Lee Gordon (promoter)

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Lee Lazar Gordon (born Leon Lazar Gevorshner, March 8, 1923[1]– November 7, 1963) was an American entrepreneur and rock and roll promoter who worked extensively in Australia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Gordon's jazz and rock'n'roll tours had a major impact on the Australian music scene and he also played a significant role in the early career of pioneering Australian rock'n'roll singer Johnny O'Keefe.

Early life and career[edit]

Many aspects of Gordon's biography remain sketchy or obscure, and many accounts contain contradictory information. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Gordon was born in Detroit, Michigan, and educated at Highland Park High School, Highland Park, Michigan and at the University of Miami, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Business Administration in 1944. However, other sources claim that Gordon was in fact born in 1917 in Coral Gables, Florida.

He began promoting jazz concerts at university; after graduating he reportedly worked in several 'colourful' business enterprises — during World War II he reportedly ran a mail-order business that operated out of Lima, Peru, and later he moved to Cuba, where he booked entertainment for the famous Tropicana nightclub in Havana.

A number of stories circulate about Gordon's immediate postwar career. One account says he established a chain of electrical goods stores in the USA, which eventually failed. On the supposed advice of a friend, Detroit promoter Arthur Shergin, he came to Sydney in 1953 to investigate the possibilities of promoting concert tours there.

According to his Australian business associate Max Moore, Gordon claimed to have established a successful chain of electrical retail stores, with numerous branches in the USA and Canada, and that he eventually sold the business for US$550,000. This was a considerable fortune at that time, and it is apparently the largest single sum he ever amassed during his life. However, he said, he had lost the entire amount within three years, backing two unsuccessful Broadway productions and several loss-making music tours. Although the details cannot be readily confirmed, this pattern of action certainly accords with the rest of Gordon's career, as he repeatedly made and lost small fortunes on his music promotions and other enterprises.[2]

Another (possibly apocryphal) version of these events, recounted by Max Moore, states that in early 1953 Gordon accepted a bet from some influential New York business people, who doubted his claims that he could start with nothing and become a success. He was challenged to prove himself and given a one-way ticket to Canada. Basing himself in Toronto, he moved into a luxury penthouse hotel suite, rented several retail properties and began advertising his new venture. Stocking the stores with TV sets, Gordon hired staff and used his proven hard-sell tactics and by the end of the first week he managed to make enough money to pay his bills; a short time later he apparently sold the business for a handsome profit. It was during his stint in Toronto that he allegedly met an Australian used-car salesman who encouraged him to try his luck in Australia.[3]

Australian career[edit]

Gordon arrived in Sydney in September 1953. He stayed for a time at a private hotel in Darling Point before moving into a rented harbourside penthouse in the prestigious eastern suburb of Point Piper, where he remained until he left Australia for the last time in 1962.[4]

Gordon's first Australian business venture was a marketing business utilising the latest American techniques such as telephone quizzes, competitions and discount coupons on to lure customers into a Sydney furniture and electrical appliances retailer, Royal Art Furnishings. His deal with the company gave him a percentage of the increased business, and his marketing tactics proved so successful that the company sold thousands of appliances,[5] earning a considerable sum in a short time.

From the springboard of his initial marketing success, Gordon then established himself as a music concert promoter in Australia. Backed by his recent earnings and tapping his connections in the American music business, he founded a promotions company to bring out leading American music artists. He was keen to minimise his tax liability—Australian tax law in those days charged a double rate on performers who worked in both Australia and the United States—so he hired a skilled accountant, Alan Heffernan, who went on to become his permanent accountant and general manager, as well becoming a close friend and confidante.[6] Heffernan played a major role in Gordon's subsequent success and he helped to keep the company going through the mysterious period in 1958 when Gordon disappeared for almost a year.

In 1954 Australian taxation law was amended, ending the punitive double taxation levied on artists who worked in both Australia and the USA. As soon as the change took effect, Gordon terminated his work with Royal Art Furnishings to concentrate on building his concert promotions business.[6]

His new company, which traded as The Big Show Pty Ltd, opened an office at 151 Bayswater Rd in Rushcutter's Bay and in January 1955 he hired book-keeper and future promoter Max Moore as his assistant. Six months later Moore was elevated to the position of tour manager, and he coordinated most of the Big Show tours. The other Big Show staff at this time were Alan Heffernan (general manager), Perla Honeyman (publicity officer), Clive Mahon (assistant to Lee Gordon), Colleen McCrindle (Gordon's secretary) and receptionist Moira Delray.[7]

Gordon negotiated a deal with venue owners Stadiums Limited for the use of their venues in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and arranged the hire of Centennial Hall in Adelaide and suitable venues in other major cities. Stadiums Ltd was a famous Australian company that had been purchased in 1916 by colourful Melbourne business identity John Wren, whose life and career was the inspiration for John West, the central character in Frank Hardy's controversial novel Power Without Glory.

Stadiums Ltd owned large venues in most Australian capital cities, including the Sydney Stadium, Melbourne Festival Hall and Brisbane Festival Hall. Through the first half of the 20th century these halls hosted many major Australian boxing and wrestling matches, since their "in-the-round" arenas were at the time the largest indoor venues in Australia's three biggest cities. Thanks to the deal struck by Gordon, these Stadiums Ltd venues - especially the Sydney Stadium - became indelibly associated with the "Big Show" tours of the 1950s.

With the Stadiums deal arranged—at a cost of AU£500 per session[8]—Gordon refitted the Sydney Stadium, designing Australia's first rotating stage, which was installed on top of the old fight ring in the centre of the arena.[9]

Gordon's first major concert tour, staged in July 1954, was an all-star 'package' tour featuring jazz legends Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich and Artie Shaw, with comedian Jerry Colonna. It played at the Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane Stadiums, but Gordon lost heavily on the venture.[10]

Undeterred by this failure, Gordon went ahead with a tour by popular American singer Johnnie Ray in August 1954. A week after tickets went on sale, receipts were so poor that Gordon faced ruin—according to Max Moore, visits by overseas acts were so rare at that time that many people thought these early tour promotions were hoaxes.[11] In an effort to save the tour, Gordon launched a promotional blitz — he had four million leaflets printed, which entitled the holder to a free extra ticket for every ticket sold, and then arranged for these "twofer" leaflets to be dropped from planes over Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The tactic helped to turn sales around and the tour was a sell-out success.

In late 1954 Gordon next tour starred The Andrews Sisters and Billy Daniels; although only two of the three Andrews sisters (Maxene and LaVern) were available for the tour, it was a success.[11]

Johnnie Ray's second Australian tour in 1955 was a landmark in the history of Australian entertainment. Ray's emotionally charged performances electrified local audiences, who had not seen anything like it before. As writer Damian Johnstone notes, the success demonstrated that Australian audiences were willing to pay high prices to see American entertainers, and it kick-started the demand for large scale tours by international acts. Although he was not a rock'n'roll performer and his popularity in the USA had waned, Ray's distinctive style was an important bridge between the mainstream popular music of the '40s and early '50s and the emerging rock'n'roll genre. He also had a great influence on Australia's first homegrown rock'n'roll star, Johnny O'Keefe, who in fact began his career as a Johnny Ray impersonator.

Ray's second Australian tour was even bigger than the first—he was mobbed by 10,000 fans at Sydney Airport [12] and he set an Australian record for ticket sales that was not broken until the arrival of The Beatles in 1964. Max Moore claims that Gordon tried to whip up the audience by hiring a local tailor to stitch together a custom-made coat for Ray with 'breakaway' sleeves, and then paying young girls to pull them off when he reached into the audience during his performance.[13] Johnny O'Keefe saw Ray perform live several times on this tour and studied his idol carefully.

Although the second Johnnie Ray tour was highly successful, several of Gordon's subsequent promotions—including a tour featuring singer Frankie Laine and comedy duo Abbott & Costello—were box-office flops. Inveterate gamblers who spent much of their free time playing poker with Australian radio star Jack Davey, Abbott and Costello are said to have lost the equivalent of their entire tour fee, so they instructed Gordon to send their cheque to Davey, but because Big Show Pty Ltd was broke, it bounced and no-one was paid.[13]

An ill-fated tour 1955 by American Roller Derby teams failed to draw the expected crowds and Gordon took another huge financial loss.[14] Ironically, Gordon again proved to be ahead of its time with this attraction, which became very popular in the late 1960s when rebadged as The Roller Game.

Gordon bounced back with several successful tours during 1956, including visits by the Louis Armstrong All-Stars (supported by Gary Crosby, Nat King Cole, Calypso king Harry Belafonte and the "Record Star Parade", which featured Don Cornell, Stan Freberg, Joe "Fingers" Carr, Buddy Rich and a dance duo called The Nilsson Twins.

Thinking that he had found a winning formula, Gordon booked a similar tour for 1957, featuring Lionel Hampton, Stan Kenton and vocalists Cathy Carr and Guy Mitchell, but his attempt to repeat the success of the Record Star Parade proved to be another financial disaster.[15]

Rock'n'roll tours, 1957-58[edit]

The rise of rock'n'roll provided Gordon with a lucrative new avenue of promotion, and his tours effectively kick-started the rock'n'roll boom in Australia.

In March 1957 Gordon mounted his first major rock'n'roll tour, an all-star bill with Bill Haley & The Comets, LaVern Baker, Big Joe Turner, The Platters and Freddie Bell and The Bell Boys. Although local pundits were already predicting that rock'n'roll was a passing fad, the tour was a huge success, breaking box office records around the country, and over 300,000 people saw the show.[16] During the tour Johnny O'Keefe met Haley several times and was given a number of songs by Haley—although with his typical chutzpah, O'Keefe greatly exaggerated the extent of the contact when talking to the press.[17]

Gordon's second rock'n'roll tour was even more significant. The all-star bill was headed by three of the biggest stars in American music at that time -- Little Richard, Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps, and Eddie Cochran, supported by a singer then being touted as "the female Elvis", Alis Lesley. During the tour Little Richard had his famous religious conversion, which was apparently prompted by his fear that the launch of Sputnik 1 (which took place during the tour) presaged the imminent end of the world. While travelling to a concert in Newcastle NSW, Little Richard "found God" on the Stockton ferry, which prompted him to tear a number of expensive rings from his hands and throw them into the Hunter river.

This tour also provided Johnny O'Keefe with his first big break. When Gene Vincent and his band were delayed in Hawaii en route to Australia, Gordon hastily drafted O'Keefe and his band The Dee Jays to fill in for Vincent at the first show on the tour in Wollongong.

In February 1958 Gordon promoted another groundbreaking tour starring Buddy Holly & The Crickets, Jerry Lee Lewis and Paul Anka. By this time the old Brisbane Stadium had been demolished; its replacement, Brisbane Festival Hall, was still under construction and the only suitable venue was the famous Cloudland Ballroom, which was located on top of a high ridge in the hills behind the city. Because of the difficult location, Gordon's staff hired a fleet of taxis to ferry patrons up to the venue.[18] Max Moore described Lewis as being "more laid back than his image suggested", although the unfortunate Anka was reportedly subjected to some vicious anti-Semitic abuse from Lewis' entourage.

In July 1959 Gordon presented a tour promoted as "The Battle of the Big Beat - USA Versus Australia". It featured LLoyd Price, Conway Twitty, the Kalin Twins and Linda Laurie from the US, and Col Joye & Joy Boys, Johnny O'Keefe & The Dee Jays, Johnny Rebb & His Rebels, Johnny Devlin & The Devils, The Delltones and Dig Richards & The R'Jays.

Frank Sinatra tours, 1955, 1957[edit]

In January 1955 Gordon scored one of his biggest coups by landing a tour with legendary singer and film star Frank Sinatra. It was Sinatra's first visit to Australia and it played to capacity audiences in Sydney, and Melbourne. But a second tour, booked for March 1957, was cancelled two days before the scheduled opening night, apparently because Sinatra's friend, songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen, was unable to get a berth on the flight to Australia—although it was also rumored that Sinatra had simply decided to abandon the tour to play golf with Sammy Davis, Jr..

Big Show Ltd took a heavy loss because of the cancellation, so Gordon sued, but in an out-of-court settlement, Sinatra agreed to perform a series of concerts in the USA to compensate Gordon. However Sinatra insisted that he be flown everywhere in a DC7 aircraft, and on one occasion, when Gordon gave a non-committal answer about the aircraft's availability, Sinatra's manager Hank Sanicola reportedly punched Gordon several times in the head.[19]

A subsequent tour by legendary comedian and film star Bob Hope surprisingly lost money, but Hope reportedly enjoyed the visit so much that he generously told Gordon that he would waive his fee, and only asked for expenses.[20]

Gordon and Elvis[edit]

Gordon's biggest unfulfilled ambition as a promoter was to bring Elvis Presley to Australia, and he never succeeded in this, despite many representations to Elvis' formidable manager Colonel Tom Parker. Remarkably, Gordon is reported to have been involved in several short U.S. tours by Elvis Presley during 1957. Although most Australian sources suggest that Gordon left Australia sometime in early 1958, Peter Guralnick's book Last Train to Memphis records that Lee Gordon was in America during 1957 and that he promoted at least two short tours for Elvis during that year. These included Presley's Northeast tour of March 1957, and his subsequent West Coast tour of September 1957, which included dates in San Diego, Oakland, his first concert in Hollywood and his first three-date visit to Hawaii; on this latter tour, Guralnick reports, Gordon did "his usual good job" of promotion.[21]

Gordon and O'Keefe[edit]

Although he undoubtedly did much to further Johnny O'Keefe's career, Gordon's personal relationship with O'Keefe is controversial and was not viewed favourably by many of the singer's family, friends and colleagues. According to O'Keefe biographer Damian Johnstone, Gordon introduced O'Keefe to marijuana during 1957; an associate later commented that the singer took to it "like mother's milk" and they often smoked it together. Largely because of this, Dee Jays drummer Johnny "Catfish" Purser considered Gordon a bad influence on O'Keefe, and Dee Jays saxophonist Bob Bertles later said that he avoided Gordon and O'Keefe as a pair, and that they were "... bad news together. Double trouble."[22]

Despite his supposedly negative personal influence on O'Keefe, Gordon was concerned about his friend's career direction. He disagreed with O'Keefe's plan to try establish himself in the United States and strongly opposed both of O'Keefe's visits there in 1959 and 1960[23]

On 27 June 1960 Johnny O'Keefe's face was severely injured in a car accident near Kempsey in northern NSW. Soon after the accident, Gordon advised him to turn his misfortune to his advantage, and O'Keefe later told Sydney DJ Bob Rogers that he had his scars "accentuated" with makeup and announced that the audience would see his face change week by week; as a result, O'Keefe said, ratings increased as people tuned in to see his face change.

Gordon also helped O'Keefe after the singer suffered a serious mental breakdown in London in early 1961. After dropping out of his unsuccessful second US tour, O'Keefe flew to the UK on impulse and checked into a London hotel but soon after arriving he overdosed on a mixture of prescription medication, alcohol and marijuana. He woke several days later in to find himself in a psychiatric hospital in Tooting Bec. O'Keefe spent a hellish period in a straight jacket, confined to a padded cell and heavily sedated with drugs, but several days later he was recognised by an Australian doctor, who confirmed his identity. However, as soon as he was allowed out into the grounds he escaped and returned to his hotel. Luckily, Lee Gordon was in London at the time and after O'Keefe located him Gordon advised him to return to hospital; O'Keefe did so, and he was transferred to St George's Hospital, and eventually released.

Lee Gordon Records[edit]

Most accounts of his life suggest that, some time in early 1958 (soon after the Buddy Holly tour) Gordon abruptly left for the USA. Although his reasons for doing so may never be known, his company had lost considerable amounts of money on a number of failed tours. However, before he left, he branched out into the record industry, acquiring the Australian rights to the American Roulette Records labels. He registered a new company, Lee Gordon Records Pty Ltd, which traded under the Leedon Records and Lee Gordon Records labels. Immediately after the record company was set up, Gordon disappeared overseas, leaving Alan Heffernan and Max Moore in charge.

Leedon made a deal with the Australian Record Company (which would be taken over by CBS two years later) to press the Leedon discs. The label's first two releases were "Oh-Oh, I'm Falling in Love Again" by Jimmie Rogers and "(Make With) The Shake" by The Mark IV. In its first few months Leedon released several more singles under licence from small US labels. They included "Endless Sleep" by Jody Reynolds, "Rebel Rouser" by Duane Eddy and "Rockin' Robin" by Bobby Day.

One intriguing facet of the Leedon story is the group of recordings the label released during 1958 which were attributed to an artist called Johnny "Scat" Brown. Curiously, although Lee Gordon had 'disappeared' to the USA—where he was purportedly being treated for a nervous breakdown—Max Moore states that Gordon in fact maintained some involvement with Leedon, and that it was he who sent Leedon the tapes. Johnny "Scat" Brown was in fact a pseudonym (invented by Alan Heffernan) for an anonymous American Elvis soundalike vocalist who cut a number of covers of current US hits such as Sheb Wooley's "The Purple People Eater" and David Seville's "Witch Doctor". Decades later, Alan Heffernan discovered that the mystery vocalist was in fact rockabilly singer Johnny Powers.[24]

The Leedon label was quite successful with its early releases—Max Moore claims that Leedon scored twelve records in the newly established (Sydney) Top 40 and the company had expanded to eight staff by the time Gordon returned from overseas in late 1958. In its early years Gordon also recorded a couple of 'vanity' singles, "Get The Message" and the jazzy beatnik-styled She's The Ginchiest.[25]

However, Johnny O'Keefe's biographer Damian Johnstone states that Leedon found it difficult to sustain its license arrangements and often lost out to the Australian arm of the British-based EMI conglomerate, which at that time dominated the Australian recording industry.[26] By mid-1959 Leedon was struggling to stay afloat and it was evident to Alan Heffernan that they needed to take action to bolster the company's flagging fortunes.

Johnny O'Keefe was brought in as the company's A&R manager and he began signing up local artists. At this stage O'Keefe was still signed to a recording contract with Australian independent label Festival Records, but he was otherwise free to work with Leedon. Heffernan later stated that there was only ever a spoken arrangement between O'Keefe and the label, and that the fees for his appearances on Gordon's Big Show tours were increased to remunerate him for his work for Leedon. With O'Keefe's guidance, Leedon signed up a number of Australian acts including Lonnie Lee, Barry Stanton, Warren Williams, The Delltones and Booka Hyland

"Breakdown" and return, 1958-59[edit]

Soon after the establishment of Lee Gordon Records and the historic tour by Buddy Holly in February 1958, Gordon disappeared overseas (although, as noted above, Peter Guralnick records that Gordon was in the USA during 1957 promoting tours by Elvis Presley). Months later, around September 1958, Gordon's mother telephoned his associate Alan Heffernan and told him that Gordon had suffered a serious mental breakdown and that she had tracked him down to a sanatorium in Hawaii, where he had evidently been staying for several months. He had been released into his mother's care and was being treated by a prominent psychiatrist, although his recovery took several more months and he did not return to Australia until late in the year.

Meanwhile, Alan Heffernan and Max Moore kept Big Show Pty Ltd running in Gordon's absence, although the company continued to veer from success to failure. A 1958 tour by pianist Liberace fell apart moments after the curtain went up on the first performance at the Sydney Trocadero. Liberace came on stage and announced that because the music from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady was "on restriction" (presumably because of copyright restrictions) he was unable to perform and he walked off without playing a note. The audience stormed the box office, demanding refunds, the tour closed, and Gordon lost "a bundle". He sued Liberace for breach of contract and the case dragged on for years.[27]

In March 1959, after a year's absence from the music scene, Big Show returned to promotion with the "Parade of Stars" tour featuring Tommy Sands & The Sharks, The Platters, and Frankie Avalon. It was a huge success, although Gordon was still in poor shape mentally and the tour's success was mostly due to the efforts of general manager Alan Heffernan and tour manager Max Moore. It proved such a financial success that Heffernan contacted Gordon's mother in America to bring Gordon back to Australia.

In April 1959 Big Show Pty Ltd promoted three major tours, with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Johnny Cash all playing dates simultaneously at venues around the country.[28]

Johnny Ray made his fifth visit in September 1959, when he was supported by Johnny O'Keefe, who was by then the biggest star on the local music scene.

Discovery of Diana Trask[edit]

Shortly after his return to Australia, Gordon played a pivotal role in the career of Melbourne-born singer Diana Trask. Gordon spotted her singing in a Sydney club in early 1959 and signed her as the support singer for the Stan Freberg tour of New Zealand, which also featured the Australian Jazz Quartet and Frank Ifield. Impressed, he then signed her to tour Australia with the upcoming Frank Sinatra show. The singer was rehearsing "My Funny Valentine" for her performance when Sinatra and his then manager Hank Sanicola came into the room. Sanicola exclaimed, "This kid can’t sing that song! That’s Frank’s song!” but Sinatra said, "If the kid wants to sing the song let her sing it. She sings it better than I do.” and Trask’s version was allowed to remain part of her set. Trask opened the show and although there were calls from the audience to "get on with it”, most soon were won over by her.

As a result of her performances on the Sinatra tour, Gordon also selected her to tour with Sammy Davis Jr. Sinatra was impressed enough to suggest that she should try her luck overseas and recommended her to contacts back in the USA. Thanks to Sinatra's patronage, in August 1959 she secured a four-week engagement at the Blue Angel nightclub in New York City. On her first night, Sinatra sent a good luck telegram and he attended in person later in the season with a group of about 20 people. Many months of touring and promotion followed, but her appearance on Don McNeill's Breakfast Club was seen by legendary A&R manager Mitch Miller, who signed her to a recording contract with the prestigious Columbia Records; from there she went on to a very successful career in the USA as both a singer and an actress.[29]

Fabian tour[edit]

In September 1960, after two years of protracted negotiations, Gordon managed to book a concert tour by TV heartthrob and rock'n'roll star Ricky Nelson. The tour was supported by Col Joye & The Joy Boys, Lonnie Lee, Dig Richards & The R'Jays, Candy & Mandy (a female vocal duo Gordon had discovered) and Johnny O'keefe & The Dee Jays, making their first major concert performance since O'Keefe's near-fatal car accident earlier in the year.

By this time O'Keefe's local popularity had become so great that many visiting acts complained about having to follow him, and Gordon was obliged to put O'Keefe on first, so that there was at least an hour between his appearance and that of headliner, Ricky Nelson.

During the tour Gordon also had to contend with the intense professional rivalry between O'Keefe and rising star Col Joye over who should close the Australian segment of the show. After much argument between the two camps, Gordon worked out a deal in which the two singers should alternate as the closing act of the first half. Joye played first on the opening night, but on the second night (when O'Keefe was scheuled to play first) he deliberately waited outside until he heard Joye go onstage before entering the venue. The next time he was scheduled to open the show, he was supposedly held up at the ABC with his TV show Six O'Clock Rock.

At the next show, O'Keefe again delayed his arrival, and Col Joye refused to go on first, but Gordon eventually convinced him to open the show. Needless to say, as soon as Joye began playing, O'Keefe made his entrance. However Gordon was reportedly so upset by O'Keefe's antics that he retaliated by locking O'Keefe in his dressing room. Although O'Keefe reportedly flew into a rage, kicking the walls and screaming to be let out, Gordon kept him locked in the dressing room for the entire show and he did not appear that night. By the following night a chastened O'Keefe had learned his lesson and the rest of the tour went off without incident.[citation needed]

Career decline and death, 1960-63[edit]

Gordon embarked on several business ventures in the last few years of his life. Although various accounts of his life contain unsubstantiated claims of Gordon's connections with the Mafia, it is known that late in his career he embarked on several projects in collaboration with Abe Saffron, the reputed kingpin of the Kings Cross vice scene. One was the conversion of a former cinema in Kings Cross into one of Australia's first discothèques, The Birdcage. After Gordon left Australia it was leased to promoter John Harrigan and renamed Surf City; it became a popular and influential venue in Sydney during the early days of the 'beat boom' in the early to mid-1960s, and is particularly associated with Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs. Gordon and Saffron also opened the first striptease club in Sydney (which later became the famous Les Girls nightclub) and established the first drive-in restaurant in Sydney, Big Boy on Parramatta Road at Tavners Hill.[16]

Although Gordon made huge profits on some tours, others lost heavily, and by the late Fifites he was suffering from mental health and drug-related problems. He was overseas for much of 1958-59, leaving his company in the hands of his executive staff; he was eventually located when his mother contacted his company to inform them that Gordon had suffered a serious mental breakdown and was being cared for in a sanatorium in Hawaii. He returned to Australia in 1960 but by this time he was deeply in debt. He quickly sold Lee Gordon Records and the Leedon label to Festival Records, against the advice of business manager Alan Heffernan.

In January 1962, Gordon travelled to Acapulco, Mexico, where he married his de facto partner Arlene Topfer, with Frank Sinatra as his best man.

In Sydney in June 1963, Gordon was charged with attempting to obtain the drug pethidine without a prescription. He left Australia in July and travelled to the United States and London looking for work.

He was found dead in his hotel room in Kensington, London, on 7 November 1963, reportedly from a coronary occlusion. He was survived by his wife, daughter and a five-year-old son.

Influence on Australian music[edit]

In almost exactly ten years, Lee Gordon's combination of "style, ego and limitless enthusiasm"[4] transformed the staid Australian entertainment scene, helped to lay the foundations of the modern Australian music industry, and showed that despite the distances and costs involved, it was possible to mount successful package tours featuring leading American performers. Gordon played a pivotal role in the emergence of a local rock'n'roll music scene in Australia, and his patronage was crucial in launching the career of Australia's first and biggest 'homegrown' rock'n'roll star, Johnny O'Keefe. Gordon also exerted a huge influence on the direction of Australian jazz and pop/rock music through his tour promotions. The many tours by American artists that he promoted during this period, especially his legendary "Big Show" rock'n'roll tours, which brought out most of the biggest American jazz, pop and rock stars at the height of their fame.

The various Big Show tours brought some 472 American performers to Australia. In most cases, it the first time these artists had visited the country and many were enormously significant to the Australian music scene, and especially in Gordon's adoptive home of Sydney. Except for a few visits during World War II (e.g. a restricted wartime tour by Artie Shaw), virtually none of the top names in American popular music had ever visited Australia before the Gordon tours, due to a combination of factors including distance, cost (compounded by Australia's punitive taxation laws of the time[4]) and particularly because of a long-standing de facto ban on African-American performers.

Gordon's Big Show tours unequivocally broke down this long-standing racial barrier, by presenting integrated bills that featured leading African-American jazz, pop, R&B and rock'n'roll artists performing alongside 'white' artists. This was a major breakthrough in Australia because, as jazz historian Andrew Bissett has noted, the selective government application of the White Australia Policy (spurred by ongoing pressure from the Australian Musicians' Union) had effectively prevented any African-American performers artists from touring Australia since the controversial deportation of the African-American jazz band Sonny Clay's Colored Idea in 1928.[30]

Big Show tours, 1954-1961[edit]



  • Frank Sinatra 1955 Tour featuring Frank D'Amore, Lois Ray, Ann MacCormack (January 1955)
  • Lee Gordon presents "The Big Show" starring Betty Hutton, with Morey Amsterdam, Clark Dennis (May 1955)[32]


  • "Lee Gordon presents Frankie Laine" (2nd Australian Tour, 1956) with Eileen Barton, Buddy Rich, Joe "Fingers" Carr, Stan Freberg, Joe Martin and The Tune Twisters.
  • "Lee Gordon presents Johnnie Ray", featuring Leo De Lyon, The Holly Sisters, Peg Leg Bates, Lola Dee (3rd Australian Tour, 1956)
  • "Lee Gordon presents Nat King Cole" with Lillian Briggs, Marty Allen and Mitch DeWood, George Kirby (2nd Australian Tour, 1956)
  • The "Record Star Parade" featuring Don Cornell, Stan Freberg, Joe "Fingers" Carr, Buddy Rich, The Nilsson Twins, Joe Martin and the Tune Twisters (1956)
  • Lee Gordon presents Louis Armstrong and his celebrated American Orchestra in "The Big Show," featuring Gary Crosby,[33] Peg-Leg Bates, Rose Hardaway, and Joe Martin.(2nd Australian Season, 1956)
  • "Lee Gordon presents Johnnie Ray" with Leo De Lyon, Holly Sisters, Peg-Leg Bates, Lola Dee, orchestra under the direction of Dennis Collinson (3rd Australian Tour, 1956)






  • "Lee Gordon Presents The Twist" featuring Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, Del Shannon, Diane Hilton, The Peppermints, Johnny High (1961)
  • Lee Gordon presents Bobby Rydell starring in "All American Rock Spectacular" with Brenda Lee, Duane Eddy & his group, Chubby Checker, Oliver Cool, Col Joye & The Joy Boys (1961)
  • Lee Gordon Presents Connie Francis with Bobby Vee, Johnny Burnette, The Ventures, Donnie Brooks, Col Joye and the Joy Boys.[35]


  1. ^ Michael Sturma (Hardcopy 1996). "Gordon, Lee Lazar (1923-1963)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  2. ^ Moore, p.27
  3. ^ Moore, p.28
  4. ^ a b c Moore, p.29
  5. ^ Moore, p.27-28
  6. ^ a b Moore, p.31
  7. ^ Moore, p.35
  8. ^ Moore, p.42
  9. ^ Moore, p.41
  10. ^ Johnstone, op.cit., p.18
  11. ^ a b Moore, p.37
  12. ^ Johnstone, p.
  13. ^ a b Moore, p.44
  14. ^ Moore, p.45
  15. ^ Moore, p.47
  16. ^ a b Sturma, Michael (1996). "Gordon, Lee Lazer (1923 - 1963)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 2007-10-24. 
  17. ^ Johnstone, 2004, p.47
  18. ^ Moore, p.98-99
  19. ^ Moore, p.46
  20. ^ Moore, p.48
  21. ^ Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Little Brown & Co., London, 1994, ISBN 0-349-10651-7), pp. 429, 440
  22. ^ Johnstone, p.133
  23. ^ Johnstone, p.106, p.158
  24. ^ Moore, pp.102-107
  25. ^ Moore, p.105
  26. ^ Johnstone, p.174-75
  27. ^ Moore, pp.86-87
  28. ^ Moore, p.69
  29. ^ Diana Trask official website - Biography
  30. ^ Andrew Bissett: Black Roots, White Flowers (ABC Books, Sydney, 1979), pp.43-46
  31. ^ http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18448805
  32. ^ https://www.flickr.com/photos/statelibraryofnsw/3407305635/
  33. ^ official show programme
  34. ^ http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=164453
  35. ^ Official Concert Programme

External links[edit]