Charlie Lees, the celebrated jazz guitarist of the 1930s, only spent seven years in New Zealand, from the ages of 15 to 22. Born in 1913 in Sydney, during his childhood he travelled the world with his parents – I wonder what they did? – before settling in Wellington with them in 1928.
Two years later, in 1930, he left school to become a professional musician. He was a member of the grandly named Wellington Symphonic Dance Orchestra, which also featured broadcasting legends Jack Maybury and Bob Bothamley (the advertisement below is from 1932).
Lees often starred in charity shows for the Wellington City Mission, and performing in duets with the saxophonist Syd French, and – in a “duelling banjos’” scenario – with Cluny McPherson (their item was ‘Plantation Melodies’).
In 1935 he stowed away to Sydney, where he soon joined Frank Coughlan’s famous swing band at Sydney’s most glamorous nightclub, the Trocadero. Lees performed at the opening in 1936, playing his Gibson Super 400 guitar in Coughlan’s band. It was the first one imported into Australia, and the next year he played the first electric “Spanish” guitar – a Rickenbacker – to come into the country. (Here is a link to an excerpt of a 1936 article he wrote in the Australian Music Maker about the electric guitar.)
Lees also played a vibraharp and drums, and was an arranger. Around 1940, with others, he opened a music school and arranged music for film soundtracks. He won many guitar awards, and during the war served as a commando with the AIF. There was a period “involving rumour-shrouded activities at sea”, then after the war he settled in Queensland, playing and teaching. During the 1960s he was spotted playing banjo duets, and though he stopped playing fulltime in the 1970s, he continued to teach. On the web, an unnamed Queensland guitarist recalls his lessons:
Like moths to the flame, every guitarist in Townsville made an appointment to see Charlie Lees. My first encounter with Charlie consisted of me turning up at his house, his wife calling out to him, and him appearing in shorts, t-shirt and thongs. The second lesson I made the mistake of asking him about diminished chords. He launched into a diatribe such that to this day I haven’t heard the likes of. It took me many years to understand what that lesson was about.
In 1981 Lees disappeared at sea, sailing his own boat off the coast of Queensland. The musician quoted above had, after six years on the road playing rock’n’roll, realised that “Charlie had held all the clues all along”. So he went back to see him:
By that time it was too late. He’d gone out fishing in his boat, and whether it was too many beers, or too rough weather, or divine intervention, Charlie checked out and went to the Jazz Club in the sky. He was a trouper, an original, possibly the first real jazz guitarist in Australia.
In response to that post, another Australian guitarist, Greg, recalled:
I used to go to lessons at his house in Currajong [near Townsville] in the early to mid 70s, and they consisted mainly of him trotting out some riffs with a half-done cig drooping from his lower lip. I got my first electric, an Ibanez Les Paul copy, and my my first amp, a Randall solid-state job, from him. My brother learned piano from him as well. His wife’s name was Shirley. I heard of his mishap not too long after he went ‘fishing.’ Some time later I ran into Shirley walking in the Mall. She was still shaken about what happened and didn’t know what to do with his old National guitars and some LPs he had played on. I told her to keep ’em … I still have some of the original music books he wrote out for me. They are very treasured as are my memories of lessons with Charlie.
Apart from the quotes sourced on the web, much of this information comes from Bruce Johnson’s excellent Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz (OUP, 1988), a copy of which is in the Waikato University, Auckland City and Turnbull libraries. Johnson quotes Coughlan as saying that Lees was “the most outstanding guitar stylist in the antipodes”.