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First Nations jazz singer finds stolen family in North West WA


Lois Olney outside the old Shire of Roebourne offices. 17 September, 2014. (ABC - Pic Hilary Smale)

Ben Collins ABC North West WA 19 September, 2014


Lois Olney has a lifelong love of jazz singing

Lois Olney was always told her mother had put her up for adoption, but a note scrawled on a pie wrapper and passed to her while singing on stage gave the first inkling she was stolen as a baby.

Lois had been adopted by the Olney family, with her adoptive father being Howard Olney who went on to become a state Labor politician, and then a Justice of the Supreme Court.

Like Lois, her adoptive parents had been told an Aboriginal woman had put her baby daughter up for adoption.

"My family in Perth had often said to me that I was from Roebourne, and they never kept that hidden from me," Lois said.

Jazz singer

Growing up in Perth, Lois discovered a gift for singing. She regularly attended singing lessons, and started performing at a young age.

"I started singing down in Fremantle when I was 13, in restaurants."

In her later teenage years, Aboriginal author and painter Josie Boyle introduced Lois to Raymond Long who was Shirley Bassey's musical director in the 1960s.

"He was a classical pianist but also had an incredible talent for teaching opera," said Lois.

The opera training took Lois's talent to a new level, but it was a genre that didn't sit right.

"I found it extremely difficult because I was learning songs in Italian ... I had to go to a lot of my Italian mates who I grew up with, to ask them to translate," Lois said.

It was at this time that Lois discovered recordings of Billie Holiday, and found the inspiration that would guide her singing career.

First Nations jazz singer Lois Olney ran into a couple of 'sister girls' who asked her to sing for them in the park with no backing. We were tring to catch up with so called Yamatji 'man' Jack Simpson who SHAMED himself by negatively interfering with projects for Aboriginal youth. These worries were all forgotten as we sat with our backs to Jack's house and listened to lois' beuatifull voice drifting over the park. Given the weather, "Summertime" was an apt choice.

Finding a family

Lois didn't often contemplate her birth family while growing up in Perth and developing her singing career. And then a pie wrapper revealed the missing half of Lois's life.

The message came from Lois's aunty who recognised the family resemblance and realised the young Aboriginal jazz singer must be baby 'Brenda', taken from her sister in the Pilbara town of Roebourne more than 20 years earlier.

"It was my aunty and an incredible amount of family, which is the majority of Roebourne, that I've found from that pie wrapper," Lois told Hilary Smale on North West WA Mornings.

The message Lois received on the pie wrapper urged her to return to her birthplace of Roebourne on the Pilbara Coast in North Western Australia as her birth-mother was seriously ill.

Tragically, by the time Lois travelled the 1,500 kilometres north to Roebourne, her mother had died. But a wealth of family remained in the old Pilbara gold rush town.

"[It was] a bit scary, but incredibly rich with love and acceptance because I was gone for so long. It was overwhelming the amount of love they'd saved for me."

Lois continues to live and perform in Perth, and regularly visits her Pilbara family.
Uenowned Aboriginal Jazz diva Lois Olney sings "All of me" at the Perth Blues Club NAIDOC week celebration.

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