As one of the most unusual aggregations ever assembled in Australia, Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band played jug-band blues enlivened with sideshow entertainment and vaudeville lunacy. An overseas equivalent would perhaps be Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.
Captain Matchbox was centred around the Conway brothers, Mick and Jim, who formed the band in 1969. The Conways' early inspiration came from the likes of Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton and other 1930s jazz exponents. Captain Matchbox's theatrical style found much favour with Melbourne's underground scene, and the band became a regular at the Much More Ballroom, supporting Spectrum, Daddy Cool, etc.
Captain Matchbox's first mainstream exposure came with an appearance in Tim Burstall's 1971 film Stork starring Bruce Spence and Jackie Weaver. Image Records issued the singles `My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes'/`Nagasaki' (a Top 40 hit in November 1972) and `I Can't Dance (Got Ants in My Pants)'/`Jungle Dance' (April 1973) and the album Smoke Dreams (June). The album was comprised entirely of 1930s and 1940s jazz, blues and jug-band standards. Image licensed the album to the ESP-Disk label (home to Tom Rapp's Pearls Before Swine) for release in the USA.
In November 1973, the line-up had changed to the Conway brothers, Niven and Fleming with new members Geoff Hales (drums, washboard), Fred Olbrei (violin, vocals) and Dave Flett (electric bass, slide dobro, backing vocals, ukelele; ex-Lipp and The Double Dekker Brothers). Jon Snyder (guitar) joined at the beginning of 1974, and the band issued `Your Feets Too Big'/`Wait for Me Juanita' (February 1974) and `Hernando's Hideaway'/`Down Undergroundsville' (July 1974). `Wait For Me Juanita' was one of the band's first original compositions (written by Mick Conway and Dave Flett) to see release on record.
Another Conway–Flett song `Wangaratta Wahine' became the title track to the band's breakthrough album which came out at the end of 1974. The band appeared on the ABC-TV's pop show Countdown playing `Wangaratta Wahine', and by August 1975 the album had reached #4 on the national charts. Another of the album's distinguishing features was the Michael Leunig cartoon on the cover. In 1975, Fleming and Hales left to be replaced by Chris Worral (ex-Pelaco Brothers) and Manny Paterakis. Mushroom signed the band and issued `Australia'/`Christopher Columbus' (October 1975) and the album Australia. Once again, it was an entertaining mix of originals and covers like `Cocaine Habit', `Sweeny Todd the Barber' and Noel Coward's `20th Century Blues'. In keeping with the band's sense of humour, in the album credits Mick was listed as Microphone Conway while Chris Worral was Christmas Worral.
There were more line-up changes in 1976 with Jack Saram replacing Olbrei, Graeme Isaacs replacing Paterakis and Gordon McLean replacing Worral. Niven also left to join The Sports. The band's old label, Image, issued the compilation album Making Whoopee (October 1976). By November 1976, Captain Matchbox had evolved into The Soapbox Circus when it was incorporated in the Australian Performing Group. Flett had left and two new members, Peter Mulheissen (bass) and Rick Ludbrook (guitar, sax), joined. The new line-up recorded the live album The Great Stumble Forward, the single `If I Can't Hav-Anna in Cuba'/`Chiropodist Shop', and appeared in the play Smackin' the Dacks.
By 1978 the band was known as Matchbox with a line-up of Mick, Jim, Ludbrook, Mulheissen, McLean, Tony Burkys (guitar; ex-Original Battersea Heroes) and Stephen Cooney (guitar), who was replaced by Louis McManus (ex-Bushwackers). Matchbox released Slightly Troppo, which produced the singles `Sleep'/`Victims of Circumstance' (June 1978) and `Love is Like a Rainbow' (January 1979). Matchbox also appeared in Tim Burstall's 1979 feature film Dimboola.
By mid-1979, the line-up of Mick, Jim, McManus and Mulheissen had been augmented by Robert Ross (drums; ex-Manning), Eric McCusker (guitar) and Chris Coyne (sax, flute). That version of the band introduced a more rock-oriented sound, but by September 1980 Matchbox had broken up. McCusker joined Mondo Rock and the Conway brothers embarked on a series of new ventures. The first was The Hotsie Totsie Band in 1981, then Carnival in 1983 and The Conway Brothers Hiccups Orchestra in 1984. Carnival comprised Mick, Jim, Palz (lead vocals), Jim Niven (ex-Sports), Kim Cook (guitar), Kim Constable (bass; ex-Ratbags of Rhythm) and Warwick Kent (drums; ex-Ratbags of Rhythm). The Hiccups Orchestra issued a self-titled album on Larrikin in 1987 which mixed old (1930s and 1940s) favourites with contemporary satire. `Cho Cho Ch' Boogie' was the single. Mick worked with Mick Conway's Whoopee Band in 1989. When Avenue/CBS reissued Wangaratta Wahine in 1983, Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band re-formed for a one-off national tour. The line-up featured Mick, Jim, Flett, McManus, Hales, Niven and Jim Pennell (drums).
In the late 1980s, Jim Conway was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Despite being wheelchair-bound he has continued to play, most notably in The Backsliders. The Backsliders comprised Conway (harmonica), Peter Burgess (drums; ex-Stumblers) and Dominic Turner (guitar, vocals; ex-Stumblers). The band's brand of purist acoustic blues and R&B appealed to a hardcore following that has been rewarded with the release of five albums, Preachin' Blues (MBS, 1988), Sittin' on a Million (Sandstock, 1989), Hellhounds (Sandstock, 1991), Live at the Royal (Blues Club, 1992) and Wide Open (Blues Club, 1995).