Anne at the Royal Variety Show at Western Springs in March 1970. It was our last performance as The Chicks.

N&S: There must have been low points, though?

Lynch: No one ever asked me out! When I was in The Chicks, boys assumed I had lots of boyfriends so I never went on any dates.

Hindman: In 1968, we were up for a Loxene Golden Disc Award and due to perform live at the awards when Sue fell off a horse in the Waikato. We still performed – me in the Auckland studio and Sue from her bed in Waikato Hospital. It was the first time the NZBC had ever done a split screen and the first time I’d performed without Sue next to me. I got so emotional that I started crying during the song! Not my best moment. 

N&S: What do you remember most about those days?

Hindman: The incredible camaraderie with other singers, musicians and go-go dancers. It was like one big family and we still keep in touch with people like Ray Woolf and Shane [Hales].

N&S: Sue, it must have been fantastic working with Cat Stevens?

Lynch: He was a wonderful man. I spent five years as the leader of his vocal group, which included two world tours and four albums. It was definitely an honour to work with such a great musician.

N&S: You were signed to Ringo Starr’s record label, too, in 1973. What was Ringo like?

Lynch: Sadly, I didn’t get to meet him. But it was pretty amazing for a Kiwi girl to be signed by one of the Beatles!

N&S: You re-formed briefly in 2014 to record a song for the film 3 Mile Limit about Radio Hauraki’s early days as a pirate radio station. What was it like working together again?

Hindman: We recorded “He’s the Boy”, which was written by Kevin McNeil of The Mods. The young studio engineer said, “When these two girls sing together, it’s like magic happens!” It was great to be in the studio after so many years and to record an original song for a film about Radio Hauraki, because they were always very supportive of us. 

N&S: What do you think of today’s music?

Lynch: I had a conversation with Cat Stevens back in the late 70s, when we both agreed music was in danger of becoming “Frankenstein Monsters” due to all the technical aids developing at the time. I think that’s even more relevant today – modern music doesn’t have as much heart.

Hindman: Some of it is great. I have no time for rap, but I think Taylor Swift is a talented performer.

N&S: Are you recognised very often?

Lynch: Yes, we are. That’s why I loved living in London, because I could catch the tube without being recognised, although you did get the odd Kiwi traveller who’d recognise you. But I often have people tell me how much they loved The Chicks. The Topp Twins, who are friends of mine, say they used to pretend to be us when they were growing up, as does Tina Cross, who I sing with now. We had a unique sound and it’s lovely to be remembered for that.    

N&S: Which is a nice segue to our last question: how would you both like to be remembered?

Hindman: I think we were trailblazers in a lot of ways, particularly being so young when we started, so I’d like to be known for the impact we had on New Zealand’s music industry.

Lynch: As one of life’s “doers”. Singing and entertaining people has always been a joy for me and I love passing on my experience and knowledge to young performers.+

The Chicks' music and costumes are part of Volume: Making Music in Aotearoa, the first major exhibition to tell the story of popular music in New Zealand. Volume runs until May 21, 2017 at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

 

This article first appeared in the December 2016 issue of North & South.
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