Charley Drayton, an American multi-instrumental musician and producer of African-American descent, who has played as a drummer and bass guitarist for many bands and artists and is currently the drummer in Cold Chisel.
Photo: Brendan Esposito
A day after what would have been his late wife Chrissy Amphlett’s 56th birthday, Cold Chisel drummer Charley Drayton is still riding the emotions. The legendary Divinyls front woman was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2005; breast cancer took her life in 2013. “I wasn’t sad, I was happy,” says Drayton of the recent birthday anniversary. “The only moment of sadness is when I think about the way in which her life ended. What she had to go through, no one should go through, you know what I mean? She struggled right at the point in your life where you think you can explore other things that you want to do; she was over 50.”
Drayton turned 50 this year. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, his trumpet-playing father Bernard was one of the country’s first black American advertising and radio producers. At home, he listened to jazz and Latin music and other records brought home by his dad: James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone.
But it was on bass guitar in the 1980s that he made a real name for himself, playing with legends including Keith Richards, Iggy Pop and Neil Young. (He’s also worked with Johnny Cash, Chaka Khan, Courtney Love, Simon & Garfunkel, Herbie Hancock and the B-52s, drumming on their hit “Love Shack”.)
In 1990 the multi-instrumentalist was invited to record with an Australian band he’d never heard of: Divinyls. He called his friend, Babi Floyd, for advice. “Babi said, ‘Oh, man! Chrissy Amphlett, man! She is bad-ass! You need to go check that out.” All it took for Drayton was one look at the cover of Divinyl’s 1983 album Desperate. “I just said to myself, ‘Good Lord, something is going to happen here.'”
To begin with, though, the fireworks were strictly professional. The album he worked on – diVINYLS – was a success and included the Australian number one hit, “I touch myself”. But not for long.
In 1993 Divinyls asked him to join them in Australia for pre-production on their next record. Soon after, the band agreed to play a one-off gig to close Brisbane’s notorious Boggo Road Gaol and, between drummers, they asked Drayton to fill in. He never left.
It was a year later that Drayton’s relationship with Amphlett changed. And Amphlett made the first move. “I’ll never forget,” recalls Drayton. “We were in Darwin of all places and she said, ‘Hey, look, I have some feelings for you, and what do you feel about that?’ She regretted it the very next day and thought she shouldn’t have crossed that line.”
With the tour finished Drayton returned home to New York and, knowing how “bad” she felt, he called her in Australia. “We spoke everyday for four or five hours, for a month and fell in love, pretty much, over the phone.” The couple eventually married in 1999, living together in New York.
More than a decade later, and following the death of Cold Chisel’s drummer Steve Prestwich from a brain tumour, Drayton says Amphlett woke up one morning with a hunch. “Chrissy just had this gut feeling that they would approach me – and she was right.” Drayton joined Cold Chisel in 2011 and, during the band’s Light the Nitro tour, Amphlett made a surprise cameo with them in South Australia. “Of course, it turned out,” he says, struggling to get the words out, “that Chrissy’s last performance on an Australian stage was in Adelaide with us…Who knew? I would have never guessed that.”
Today, Drayton finds himself on tour again with one of Australia’s most iconic bands. Although not intimately aware of some finer cultural details, such as Jimmy Barnes’ recent request for Reclaim Australia to stop using Cold Chisel songs at rallies, he lives and breathes positive race relations. He’s also a strong admirer of retired footballer Adam Goodes, saying he’d love to see him at a Cold Chisel show one day.
Since Amphlett’s death Drayton has campaigned to keep his wife’s strong spirit and legacy alive, supporting breast cancer awareness with the moving #itouchmyselfproject and, in February, celebrating the official opening of Melbourne’s Amphlett Lane. He’s looking forward to visiting the lane again this week when it hosts performances by a Divinyls tribute choir. “Amphlett Lane-way is a place to celebrate; and to learn things about each other and to continue life,” says Drayton. “In the two-and-a-half years since Chrissy’s passing I’ve learnt that her spirit will always be present; it will always surround me and those she touched.”
The Amphlett Stirrers perform five Divinyls songs a cappella in Amphlett Lane on Friday November 20. Performance times are 8.20, 8.50 and 9.30pm. Tickets $10 at eventbrite.com.au