Wed 6 May 2020

Helen Jennings OAM joined the PBS rank and file in 1984, back in the days when PBS was still transmitting from the top of the Royal Women’s Hospital on 107.7fm. It was just after the move from The Prince of Wales Hotel to Fitzroy Street, St Kilda and Helen jumped into the post move chaos and made herself indispensable, working on outside broadcasts, fundraisers and membership drives. She spent hours sitting on the floor sorting donated albums, vouchers and merch into giveaways for new members. Where she found her niche was compiling and recording the weekly blues and roots gig guide to be played on the relevant shows throughout the week. Her voice was a familiar one for those in the blues and roots scene well before she became known as the announcer of the much loved program, Roots of Rhythm.

It was in 1986 that Helen made her leap from a helping hand around the studio to the airwaves. Kaz Dalla Ros, harpist for the Mojo’s, asked Helen to co-present her fortnightly program, Women In Blues, which Helen did for the rest of ‘86, fine tuning her announcing skills. 

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Helen Jennings with US blues-rock pioneer,
Lonnie Mack at the Greek Tavern in 1992 

On Wednesday February 1, 1987 from 3:30pm until 5pm, Helen presented the first ever Roots of Rhythm. Although blues and roots is Helen’s focus, she made a deliberate choice not to lock herself in and went broad with her program title. She’s pleased that she did as it has allowed her to strike out once in a while and delve into her extensive music taste over 33 years on air (and counting).

Helen’s career has been filled with achievements and accolades and it’s hard to work out which stories to tell. She inherited her musical ear from her mother, a chorale singer who instilled in Helen a dedication to volunteer and charity work and surrounded her with wonderful music. From there Helen discovered jazz, blues and roots, and joined any committee and society available to her, even co-founding her own Melbourne Blues Appreciation Society. She managed Australian blues legend Dutch Tilders and his band, and founded record label Blues Club Records with her partner, Barry Hills, on which they released Tilders' award winning albums. Blues Club Records branched out from Dutch Tilders, licensing other fantastic Australian artists including Marco Goldsmith’s Blue Heat and The Backsliders.

From 1979 to 2000, Helen ran an agency, doing publicity fortouring international jazz and blues artists, also touring bands throughout Victoria with names such as The Bondi Cigars, Lil Fi & the Delta Rhythm Kings and Phil Manning & the Hippos on the tour ballot. In 1987 Helen co-founded the Melbourne Blues Festival, which she ran with Rae Sedergreen until 1996. She has been a staple of the blues festival scene since, MCing and stage managing at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues for 27 years, with other occasional gigs at the Queenscliff and Apollo Music festivals and for the Arts Centre and City of Melbourne too.

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Helen with Terry 'Harmonica' Bean, promoter
and player of older style Mississippi blues


Highlights of Helen’s time at PBS were the two music tours of the USA that she organised in 2011 and 2013 with PBS business member, Passport Travel. Following successful trips to Africa (lead by Stani Goma of Flight 1067 to Africa) and Jamaica (lead by Jesse I from Babylon Burning), Helen meticulously planned a three week blues and roots themed trip for ten music lovers, covering eight states, three major music festivals and countless museums. The standout for the group was an invitation to the home of Chicago blues legend, Corky Seigel. Corky was keen to meet the group and even invited a friend over to meet them. This friend just happened to be Bruce Iglauer, founder and owner of Alligator, the biggest and most celebrated blues label in the world. Corky and Bruce spent two hours regaling the group with stories of the 1960s Chicago blues scene, an experience that the group just couldn’t believe. 

Helen has been with PBS as a volunteer and then as an announcer for 36 years. In that time she has watched the transition to digital radio, many new announcers, programs, volunteers and staff come and go, and the growing connection with musicians and listeners around Australia and the world that arrived with the internet. In 2018 Helen was one of six radio industry veterans to be recognised, receiving an Order of Australia award for her long-standing commitment to and work in Australian music and radio. 

You can hear Helen on Roots of Rhythm every Wednesday from 9am until 11am, and if you want to support Helen and the station, you can become a member of Roots of Rhythm here.

 

Thanks to Eve Fraser for this article.