DAVID JOHNSTON OAM
David never wanted to be a professional musician. He was born into a musical family, his father, Bill, being an accomplished classical organist. Bill’s first attempts to teach him music were futile, as five year old David knew far more about music than his father with all his qualifications. Besides he couldn’t stand those awful things called ‘organs’ in churches. Even at the age of five he had a desire to do things his own way – something he has become renowned for in later life.
His love of organs came about whilst playing ‘radio stations’ with the family gramophone, and using his father’s collection of records which included much theatre organ material. It was then that he thought – “Now if I could play an organ that sounded like that, I wouldn’t mind being a theatre organist!”
It was during his school days at Haileybury College that he received his only formal musical education – seven years on the bagpipes, which eventually led him to becoming Pipe Major of the School Band.
With his legs now long enough to reach the organ pedals, he reluctantly took a few organ lessons from his father. However this was only an excuse to get access to the church organ so that he could practice his ‘popular’ style of organ playing when no one was listening. Playing popular music in church was frowned upon in those days, and organs in homes were very rare.
Haileybury College was growing rapidly and a new assembly hall was built with a pipe organ, and David became school organist. Such was the growth of the school that an annual Speech Night had to held in a local cinema – the Dendy Theatre, Brighton, and an electronic organ was obtained for the occasion. The theatre manager was so impressed with David’s playing that he invited him to play for several more nights before the organ was returned. This was the first of many occasions at the Dendy when an electronic organ would be used, usually with David at the console. It was also during his school years that he developed a love of jazz, still his favourite form of music.
Still determined not to be a professional musician, he commenced studies in Electrical Engineering at RMIT. At about this time the Theatre Organ Society of Australia (TOSA)was formed and David was one of the first members. TOSA had recently purchased the Wurlitzer organ from the Capitol Theatre, Melbourne and had commenced its refurbishment. David put his electrical knowledge to work and took charge of the rewiring of the organ. When it was eventually installed in the Dendy Theatre, he became their first Resident Organist.
Completing his studies, he combined his musical and technical knowledge by working for numerous organ companies, demonstrating and selling their products as well as understanding their technical aspect. In 1969 he was appointed organist to the “Carols by Candlelight” at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl – a position he held for 23 years. With changing technology he commenced further studies in Electronic and Computer Engineering, at the same time pursuing another love – that of theatre – playing in numerous theatre restaurants and other venues, as well as regular concerts in theatres, concert halls and town halls throughout Australia New Zealand and the USA.
He still has a keen interest in live theatre, and is the Patron of MLOC (Mordialloc Light Opera Society)
His love of theatre introduced him to the silent movie, and with his love of theatre, theatre organs and creative music, he is considered to be Australia’s finest exponent of accompanying these movies, He has composed and recorded several scores for Australian movies restored by ScreenSound Australia.
David’s interests lie in many fields, playing regularly in churches for over 40 years, and he holds a pilot’s licence with Command Instrument Rating – a rare achievement for a private pilot. He works tirelessly for the Theatre Organ Society in playing, promoting and refurbishing theatre organs, is a past President of that Society and 2005 and 2007 completed 100km bikes to warragul ride to raise money for the new theatre organ in Warragul.
Computers have always been an interest of David’s, and the application of computers in music fascinates him. He is continuing to further develop these skills and is now producing his own recordings of his original interpretations of many styles of music on organ and keyboard
On January 26th 2009 (Australia Day) David was awarded the Order of Australia Medal - "For service to music and the community, particularly through organ performances, installations and restorations and fundraising events".
For one who never wanted to be a professional musician he’s accomplished a great deal!