Australia’s answer to Elvis: how our Government sacrificed Normie Rowe’s career 211



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In 1967, Normie Rowe had the world at his feet. The singer of the hit Shakin All Over was the most popular solo performer in Australia and was already making great inroads in the UK. For the 21-year-old, it looked like the beginning of a glittering career.

Then, in September, Rowe was called up to national service, his birthday apparently plucked at random in the birth-date ballot that sent so many other young Australians to the Vietnam War.

Rowe served from 1968 to 1970, completing a tour of duty to the South-east Asian warzone with A Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment. Throughout his training and tour, he was photographed and celebrated. Australians at home and in duty were proud of his contribution. But by the time Normie returned to the stage in 1970, his fans had moved on. The momentum he’d built up before the war had subsided and a new wave of artists had moved in.

He recalls, “I did a show on the 1st February 1970. Zoot were on it and all the kids clamoured for them. They walked away from me completely.”

The singer recalls this as a dark period of his life. He told Noise 11 radio, “I stopped singing for six months and then my parents said, ‘If you don’t get some work and start paying your mortgage the bank is going to take your house back’. The only thing I knew was how to sing.”

Rowe managed to carve out a music career that has spanned five decades, but he never again reached the heights of pop stardom to which he was headed before the war.


Until this point, Normie Rowe’s story is sad, but not necessarily usual. What makes it tragic is his allegation that he should never have been called up to war.

Rowe first noticed something amiss when he was pulled over by a police officer. “I guess it was about ’78. I was driving round the Eastern Freeway and came off at Hoddle Street still doing 120 kilometres per hour. I was pulled over and the cop said, ‘You were born on the same day as me. How come you went into the army and I didn’t?’”

The question plagued Mr Rowe for years. Then one day, out of the blue, he was contacted by the son of the military attachment to Harold Holt, Prime Minister at the time. He said his father had confessed something on his deathbed that he wanted the singer to know.

“He told his story just before he died to his son,” Mr Rowe said in an interview with Noise 11. “His Dad said he was in Harold Holt’s office and Harold was struggling with popularity and the anti-war movement. The officer said to Harold Holt, ‘What you need is an Elvis Presley. Get Normie Rowe called up.’”

And that, the singer says, was that.

normie rowe vietnam war

Just as Elvis rallied the US troops, Mr Rowe boosted morale amongst the Aussies, even jumping on stage occasionally to perform. Mostly, though, he was just a soldier. And the legacy of the war was more than just a promising career in tatters; Mr Rowe would struggle for years with the after-effects of combat.

“When I got back from Vietnam the first thing my dad said was, ‘Alright mate, you’ve done it, you’ve been overseas, the best thing you can do is forget about it and just get on with your life,’” Mr Rowe says in an interview with Fairfax.

“It’s probably the worst advice I could have had because some of the most important things that ever happened to me in my life happened while I was in the army, especially when I was in Vietnam, and for me to forget those things, especially the loss of mates… to bury that down for as long as I had to bury it, and then all of a sudden have it come exploding out of me 20 or 30 years later was a terrible journey.”

He adds that the war not only stole his spotlight, it also robbed him of the drive to keep on being that superstar. After going through the war and being part of a platoon, he found the whole music industry distasteful and egocentric.


This month marks 50 years since Normie Rowe first sang Shakin All Over on Grandstand, a pivotal moment in his early career. Today the year that changed his life is part of an exhibition in Melbourne called Theatres of War, which tells the story of the Australian experience of wartime entertainment, at home and on the front line.

According to The Saturday Paper, the Australian War Memorial denies that Normie Rowe was unfairly conscripted, citing records that he was selected in a supplementary ballot for Australians overseas during the first round.

Normie Rowe continues to tour clubs and smaller venues and has recently become a grandad for the second time.

Tell us, do you remember Normie Rowe in his heyday? And how do you feel about his allegations that he was used to boost morale and support for the Vietnam War?

Starts at 60 Writers

The Starts at 60 writers team seek out interesting topics and write them especially for you.

  1. He was never anywhere nearly as good as Elvis or a lot of other singers. Perhaps it was he himself who could not promote himself.

  2. Not surprised that the used Normie as a guinea pig to support the war effort. It’s sad that the radio stations forgot to support him while he was in the army. Elvis got much more publicity, and support. I don’t think he needed to go to a war zone either.

  3. I have seen Rowe on stage at a New Years Eve concert and in between every song he complained about the small audience. Every single time. Instead of doing his best for the audience that did pay to see him. He was NOT our answer to Elvis. The world moved on for everyone. It was a time of upheaval.

    5 REPLY
    • Similar when he came to our town many years ago. Our local band was backing him and he was really rude to the guitarist. Now I know the local was no professional but he was doing his best. Plus he would have been nervous as heck playing for a back then ‘star’. This begs the question why did Normie not bring his own backing guy? I never felt the same about him after seeing and listening to that episode.

    • Saw Normie years ago at Myer music bowl he was wonderful and later saw him at Coolangatta concert during wintersun where he complained about backing band all professionals and didn’t show him in a good light was terribly disappointed in his performance

  4. What a load of rubbish, fancy comparing him to Elvis!!!

    1 REPLY
    • It’s the unjust way he was sent that is the point of the topic.
      “His Dad said he was in Harold Holt’s office and Harold was struggling with popularity and the anti-war movement. The officer said to Harold Holt, ‘What you need is an Elvis Presley. Get Normie Rowe called up.’” Yep. You are famous so we’ll use you for our own ends. Not by ridiculous ballot but by deliberate selection. And he was not the only one called up this disgusting manner.

  5. I worked for a Vietnam Vet for a number of years. He said he and a few others were called up even though others of the same birthday weren’t. Just coincidence that they were all uni graduates? Just coincidence they were in tank corp? Could it be you need brains to calculate where the artillery will actually land? He was very bitter and twisted over it. Lovely but tormented man. Not mentally cut out for murdering the citizens of another country. War mongering Liberals then and still at it today. When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn.

    2 REPLY
  6. Oh I do remember Normie Rowe in his heyday. I believe that the Government will stoop to something as low as conscripting a popular entertainer to gain popularity. Back then We had to wait to be 21 years of age before we could vote. I have never voted for a Liberal Government ever and this is part of the reason because I just felt back then that it was rigged.
    He like many others have suffered PTSD and were so unsupported when they returned.

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    • Definitely believe this happened to Normie. I went to a concert of his at The Innisfail Shire Hall during the last 60’s. Still have one of the 45’s they were throwing off the stage into the crowd. His shows were so much fun!!

  7. Oh boy what a load of crap. Normie Rowe was no Elvis and yes he lost acouple of his best earning years in the entertainment industry. It is more probable that like so many of his peers he would have been yesterdays news by 1970 with or without Vietnam. Conscription ruined many lives. Normie Rowe is no indian in that regard.

    4 REPLY
    • Normie Rowe, didn’t say he was like Elvis. Harold Holt was the one that said they needed someone like Elvis was for the Yanks, to get back his popularity. Didn’t help, Holt as Normie Rowe, lasted longer than Holt.

    • Agree Tim , it was conscription ! Nothing more nothing less. Many didn’t return and those that did got treated pretty badly thanks to the Australian people and governments , RSL’s .
      So Normie Rowe , lost a possibly big singing career , he’s alive !
      I liked him , but he’s no more special than the rest of the people who were sent there.

    • I didn’t like him when I was a kid and that has not improved since the best thing and one and only thing I will remember him by was when he got punched in the head on the tv show. I saw him live in concert before he was draughted and let me tell you he was no Elvis.

    • He never said he was anything like Elvis! That analogy was used by others. It was all too convenient for the government at the time – and a lot of people were very suspicious about the whole thing. Why would he be called up and others with the same birthday not?

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