Fremantle Stuff > people > Norm Wrightson
Norm Wrightson (1924-2020) was a hairdresser and bandleader. His band, the Norm Wrightson Orchestra, played Saturday nights at the Victoria Hall for thirty years from 1949. His salon at 7 William St (in the Manning Chambers building) was until April 2020 still a barbershop with his name on it, tho he himself retired in 1999. Norm Wrightson died Friday 14 August 2020.
Norm Wrightson born 1924, became the third generation in the family to work as a barber. In 1933 the family opened a shop opposite the Town Hall in William Street and the family lived upstairs. After serving an apprenticeship with his father and completing four years of Army service during World War Two, Norm worked in the shop with the support of his wife, Bernice, until his retirement in 1999. Norm Wrightson developed great skill as a musician, playing the saxophone and clarinet. He started his own band and became a well-known and respected band leader, playing at numerous venues until he retired from music in 1961 to concentrate on the barber's shop. Bob Wrightson focussed on teaching dance and with his wife Shelda competed in international ballroom competitions with great success. He was involved in dances at Victoria Hall and Canterbury Court. Summary of a 2012 interview with NW by Heather Campbell, Fremantle Library OH/WRI.
Robert Wrightson and his dad Ernie Wrightson had a small barber shop on Canning Hwy in East Fremantle. In 1933 a shop at 7 William St Fremantle became available and they jumped at the opportunity. They named the barbershop R.E Wrightson.
Norm Wrightson, the son of Robert Wrightson would have been 9 years old at the time, and Norm's brother Robert was 13 years old. Norm's parents Robert and Moude slept upstairs above the barbershop in the front room practically underneath the Town Hall clock. Norm and his brother Robert also slept in the room upstairs above the barbershop.
Norm's grandfather Ernie retired from barbering after six weeks of entering their new business premises so from then on Norm's father Robert started to employ hairdressers.
Haircuts for men at the time were a shilling. Kids' haircut and men's shave were sixpence. Norm's brother Bob started a hairdressing apprenticeship with his dad but at age 16 was selected to go on a tour of South Africa with the YAL (Young Australian League). Norm would practise on his saxophone upstairs and he was sure he used to drive the customers downstair in the barbershop mad. Norm would go off to school and by age 13 would come into the barbershop and start cutting kids' hair to help out his dad.
In those days Norm's dad was quite a heavy smoker and his mum who didn't smoke or drink would roll his cigarettes, light them and pass them on to Norm's dad to smoke. Norm's dad used to have a habit of smoking whilst he was cutting hair and one of his friends used to walk in and pick up his cigarette and have a couple of puffs. One day Norm's dad loaded the cigarette with six wax match heads and his friend that used to come in and puff his cigarette started to puff away. Imagine what happened - the cigarette blew up in his face and there was a lot of laughter from all the other customers and barbers.
The second world war started in 1939 and in 1942 Norm was called up.
While he was away for four years, Norm's dad put on two apprentices, brothers Les and Horry Hawkins and they turned out to be very good hairdressers so they kept the place going.
During the war there were no shop fronts, all the windows were taken out and the fronts boarded up in case of air raids. When Norm got out of the army in 1946 he comlpeted his apprenticeship. It took Norm eight years all up to finish his apprenticeship including his army time.
Norm married Bernice Poole on 1947 and sent Norm's parents to England for a holiday for six months by ship and they loved it.
Norm Wrightson's was one of the first barbershops in WA to put on a lady apprentice, Katrina Bannister and a lady hairdresser Tina Russel. They both turned out to be excellent hairdressers.
Norm's dad started to take things easy and retired in 1973. Norm's mum still worked behind the counter and Bernice (Norm's wife) worked a couple of days also to give Norm's mum some much needed time off.
During the 1950s and 1960s Norm employed two Italian hairdressers and several ladies. The Italians were Tony D'Andrea and Fedele Potalivo, both excellent barbers and they all had a lot of fun together. Both men worked for over thirty years for Norm. Norm would call Fedele a D-I-N-G and he would call Norm as 'Ossi Bugga' - the customers loved the banter.
Norm's dad passed away in 1981 and Norm's mum in 1983. The business was originally in the name of R.E Wrightson and when Norm took over from his father he renamed the shop to Norm Wrightson's Hairway.
As the business started to expand, Norm knocked down the wall to the backroom to increase the barbershop to '6 Chairs' to let people know how big the business was. This proved to be quite effective but also humorous, as friends of the staff were confused and thought the Barber Salon was called 6 Chairs. Text from the history section of the Norm Wrightson Hairway website.
Fremantle has lost one of its best-known and revered personalities, Norm Wrightson, whose history in the port city began in 1933 when he was aged nine.
WA was still struggling with the Great Depression when Norm’s parents and two sons moved into a two-storey historic building with living quarters above a shop. The building was in William Street opposite the Fremantle Town Hall. In a time when businesses were closing and not opening, Norm’s father, Bob, told the landlord he wanted to open a barber shop. Although the landlord expressed doubt, he let the Wrightsons take the tenancy, giving them the first three months rent-free.
So started the business that flourished for 87 years at the same location — and has relocated, also in Fremantle, recently. It was a logical step for Norm to become a barber.
The boys’ mother, Maud, had ambitions for them. They both learnt to tap dance and were encouraged to take up music — a dynasty of music and dancing was born. Elder brother Robert (Bob), excelled at ballroom dancing and in 1954, he and his wife, Shelda, became world champions. Bob and Shelda then opened a chain of dance studios around Australia.
Norm’s interest was the saxophone and clarinet and he became one of the leading WA exponents of reed instruments. But his first commitment during the 1940s was service with the army in Australia during World War II and New Guinea just after the war, before returning to Fremantle.
The ambition of every musician during that era was to play in the band at Perth’s Embassy ballroom in William Street. It was a classy venue with comfortable lounges down each side of a 1115sqm jarrah floor and featuring ballroom dancing nearly every night.
Norm was employed by popular Embassy bandleader Ron Moyle, giving him invaluable experience playing with very capable musos. It was a great contrast to the gigs he had done with his brother, playing drums around Fremantle. The Embassy job was the beginning of a lifetime of hairdressing by day and donning the dinner suit to play in bands at night.
Each night was concluded with God Save the King, as patrons stood to attention. The day job honed Norm’s confidence and personality. Barbers are usually good communicators and he was renowned for his good service and friendly nature.
In 1942, he met the love of his life, Bernice Poole, who worked nearby. It was instant attraction leading to marriage in 1947 and lasted for 65 wonderful years until Bernice’s death in 2012. The marriage produced three children — sons Boyd and Gary, and daughter Marlene.
Norm’s music career took a major turn in 1949 when he formed his own band to play a regular Saturday dance at Bob’s dance studio in Victoria Hall, Fremantle. Norm on sax, plus trumpet, piano, drums, bass and vocals was a standard format at the time. Playing a wide variety of swing jazz and pop music, the band soon gained fame around Perth and Fremantle. Following the influence of Frank Sinatra, Norm’s vocalist was a talented young Dane Gorn, succeeded by other male and female vocalists. Norm worked on his musical development and fine-tuned his technique by studying with the principal clarinettist of the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra, Alan Rule. Norm was known for his excellent rendition of the clarinet showpiece of the time, Golden Wedding, a number often requested.
In 1955, Norm’s brother, Bob opened Perth’s biggest cabaret venue, Canterbury Court, with ballroom dancing Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday nights. It was very popular because it featured two bands playing non-stop dancing.
It was quite usual to have 800 dancers enjoying themselves midweek. The patrons were well turned out, men wore ties and jackets and women wore beautiful dresses. Alcohol was not available and not allowed. The dancers just enjoyed the music and intermingling.
For the years 1955 to 1975, Norm was chosen to play in big bands assembled as backing groups for overseas artists. Famous performers Nat King Cole, Pat Boone, Eartha Kitt, Louis Armstrong, Trini Lopez and others were the early visitors to Perth, usually bringing a musical director to conduct the local orchestra. The format was a two-hour rehearsal in the morning, then two two-hour shows at night. It’s a credit to the calibre of local players that the shows were very successful.
In 1968, Bernice and Norm’s 16-year-old daughter, Marlene, was diagnosed with cancer in her back which was a tragedy for the family. Treatment in WA was relatively basic, but Norm faced the problem by sending details to the world’s leading oncologists in America and Japan. The advice was she could not be saved. Marlene died in August 1968. Family, friends and fellow musicians rallied around to get the Wrightson family through that awful time.
Among the most arduous gigs were country ball nights in towns such as Northam, Narrogin, Katanning and Harvey. These gigs involved loading up one car and leaving Perth at 5pm, arriving at 8pm and performing 8.30pm to 2am, then packing up and driving home. After a short sleep, it was off to the day job!
Norm Wrightson was the last of several popular bandleaders in Perth including Harry Bluck, Ron Jenkins, Sam Sharp and Chris Gosper.
In the late 1960s, Norm’s dad, Bob retired, and Norm took over the business, renaming it Norm Wrightson’s Hairway. It was the biggest barbershop in Fremantle and quite a talking point with 1930s decor and lots of memorabilia. Norm retired from his music career in 1989 and he sold the shop in 1999 when his service was acknowledged by the Fremantle mayor and council. In 2013, the 80th year of the shop’s continuous service was celebrated with a concert combining barbershop nostalgia with big-band music to delight a huge crowd of Norm’s fans.
After Bernice’s death, Norm adapted to a new social role, friends alluding to him as the “social secretary” as he regularly organised outings and events. He enjoyed a happy companionship with his sister-in-law Lorna Poole until her death in 2016 and friendships with sister-in-law Josephine Wrightson and broadcaster Carol Kennedy. Well into his 90s Norm was recognised around Fremantle by many clients. He leaves a wonderful legacy with two sons, three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Ray Taylor.
See also: Wrightsons Barbershop in the 'Nixon building'.
Campbell, Heather 2012, Interview with Norm Wrightson, Fremantle Library OH/WRI.
Foster, Brendan 2013, 'A party to cut through the years', Fremantle Herald, 25 October (photo above).
Horsley, Lorraine & Chloe Papas 2015, 'Dancing through Fremantle's history with music veteran Norm Wrightson', 720 ABC Perth, 27 March (photo right).
Norm Wrightson Hairway website (top photo) showing Norm playing his alto sax sitting in one of his barber chairs.
Garry Gillard | New: 22 August, 2015 | Now: 11 September, 2020