COUNTRY MUSIC

14. 07. 23
posted by: Super User

 

 

Whilst through the years the name Lonnie Lee is synonymous with Pop Music, many do not know just how much his career has touched the country music genre.

This association with the country starts well before his birth in fact. In 1908 his grandfather Laurie, settled in the far North West area of NSW after spending several years in the goldfields of Western Australia and Northern Territory.

He met and married a young girl from the Murrurundi area and in 1910 built their homestead which they named 'Bleak House'; after the Charles Dickens novel of the same name. Laurie was a friend of Dicken's son who had settled in Moree. There they produced high grade Merino wool for the world market.

They raised a family of 3 boys of which the middle son David was to become Lonnie's father.

On September 18 in 1940 David and his wife Nancy became the proud parents of a baby boy whom they named David Laurence after his father and grandfather.

Both his parents played the piano and sang and this natural talent was to be passed on to the next generation.

 

 

Young Laurie was raised on the property until it was school time and he was sent off to Trinity Grammar School in Strathfield and Summer Hill and he later went on to Crows Next Technical College to learn some tradesman arts which it was assumed he would need when working on the property. Previously his father had attended university in Sydney to gain his Mechanical and Electrical Engineer Degrees so appreciation of this knowledge was highly regarded.

Most of his school holidays he would travel overnight by the 'North West Mail' train the 20 plus hours to either Narrabri or the siding at Rowena where he would be picked up and taken by car to the property. Typically everyone was a very early riser and listening to the radio in the early mornings is where he would get his first taste of country music. Not just from the stations 2NZ Inverell, 2DU Dubbo and 2VM Moree, but from many US radio stations via the short wave radio which they'd listen to most nights.

Whilst he appreciated the talents of the very few Australian country stars of the time such as Tex Morton, as a youngster he was drawn to the more sophisticated and beat driven America styles of country music like Webb Pierce, Left Frizzell and Hank Williams sang.

As fate had it, many years later he would become friends with Tex Morton, Webb Pierce and Lefty Frizzell's son Ricky.

 

 

He was taught piano but wanted to play a stringed instrument so bought and taught himself to play a ukulele. This gave him more freedom to learn the country songs he listened to. When he was 15 he decided to buy and teach himself guitar which he did, just as the world on music was about to explode with the new music to be called Rock'n'Roll. Up until this time the early 50's style of pop had gained popularity on radio and like most teenagers of the time took to the singing styles of Johnnie Ray, Frankie Laine and Nat King Cole.

As the time went on he gravitated more to the country style of Rock'n'Roll which mostly came out of Nashville and is today what we call Rockabilly. This is where he found the music closest to his heart and which features today in his shows.

In 1956 he entered a radio 2UW Amateur Hour with the legendary radio announcer Alan Toohey and became the very first to sings a Rockabilly and Elvis song on Australian radio. Just a couple of months before, RCA had released 'Heartbreak Hotel' by the new singer with the funny 'Elvis' name and this is what he sang. His success on the show led to his first bookings as a singer and little did anyone know, one of the longest successful singing careers in Australia had begun.

 

 

In February 1957 was talked into entering a competition run by the MGM film studios to help promote Elvis' first movie 'Love me Tender'. At that time was Elvis was not known very much and the movie needed as much publicity as possible.

He was the last to go on stage and after the audience voted him as the winner, he sang every one of the 8 Elvis songs he knew. He became know as 'Australia's Elvis Presley' and the full page story in the Sydney Sunday Sun became the first major story about a local Rock'nRoll singer.

During this time he was still singing and playing country music with his friends who were all only into country music and he decided to form a country rockabilly combo using some of these friends. His first combo in March 1957 was with Billy Mostyn on lead guitar and Kenny Hands on Hawaiian steel with Lonnie on rhythm guitar. Kenny had to leave the band after a few weeks so his brother Barry who was a banjo player joined. The band was called 'Laurie Rix and The Blue Cats'. (Years later, he used one of these friends such as Kenny Kitching, on his HMV album 'A Country Boy at Heart'). The new single 'My Rockabilly Band' is a story about the band.

Lonnie decided a slap bass sound was better than a banjo, and as no one in Australia had started using an upright bass as a country slap instrument yet, they built one out of a T-Chest, broom and string.

They mostly sang country songs with any rockabilly songs they could get their hands on.

This was arguably the first real Rockabilly combo in Australia.

The Australian super Blues group of the 1970's 'Chain' call him 'The Father of Australian Rockabilly' and have written a tribute song to him for their album. The song, 'Saturday Night at the Trocadero watching Lonnie Lee', depicts ones desire to be back in time in the 50's watching Lonnie Lee perform.

 

They performed at many places in and around Sydney with country stars of the time, Bill Kelly, Tim and Tom McNamara, Reg Lindsay, George Payne and many others but it wasn't until June 1957 that he took a 6 month engagement at the Riverview Hotel in Tempe 6 nights a week and Saturday afternoons.

Because Billy Mostyn couldn't be available for so much time, Lonnie replaced him with the Canadian Hillbilly Country Music star of yesteryear, Smilin' Billy Blinkhorn. Billy had first come to Australia in the early 30's to perform at the Tivoli with another hillbilly country singer Bob Dyer of Tennessee. Both of them decided to stay and everyone knows how popular Bob Dyer became on radio.

The shows were very popular but as the 16 year old Lonnie was still working in the bank during the day, doing shows every night of the week took their toll. One day in December 1957 he was driving to work when he lost control of his 1938 Dodge car going down a hill. Incredibly he saw what was going to happen so jumped into the back seat where his guitar was and the car hit a telegraph pole at the bottom of the street breaking it in two. The motor was pushed into the front seat and if he didn't get into the back, would have been crushed to death.

When his father heard of the crash he ordered Lonnie back to the country property where he stayed for the whole of 1958.

 

 

1958 was the year Rock'n'Roll started in Australia as it was the year Johnny O'keefe became the first Aussie Rock'n'Roller to record, The first year Lee Gordon brought American stars to the Stadium and Festival Halls, and the year TV started to shows bits and pieces of the new Rock'n'Roll stars.

Country music had its very small following in Sydney with radio 2KY leading the charge with the Reg Lindsay Show and the McKeon Sisters being amongst the most popular. Slim Dusty, Rick and Thel, Tex Morton, Buddy Williams and the like, criss crossed the Australian outback non stop without hardly touching a capital city.

While he was working on the property Lonnie kept up his singing and writing and sang at local shows in places like Rowena, Collarenebri, Walgett and Narrabri. Frank Burke and his famous White Rose to his Orchestra even offered him to be a Special Guest on a yearly tour. He declined as the music style was not to his liking.

 

 

In late December 1958 he returned to Sydney and within a few weeks had started another band. Over the next few months they played at many places adding fans with every appearance. By mid 1959 he had a fan club and was on his way to performing on Australia's first Rock'n'Roll TV show, Six O'clock Rock and recording his first record for Leedon Records. From now on his career would slant towards to the new pop music yet most everything he recorded had a country-rockabilly feel to it. Over the period 1959 to 1964 he had 8 #1 Records, 5 Gold and a bag full of awards and accolades. He was one of Australia's 3 top Super Stars of that first era having more hits here than Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis.

 

In 1964 the English music invasion had started and radio was starting to play that style of music rather than what they had been playing the previous 5 years. Lonnie went back to his roots and released some country style songs. Unfortunately as country music was not played in the city and country radio mainly played Australia bush ballad style of country music, Lonnie's efforts were in vain.

Meanwhile, the executives at EMI Records were thinking of how they could get a popular music star, record some country songs and try and break country into the city radio markets. They decided to offer Lonnie a contract to record on the HMV label which he accepted and for the next few years he recorded in the country and rockabilly style. His album, 'A Country Boy at Heart', was the first full stereo album to be recorded in Australia. It was recorded with The Leemen of the time at the large EMI Studious at 301 Castlereagh street and it was engineered by Bill Armstrong who later went on to be the Bee Gees engineer.

As well as the album, he wrote and recorded several singles, but unfortunately the city was not ready to play country music even if it was recorded by a well known pop star, and country radio was not ready to play modern US style country or rockabilly in its country programs.

Lonnie was 30 years too early for both these scenarios to seriously take place in major city Australia.

After this strong effort to get country music accepted in the cites failed, Lonnie decided to leave Australia for the European cabaret circuits where he stayed for a few years. Even then he would always feature his favourite country songs in the shows.

 

 

After his time in Europe he came back to Australia to manage and record for Sunshine Records and tour but in 1971 decided to head off to USA.

He spent the first few months doing shows in and around the Pacific Northwest areas of Seattle and after securing a contract in Las Vegas based himself there. It was there he met ex Motown songwriter and producer Mickey Stevenson who asked him to manage and set up his new publishing and recording companies in Hollywood. Always ready for a new challenge, Lonnie filled this role for a year spending much time in the studios of RCA Hollywood.

During this time he made some appearances at the famous Palomino Country Music NightClub in Los Angeles and it was at one of these where he was approached by ex Monkee Mike Nesmith to record for a new label he was about to launch. Unfortunately his funding fell over and the label never materialized, however the kudos given to him from Mike lives on.

 

 

During his time in Los Angeles the famous publisher and ex country performer Cliffie Stone approached Lonnie for some of his songs as one of his acts Glen Campbell was about to record a new album. Lonnie gave him some songs however by the time they were reviewed by Campbell's producer, they had already chosen the full track list although 2 songs were put aside for the the next album.

As well as Andy William's brother Don requesting songs his singer Florence Henderson of The Brady Brunch, he received many requests to submit his songs such as Cher's producers asked him to submit 2 songs for their next project.

After a year or so in Hollywood, Lonnie left for Nashville where within a week of his arrival he was put with Roy Orbison as his co-writer by Don Gant and Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose Publishing.

At the same time as this was going on he was the US Nasville representative for Australia's new country music magazine, 'Capital Country News' under the guidance of editor Jazzer. Every month Lonnie would write about the goings on in and around Nashville.

 

 

After spending time writing with and for Roy Orbison and being his personal business manager for a while, as well as performing in and around the South west USA, Lonnie was asked to become General Manager of one of Nashville's leading record promotion companies. Unfortunately, unbeknown to him or anyone else except for the owners, company funding was about to run out. As Lonnie and his staff felt something was not right, they talked him into starting his own company. Within a day of him being approached by the staff to do this, the company folded.

Over the years, Lonnie's new company 'Spotlite Promotions Inc., represented hundreds of up and coming country music acts in Nashville as well as many small record companies. The call staff spoke with 700 country music radio stations each week right across USA, trying to convince them to play the new releases he was promoting. They were very successful which helped create careers for many new stars.

In 1976 he decided to lease time and space on a mainframe computer and learnt to write some programs to make the record promotion company more efficient. This was at least 5 years before PC's and Apple computers came into existence and the computers then took up a whole floor of a big Nashville building.

Once he got this going he had the first record promotion company in the world to become computerized. As time went on he taught himself more computer languages and to this day has kept up with the latest technologies.

 

During this time he also looked after some major Nashville clubs and restaurants such as, Faron Young's Jailhouse, Webb Peirces' Rhinestone Cowboy, The Rollercoaster, Ernie Ashworth's Country Kitchen, The Three Gables, Jerry Reed's Nashville Palace, Melrose House, The Nashville KC Club and many others.

All of them aimed at the huge country music fan tourist trade which hit Nashville every summer and the biggest of them had country music shows every night of the week and matinees on the weekends. Lonnie booked many Opry acts during this time, especially the more established stars of the Grand Ol Opry. He also gave opportunities to many newer bands and artists who were trying to get seen by the Nashville record company and publishing execs who used to regularly visit his clubs and restaurants.

He gave the now SuperGroup 'Alabama' their first ever Nashville booking which led to their RCA record contract, to Ronnie McDowell when trying to break his new release 'The King is Gone' just after Elvis' death and Tony Joe White looking to get a new record contract out of Nashville. Many others such as J.D Sumner and The Stamps, Mickey Gilley, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Jerry Reed Band, George Jones, Dottie West, etc., etc., etc., graced the stage of these venues. Many youngsters such as a very young Lorrie Morgan also gained great experience at his Talent Contests.

Over the years he was regularly approached by the country music writers of Billboard and Cashbox for his views on current events in Country Music and Nashville.

In January 1980 he was presented with a certificate .. 'In recognition of outstanding service to the community, state and nation', and was appointed an Honorary Delegate to the United States House of Representatives.

 

In 1981 he was approached to open a branch of his successful business in Las Vegas and in doing so became the first record promotion company to open a service there. Most of his clients were country music artists, bands or labels and all benefited from his vast experience of the country music scene. During this time he was also asked by Las Vegas' leading record studio, 'Las Vegas Recording Studios' to produce some of their clients records. This was the studio where all the major acts recorded when in Nashville.

He and some other businessmen and media personalities who appreciated country music, decided to start ASCM, 'The Amercian Society of Country Music'. They all became founding directors and Jim Olsen as the leading light, was the same person who started the now hugely successful 'American Country Music Society' which today presents the annual Country Music TV Awards. The organization ran some big expos in Las Vegas and helped the spread of country music throughout the South West of US.

He also became part producer of the first Las Vegas Country Music TV show which was presented weekly from the Silver Dollar Casino in North Las Vegas.

 

During a short visit back to Australia he produced the very successful, 'Lonnie Lee's Nashville Country Music Show' which was the first full country music show to be accepted in the major Sydney clubs such as Revesby Workers, St. George Leagues and Blacktown RSL. The latter 2 clubs presented the show each week for many months and it performed at many others for seasons up to 3 days at a time.

The fully rehearsed show complete with stage fx and scenery, featured many guest artists each week such as Jimmy Little, John Williamson, Lee Conway,Chad Morgan, Nev Nichols, etc., who were in fact the biggest country acts at the time who were accepted in the cities. At times there were two bands on stage, it's own inhouse radio station with Mike Bedford who went on to start 'Cool Country Radio' in Sydney's west and 16 square dancers and cloggers. It was a huge show for the time. Radio 2KA Katoomba which at the time played the most country music in the Sydney area, were sponsors of the show. His own band featured his friend the late Norm Bodkin of steel guitar fame.

Lonnie's idea at the time was to try and get country into the big city markets no matter what style it took to do it, as later one could present other styles as audiences came to accept it. He wrote and produced some country tracks in Tamworth and Sydney for some artists including Col Hardy and others.

Radio 2KY approached him to present a weekly drive time radio program of the latest country music as they were going to become the first Capital City station to go full time country. He did this for a while and also wrote many jingles for stations IDs as well as arranging for many American CM stars such as Don Gibson, Buck Owens, Roy Clarke to record station ids

 

Back in USA he continued to be involved in the country music scene until 1984 when he returned to Australia to settle once again.

Since then, his country music involvement reached a peak in 1994 when he released the album 'Don't Look Back' which featured some of the songs he had written for Roy Orbison as well as some other country songs he wrote during his years in Nashville. Some of those songs, such as 'Ring a Ding Love' and 'Love is here tonight', received good airplay.

In the mid 90's he saw was the first to start a full on Line Dance Show using a 'live' band. His Lonnie Lee's Dance Ranch' Show was a great success everywhere it went and hundreds came every week to dance to new dances and familar songs. He presented this show for over 2 years and relewased CDs and Videos of it.

 

 

Today as always, his live show which performs at the leading venues across Australia from Perth to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, features mostly his own records as well as country and rockabilly classics which audiences love to hear once again.

This year he celebrated 50 years since his first professional stage performance and to commemorate the event, Starlite Records is releasing a CD of his own country rockabilly songs in late July or early August. He wrote all the tracks and one from that album was released in June as his latest single ST822. The song titled 'It takes me back', tells the tale of him living in the 'great North West', going to the city and becoming a star on radio and TV.

It also brings to mind the fact that it has always been rare that rains come in that are of the state, and in the chorus of the song he sings, but the creeks don't run, run, run.

Country music presenters on the many community radio stations play Lonnie's country oriented songs as they know he has many fans and already the feedback about the new single and album is very promising.

As an editorial postscipt..

 

Unfortunatley Lonnie has been out of step with the people who have controlled country music in Australia since the formation of the Australian Country Music Association. At first they wouldn't accept him due to his American influences as they were extreme traditionalists for the Australian bush ballad style.

This is fine and it should be protected and nurtured, yet the irony is, it is the same style that was created by American Jimmie Rogers and others in the early days of country music. To think that all fans of country music are restricted to just one narrow style is incorrect to say the least.

The growth of country music in Australia over the last 20 or so years is partly due to the teenagers of the 50's and 60's moving over to that style as it was better than what pop music had evolved into. This is true all over the world. Old rockers became country music fans so no wonder many old rocker stars also went into country music in USA.

Since the advent of Line Dancing in the early 90's, American rock influences have virtually taken over country music, and country music is more 'rock' than what 'rock' was! One is now hard pressed to tell who is American or Australian when listening to most Australian country acts of today. Not only is the song style and production totally American, so are their vocal accents and styles.

You'd think this being the case they would now accept Lonnie at the Country Music Festivals and in country music press, however now he probably isn't 'American country enough'. Still, it is the fans who in the long run miss out. American country music has always been full of stars who made their names in Rock'n'Roll. It was the 'song' that mattered, regardless of who sung it!

Still, there is always hope..

 

 

As the album title said way back in 1964, Lonnie Lee is a 'Country Boy at Heart', and no matter where destiny has taken him and his career, country music has always been an integral part of it. If you ask him today, he'll tell you it will always be that way!


 

His latest releases features his self written country songs with a rockabilly edge which was the style that influenced him into early Rock'n'Roll. The album title,'North West Mail' is more or less auto biographical. Listen to the stories he tells in songs such as, 'It take me back', 'My Rockabilly Band', 'Nature', North West Mail' and others. Read about the album on other pages of this web site and buy it at Starlite OnLine.

 

Testimonials 1

 

Absolutely enjoyed your show my husband loved the way you told the stories before each song. The husband was a little hesitant, but he is fully converted now, we think you had an amazing voice. Hope to see you again. We also loved the DVD which we purchased -- This is great to see... Congratulations Lonnie!! Anyone who has ever seen you perform live would know that you are the epitome of "Excellence in live performance". Well deserved and long overdue -- FANTASTIC show last Saturday night Lonnie ... not only a great early Elvis history lesson set to iconic songs, well performed by a REAL legend of Rock'n'Roll, but also your Golden Hits as a second show FOR NO EXTRA CHARGE - what more could a Rock'n'Roll and Country Music fan ask for -- what a great show last night, you are a Class act, a little feedback from the people who accompanied us, Best money I’ve spent in a long while great value, did not expect this, what a quality show, he has a great range, the show was very well put together, WOW , would definitely go and see him again , last but not least Q. How old is he? A.He is in his _ _s,

Testimonials 2

 

Lonnie, we just watched your DVD The Black & White Television years. What a great DVD we loved watching the old footage. You are a true icon of Australian rock n roll era. We love what you do -- ..saying on mass that it was the best concert they had ever been to. From my point of view I think it's a fair statement to say that Lonnie is the only artist to emerge from the Golden Era & remain a vital stand-out box office attraction -- it was an awesome show I went 2 times and took friends they enjoyed the concert also still singing as good as ever and just loved the format and stories about the songs and singers well done Lonnie and the Leemen rock on forever -- You were a great entertainer years ago and you are even better now -- I had some guests attending & like me, they were very impressed with Lonnie’s show. -- His courtesy, professionalism, song quality & great all round showmanship was outstanding -- Hes just a pure Rock n Roller with an unfaltering voice singing very naturally. Loved every minute of it

Testimonials 3

 

Reckon Lonnie is looking great and he is singing fantastic. My advice if Lonnie is in your area do yourself a favour and get to his show. You won't be disappointed -- thank you for an awesome show last night! You are still as good an entertainer as you were back in the late '50s and early '60s!! Gotta love that Rockabilly music !! -- Once again fantastic show last night. Stacked to the rafters -- Great show Lonnie, we loved it -- Just wanted to tell you how much we enjoyed your show last night at Bankstown Trots. We have seen you perform many times over the years, but last night was a real "surprise packet" keep on rockin'-- Loved the show Lonnie was awesome the songs bought back so many happy memories i will treasure forever bless you for still rockin on -- He's still a fantastic world class entertainer....Go see his show, it'll blow you away. -- Lonnie really has the innate ability to transform his audience back to those great days of early rock & roll