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Pharther Lap

October 14, 2012

The exodus of New Zealand’s great guitarists to Australia did not begin in the 1960s, with the Librettos’ Rod Stone, or the 1970s, with Dragon’s Robert Taylor*.

Charlie Lees first came to prominence in Wellington in 1932, when he was a member of the Wellington Symphonic Dance Orchestra. This grandly named outfit was conducted by future radio star (in Australia) Jack Maybury, and also contained public radio’s jazz champion Bob Bothamley and the Hollywood-handsome bass player Tommy Yandall (no relation to the 1970s trio). At one navy dance, Lees and Yandall did a double act on banjos, and the Australian Music Maker’s Wellington columnist said: “Charlie’s guitar playing is a revelation.”

By 1936 Lees was in Sydney, playing with the legendary bandleader Frank Coughlan at the Trocadero. Andrew Bissett wrote in his excellent history of Australian jazz Black Roots, White Flowers that Coughlan had a guitarist who was “years ahead of his time, Charles Lees”:

Lees was using chromaticism before anyone else in Australia, he had ideas about interrelating keys, playing a key which was not the tonic key, and he voiced interrelating keys, and he voiced chords beyond two or three octaves when everyone else was jamming it all within one octave. Lees played an electrically amplified Gibson Super 400.

So highly regarded was Lees on the Gibson Super 400 that later in the 1930s, he was advertising the instrument in the Australian Music Maker:

Charlie Lees ad AMM from Jazz Aoteoroa

Sources: Lees file, Dennis Huggard Jazz Archive, Alexander Turnbull Library, MS-Papers-9018-26; Andrew Bisset, Black Roots, White Flowers: a History of Jazz in Australia (ABC, Sydney: 1987); Jazz Aotearoa: Notes towards a New Zealand History, edited by Richard Hardie and Allan Thomas (Steele-Roberts).

* I recently heard that Robert Taylor has just released a solo album on the web. A friend writes:

Robert’s album is beautiful – guitar instrumentals that pay homage to his various jazz and blues heroes (and Bill Sevisi!), but actually sound like no one but Robert. Here is the link.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2012 2:44 pm

    The Super 400 is nowadays the most expensive (new) guitar in the Gibson range. According to A.R. Duchossoir, author of ‘Gibson Electrics’, it cost $400 even in the 1930s. Its comparative rarity is one reason why this model cost well over $10,000 by the time I worked for Gibson Germany back in the mid-1990s.

  2. justin andrew lees permalink
    December 21, 2012 7:31 am

    being the grandson of charlie lees iam trying to find more information if anyone has anything please let me know.

    • January 29, 2013 1:37 pm

      Hi Justin, sorry about the delay replying. There is a piece on him in Bruce Johnson’s “Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz” (OUP, 1988), and also apparently in the magazine JAMM (Journal of Australian Music and Musicians), Feb 1980.

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