The last man standing, of his own admission, Lonnie Lee is one of the old rockers who's never put down his guitar. He's got stories of working with, and for, all the greats, like his mates Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny O'Keefe, and Cher, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, The Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson. He's based himself here in the South-West for many, many years and many of our local venues have been his second home. Locals have always supported him, whether he was home or performing round the world. Even Gough would turn up to hear him jam. Lonnie Lee has a new album, Back to Base X, which he's launching at his show at Liverpool Catholic Club on Saturday, September 28, where he's a familiar face.
You're back at Liverpool Catholic Club on September 28 -- a week and a half after you turn 79. Congratulations! What do you look forward to most about getting up on stage at this time in your life?
Just like when I started, I like to feel the music all around me and do what I love to do most and that is to sing. Always been like this, but so very pleased to still have the same level of love for it.
What do you remember about your first show at Liverpool, back in 1957, when you were 17?
It was so exciting for us and the audience, as this was the first time rock'n'roll had come to the area and in those days the kids would hang around the venues way before the show, just wanting to talk and get autographs. The guys in my rockabilly band, Billy Mostyn and Barry Hands, were well-known country-music players from Liverpool but they were now with me and rockabilly, so this had their friends interested, too. The town hall was packed to the rafters and I'm sure you could have heard the screams way over at Camden! Later we did a Sunday-afternoon show in the old beer garden of the Mainsbridge Hotel. That was fun, too.
Every musician has done their time performing for the troops -- from Elvis (who also was one) to Normie (who also was one) and Little Pattie. And you performed at Holsworthy army base, I believe?
Because I was from a sheep property during the '50s draft, they said it was important that some young people stayed here on the farms during the war, so they exempted me from National Service. When I was a big name on record and TV in the early '60's, the army and the air force sometimes would contact me to go to perform at their functions in Holsworthy. The base was huge and a couple of times the band and I would get lost trying to find where we were supposed to be. One time the girls in the RAAF decided to kidnap me but the band came to my rescue and talked them out of it! In the '70s during the Vietnam War, the army took us around Australia and to Malaysia and Singapore to do shows at the bases.
Since I was a kid in the church and school choirs I've loved to sing. It's been my passion and I feel so very privileged to have been able have a life full of singing. I don't believe in pretend or egotistical performing so I'm just me on stage. What I feel is what you get, and because I love it so much, it obviously shows. It's all I have to give and to know it's accepted is wonderful.LONNIE LEE
And you've paid your dues at venues here in the South-West. What memories do you have of working at Cabramatta, Canley Vale and Mount Pritchard? Have audiences changed much?
In 1964, after a long non-stop national tour, I signed a nine-month contract to do six shows a week at the new Stardust Hotel at Cabramatta. It was one of the largest showrooms in Sydney and every night it was near to capacity. So audiences wouldn't see the same show every time they came, I changed the main part of the show each week. One week it'd be The King and I, and then tributes to the American Civil War, country music, the Beatles who were new then, Elvis, World War II, and so on. We'd hire costumes so it was a full blown show which was extremely popular for the full nine months. Early on, a young Yugoslav man used to come nearly every night. One night he said he wanted to hire us to play at his Village nightclub at Canley Vale every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night after we finished the show at the Stardust. We did this for a few months, taking the crowd from the Stardust. This man also started one of the biggest building-painting companies in Sydney, then later started restaurant chains. He became one of the wealthiest men in Australia through his hard work and his ideas.
Tell us about the times Gough would drop round to hear you jam?
Because the guys in my rockabilly band were from Liverpool, I used to rehearse there and met many guys who became life-long friends. One family was the Muller family who lived at Leppington, whose son Terry started the first real-estate agency at Liverpool, also building the first high-rise building there on George Street. He and his brother Morrie became great friends and occasionally Terry would invite me around to his house where Gough Whitlam would often visit as well as popular race-caller Johnny Tapp. We'd jam on, singing all my hits, Elvis songs and anything else that had a tune. Nice guys, and fun nights.
Even the most straight-forward country songs must mean more when you get some life experience under your belt. Are there some lyrics you sang at the start of your career which have now gained in resonance with the passing of time?
Yes, as I've experienced good times and bad times in love, marriage and divorce it's easy to relate to many of the songs I not only sang back then, but still sing today. I suppose the song That's When Your Heartaches Begin, which I recorded in 1960, comes close to the first song I could really relate to.
The world has changed greatly since you first stepped onto a stage in 1956, at 16. But we're still singing about the same things. What do you like to sing about most?
I suppose, like everyone else, I mostly sang about love. I need love, you don't love me, you should love me, I don't love you any more, you love someone else, and so on. All or most song genres are mostly about love. Most of my songs are still about love, but I find these days I'm writing more story-style songs about my life and career and about life itself.
You have another CD, Back to Base X. How many albums is that now?
I think we're getting close to 50, 60 albums now, maybe more, and many songs are on many compilation albums on various labels round the world.
Does this one cover any specific new ground for you?
Every couple of years we release a live album of the show but the studio albums always have a theme to them. The last two have been about the '50s-style doo-wop ballads or country story songs. With this one, I've gone back to the early original rock'n'roll style. Some screamers like the old early Elvis or Little Richard plus some nice easy melodies. I wrote a few of the songs and others were given to me by the writers of Rip it Up and Don't be Cruel, and so on. I'm pleased with the album and it's getting great reviews. Four stars from The Sydney Morning Herald! And it's getting play on rockabilly stations in the UK and DJs tell me that dancers are loving it.
You wrote with Johnny O'Keefe and you were on Six O'Clock Rock which he hosted. He died at 43, way too young. Were you aware of his demons when you knew him?
John and I were close friends -- he was the best man at my 1960 wedding -- we met in 1957 when we were both starting. He was more a big-band singer while I was into small-rockabilly style. He was always a very confident guy, some would say pushy, but he changed after the very bad 1960 car accident he had while we were on tour. He was scarred physically and mentally and while the scars on his face virtually disappeared, he started losing confidence in himself, especially if things weren't going well. He became hooked on the drugs prescribed by doctors for his problems and he mixed these with pot he was introduced to and drink. He wasn't a drinker but he liked champers after a show. I was living in the United States during his last years but we'd write to each other and were planning on getting together on an Australian tour but he passed away just before it. I knew the whole family and decided to write a small book about him, Johnny O'Keefe: The Facts, after so many bad rumours started going round about him. He was a great guy.
What's your connection with Cher?
I was living in Nashville writing with Roy Orbison when one day I got a letter from Cher's TV producer asking me to write a song for her as she was about to record a new album. I wrote a song specifically for her, Purple Haze, which I'm told she liked a lot but when these big stars go into the studio they record more songs than needed, then pick what they feel fit together for an album. It never made the album however it was quite different to what she'd been doing, too. He said in his mind it was one of the better songs but maybe not the direction her record producer wanted her to go in.
In the early '70s when I was living in Hollywood and involved as a producer with Mickey Stevenson who wrote Dancing in the Streets, it was suggested I go see someone particular at Central Songs, a well-known publisher. He liked my songs and I signed a six-month contract with him for first option on any release. He called me a week or so later and said Glen Campbell liked one of my songs, Love Everybody, and was going to record it when he was in the studio next. A few weeks later he called again and said Glen had recorded it and when it was ready for release he'd get back to me. Unfortunately for me it was the same story as with Cher. It didn't make the final cut.
You've performed with some huge names. What are some standout moments of your time with Johnny Cash?
John was a very nice man. I wrote a song for him in his rockabilly country-style called Bide my Time but when I checked in with him in Vegas about recording it he said he was changing his direction as he was getting songs from Kris Kristofferson, which were more about real life. He lived next door to Roy Orbison and as I was at Roy's house nearly every day we'd often see each other.
Acuff Rose Publishing in Nashville put me with Roy as a writer and I wrote a few songs for him however despite all the plans we had for a great future together, he was unfortunately dropped by his record company and didn't take up recording until he was helped by the Wilberrys. I was also his PA for a while, too.
Jerry Lee Lewis?
Jerry and I shared a room together on an early tour so spent quite a bit of time together. One late-late night or early morning after a show, we made a pact that whoever woke up first would wake the other up as we had a 7am plane to catch for the next city. I woke up at 9am, missing the plane with a couple of others as well, however we made it to the next show OK. When I had a go at him for not waking me he said it was payback for something I'd done to irritate him the day before. It was all in fun, and we were fine.
The Everly Brothers?
I toured with them in the early '60s and loved their close harmonies which only families can get. While I was waiting to do my show, I used to stand backstage watching and listening to them and their fabulous songs. Like all siblings, there's always one who's a rebel and one who tries to keep it straight. Phil was the rebel and Don, who I got to know again as we both lived in Nashville, was the business and steady guy.
The Ricky Nelson tour was a little different to all the others, as he had two minders who made sure none of us got to know him except to see him on stage. He was a really big TV star at the time so I guess they thought they had to protect him. As always, we all had a great time on the show anyway.
I did a show with Fabian in 1959 and not long after that he stopped singing and became an actor. Years later in the early '80s when I was living in Las Vegas, he was one of the acts to be booked at Frontier Casino for the first Classic Rock Nostalgia Show to be promoted in America since those early days. We took up our friendship again and in 1984 I arranged for him to do some more shows with me in Australia. While he was here I drove him out here to Liverpool to introduce him to my friends and after that we sat in the park at Clinches Pond Reserve, watching ducks, talking about old times and eating hot chips. He thought Liverpool was a nice little town.
You've lived at Liverpool for a while now. The South-West is the most multicultural region in Australia. How have you seen this develop over the years?
While I was in living in the United States, I had some investment properties in and around Liverpool and the South-West, so when I came back for a tour it was natural I go see my friends in Liverpool and check on my investments. While I was there I had a car accident which put me in Liverpool Private Hospital for a while. As I wasn't in a physical position to do any shows, Geoff Gibbs, my attorney and another Liverpool friend, invited me to help his lawyer firm to get computerised. He asked me because he knew I'd been involved with programming computers in the United States and in fact set up the first computerised record-promotion company in Nashville. So this led me to buy another house here to live in while I recuperated and did this work for Geoff. Somehow my destiny was to end up living in the Liverpool area and because I've always toured a lot, it made sense as it's situated well for all major roads and the airport. When I came back from the United States in the '80s Liverpool was still sort of a country town with many Italian, Greek, Yugoslav, Polish and Russian families here so it hadn't changed much from my first visit in the '50s. It's only in the last 10 or 15 years it's changed dramatically so much that it's hard to imagine what it was like back then.
How comfortably does country music sit side by side with the music of all the other cultures here in the South-West?
Unfortunately, the current cultures that have settled in Liverpool and the South-West don't share the same musical interests as the previous migrants. The Asians and Middle-Easterners have their own music styles which are vastly different in all aspects to ours, so naturally they're mainly interested in them. On the other hand, the migrants of the '50s and '60s, such as the Italians and Greeks, did share a love of rock'n'roll and even country music and participated in all our shows and bought our records. The South-West was always known as the home of rock'n'roll and country, however the demographic has changed dramatically and that, unfortunately, no longer applies.
We live in a different Australia now to the one we, and our parents, lived in back in the '50s. What are the greatest strengths as a result of that?
Obviously, there are many positives with migration and we all became aware of that with the first major migration after World War II. The migrants had a tremendous work ethic and in fact they had to because in those days they weren't given much like they are today. They mixed in well with the population as did the new arrivals after the Vietnam War who also had a great work ethic and brought wonderful food choices to us. There didn't seem to be any them-and-us problems like there can be today.
Have we lost anything along the way?
Sadly for us older folk, the South-West isn't what it used to be. One can sit in a coffee shop or walk through a shopping centre now and the old proverbial joke, "Spot the Aussie", has become a reality. It looks different, it sounds different, it feels different and it is different and it's not the same Liverpool as before. Very few of the older residents now wander around the shopping areas and it's quite a thing when you see someone you know. The discussions then are usually about the crime, the new social laws and migration. It's true we're no more the little Aussie town on the outskirts of Sydney, we're more a blend of the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
What song can you always rely on to bring the house down?
There are many songs in my 40- or 50-song show that always get them singing along but I guess my hits Starlight Starbright, I Found a New Love and Yes, Indeed I Do really stir them up.
Why do they work so well for you?
I've always put down my success to my hard work in doing my best for everything I do, whether it's recording, choosing songs to put in a show or performing those songs on stage. Since I was a kid in the church and school choirs I've loved to sing. It's been my passion and I feel so very privileged to have been able have a life full of singing. I don't believe in pretend or egotistical performing so I'm just me on stage. What I feel is what you get, and because I love it so much, it obviously shows as my audiences tell me they feel it. I love to hear this because that's all I have to give and to know it's accepted is wonderful.
What are your future plans?
While Liverpool Catholic Club is our last big Sydney show for 2019, in October we do a Victorian tour and a show in Anita's Theatre at Thirroul on October 30, then in November we finish the year with a show at St Andrews Hall at Cronulla. January 2020 will see us back at the Tamworth Country Music Festival with seven shows from January 19 to 25 which would be close to 15 years in a row. Then off we go again for another busy year. I've recently published a 700-page large coffee-table photo book plus a book of a selection of metaphysical poems I wrote in the '60s and I'm still working on my autobiography, so not much free time for me!
Most of your peers are all gone. What's it feel like to be the last man standing?
Yes, most of the other singers who were around in the beginning of rock'n'roll in the '50s and early '60s have either retired or passed away. It's a shame, because I feel it's better to be part of a happy group than to be alone. Yes, as they say, I'm the last man standing who still writes, records and performs in the big venues with my own permanent band. I do miss most of the guys and girls as we sure did have fun on the tours or in the recording and TV studios. It was a vibrant time, new to all of us, audiences and stars. We were the missionaries, as it were. There was no one before us and there was no popular music business as such. We all helped create it without much financial reward and it's because of us that the stars of today can make fortunes and have an industry that's feted around the world. Unfortunately, unlike in the United States, England and Europe, we're forgotten by the media and it takes a lot of work to try to find ways of how to tell our fans, who've been our fans for 60-plus years, where we're performing and about our new songs. Still, I 'm blessed to still have good health, a great family, friends and fans who still support what I do. What more could I ask for?
- Lonnie Lee is launching his new album Back to Base X at his show on Saturday, September 28, at 8.30pm, at Liverpool Catholic Club, 424-458 Hoxton Park Road, Prestons, 8784 4878.