Her name will go down in history and not just because of her talent.
She was the first Aboriginal woman to perform on Australian television, she received an Order of Australia Medal (OAM), she recorded ‘Brown Skin Baby’ with Bob Randall and sang ‘Amazing Grace’ in Pitjantjatjara for Pope John Paul II. But beyond her notoriety, Auriel will be remembered as a strong-willed, witty woman by husband Barry Francis.
Born in Darwin in 1947, Auriel Andrew exemplified the resilience of the Arrernte people of Central Australia.
She knew she had a gift from a very young age, but she also knew success wouldn’t come easy.
Auriel started singing at the age of four, in her hometown of Alice Springs, where she lived with six siblings. She landed her first gig at The Italian Club in Cooper Peddy, which has been widely described as a ‘tin shack’.
Auriel’s husband Barry Francis told NITV News: “She started off singing in in Coober Peedy, and then she went to Port Augusta to sing on a telecast. She got a phone call from Channel Seven, saw the manager, sang a song and that was it! She became a regular on the Johnny Mac show in 1969, and later she went to Channel Nine, to Reg Lindsay's ‘Country and Western Hour’ show, where she was also a regular.”
Auriel Andrew’s first album ‘Truck Driving Woman’ (1970) was the second ever made by an Indigenous woman in Australia.
Barry believes Auriel’s uniqueness was the secret to her success.
“She was a novelty. At the time, there was only Jimmy Little, her and Col Hardy singing country music. But she had the voice, she was brilliant.”
Given her many accomplishments, Auriel decided to risk it and try her luck in Sydney.
“Jimmy Little got her to move to Sydney. She went to Sydney all by herself. Being an Aboriginal woman, she fought very hard. She had no family support, and she struggled,” Barry says.
Despite the challenges, all the hard work paid off. Among the many awards and memorable moments she lived, including nothing less than having performed at the grand opening of the Sydney Opera House, other outstanding achievements include recording the exemplary song ‘Brown Skin Baby’ with Bob Randall and singing ‘Amazing Grace’ in Pitjantjatjara for Pope John Paul II.
“When she shook hands with the pope, she really liked it. She liked it so much, she looked down the line, saw there weren’t that many people, and went back and shook it again!”
But Barry thinks the highlight of Auriel’s career was when she received the OAM.
“It was one of the funnest days of our lives! When she got presented with the medal she whispered to the governor’s ear, and everyone heard it. It was so funny!
“She said, ‘I got a CD for you’. She stole the show, it was really funny!”
But despite her triumphs, Barry told NITV Auriel felt “she never got much support from the arts board or Aboriginal organisations. She got the racism from her own mob. I copped it too, but we don’t talk about that.”
According to her husband, Auriel believed she was “ripped off” many times.
“She’d do freebies left right and centre. It cost her money. People ripped her off. I got sick of people ripping her off and she toughened up,” he added.
Barry says he and his wife were like Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows playing Ralph and Alice in the American sit-com ‘The Honeymooners’.
“She was a pain in the butt! But, she had a great sense of humour," he recalls.
“One night I got a chook out of the freezer, and said ‘we’ll have fried chicken tomorrow night’. The next morning it was gone! When I asked what happened, she said someone had broken in and eaten it!"
Barry says he will never forget those moments, just like the time when he first set eyes on her…
“I met her in 1982 in Newcastle. She walked off stage wearing a long black dress, with see-though lacey material with red sequences. I said, ‘I’m gonna marry her’ – and six years later I did.”
Auriel is survived by her husband, two children, 13 grand-children, seven great-grand-children, and a remarkable legacy.
“Even the week before she died, she was signing. With the same brilliant voice.”
Auriel's funeral is on Monday 9 January in Newcastle at 2.30pm at the Pettigrew Chapel.