You go, said Hugo
There’s a big surprise on Turn Back the Hands of Time, the fourth volume of the Stebbing-Zodiac Archive Series of New Zealand recordings of the early 1950s. Among the artists is a character called “Sir Hugo Holme”. As soon as I heard these comedy recordings featuring an accomplished boogie-woogie pianist with a blackface vocal, I thought “Julian Lee”. Sure enough, when Julian Lee phoned out of the blue a few months back, he confirmed that Hugo was one of his many pseudonyms.
From 1952 Lee was the musical director at Stebbing studios, then based out of the Pacific Building, on the corner of Queen and Wellesley Streets (the Musician’s Union, run by Tom Skinner, operated out of the same building). He oversaw an extraordinary range of recordings, from sweet pop vocalists, jazz combos, male vocal groups to choirs and experimental instrumentals. His guise of Sir Hugo Holme saw him recording humorous R&B and rags. The best of these is ‘Doghouse Boogie’, which resembles the classic ‘Down the Road Apiece’ first recorded by Will Bradley with Freddie Slack, and later by Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones. Lee’s vocal sounds like the Black and White Minstrel Show visiting a juke joint, but his piano playing is stunning. (The only unfortunate thing is the use of a tack piano to get a honky-tonk sound, which dates any recording its used on, like an early 80s Roland synth).
Other artists included on Turn Back the Hands of Time – all the tracks can be downloaded separately – include the Duplicats, (‘Dennis the Menace’ in Chipmunk style), Stewart Harvey’s baritone-with-organ, Edwin Duff’s corny comic polka ‘I’m Just a Poor Bachelor’, Pat McMinn’s sprightly pop, and Monte Oliver’s piano instrumentals. Julian Lee also turns up as Four and Some More – a vocal group, with Lee on piano, performing ‘Celebration Rag’. This novelty number is not one of Lee’s proudest moments, he said. But to me these experiments predate later studio frivolity at Stebbing’s, the late 70s and early 80s when Ian Morris and Dave Dobbyn – during and immediately after Th’ Dudes – revelled in the freedom they were given to explore the studio. (Among the results was ‘Behind the Painted Smile’, the B-side of Dobbyn’s ‘Lipstick Power’, in which the pair emulated Motown production effects on an old Isley Brothers hit.)