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Goodtime Charlie

February 13, 2013

Charlie Lees ad AMM from Jazz AoteoroaCharlie 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’). Lees advt

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”.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2013 2:06 am

    I’m the ‘unnamed Queensland guitarist’ you’ve quoted. Thanks for posting earlier history of Charlie and some pics I haven’t seen before.

  2. Peter Malpas permalink
    November 12, 2013 6:13 pm

    Charley Lees also taught me in 1974 & 1975 and I bought my Les Paul through him. He taught the other players of note such as my mate Kevin Godwin and blues man Rick Montgommery, I think.

    • Kevin permalink
      December 29, 2013 9:35 pm

      Hey Peter, great to see that you found the link. You and I have had endless conversations about Charlie over the years. I’m not sure if he taught Rick, but indeed Rick is a most excellent player.

    • Kevin permalink
      December 29, 2013 9:39 pm

      Pete, As I recall – did I teach you also?

    • March 20, 2019 2:09 am

      Hi Peter, I haven’t heard Kevin Godwin’s name for over forty years. That’s a blast from the past. I remember him in the band Highway, with Geoff Peterkin and Charlie Georges. One of Highway’s best covers was the Deep Purple classic ‘Highway Star’. Kevin ripped that solo up on his Les Paul. I stood side-stage many a night watching his lightning chops. A year later Geoff went to Melbourne and joined ‘Ol 55.

      Rick Montgomery came to Townsville with the Cairns band ‘Barabbas’, with Steve Hopes on drums. Barabbas went on to Brisbane, it may have been for the Battle of the Sounds, and then they split up. Rick returned to Townsville and opened the Guitar Shop in Flinders Street.

      Rick was already an established guitarist when he returned to Townsville. As far as I know, he didn’t take lessons from Charlie. In the late 70s, Rick and I had a band in Sydney, playing pubs and wine bars.

      – Nigel Hanley (aka GD)

  3. nick lees permalink
    February 16, 2015 11:29 pm

    As the gradson of charlie i was wondering if anyone would have more photos. Thanks and I think dad would very much appreciate

    • April 22, 2017 3:03 pm

      Dear Nick,
      I am preparing a research paper on your Grandfather Charles ‘Charlie’ Anton Lees.

      I may have material and photographs that could be of interest to you. Please contact me when you can. I learnt guitar from Charlie in Townsville in the early 1960s. He was a great musician.

      Thanks for your interest.

      Dr Michael MacLellan Tracey BA (Hons) ANU, PhD ANU
      Archaeologist and Paleoanthropologist

      • Michael Cussen permalink
        May 31, 2017 12:37 am

        Hi Mike. I’d be very interested in the progress of your paper. I live in Townsville and work as a Geologist now, but. like many, I learnt guitar from Charlie from 1975-77 roughly. I have some good stories about Charlie. I was studying Geology at the time and would go around to Charlie’s every week. We’d spend anything up to 2 – 3 hrs together talking about music and old times and some interesting incidents that happened, while I was there. He really was world class. He was more interested in my work as a Geologist than music. In any case, I’d like to get a copy of your paper when it is available. Cheers, Michael

      • June 3, 2017 1:02 pm

        Dear Michael,
        The paper on Charlie is a ‘life love’. Charlie tried to teach me to play and I am still going at 72. I studied archaeology and did four years of geology and geomorphology so it would be good for a talk some time. The paper is just a tribute to Charlie – There are many of us who share similar memories. The paper will be on the site at:
        You could contact me at with news of your experiences as several other students have done.
        I am also writing a paper on Peter Miller and Millsounds in Townsville. Both papers will be a hurry slowly situation as I want to get them as accurate as possible.

        Dr Michael MacLellan Tracey BA Hons (ANU), PhD (ANU)
        Archaeologist, Paleoanthropologist and Designer

  4. Cliff permalink
    August 20, 2015 7:07 pm

    Hi Kevin,Don’t know if you remember me…We,Donald,Kenny,Kenny’s brother Ron and myself decided to learn guitar with Charlie when we were 14,circa 1962.At the same time Charlie was teaching the Graham brothers and The Voss Brothers.These were the days when we would ride our bikes to Charlie’s flat in South Townsville near the old Tech college…Then about 1964,Charlie opened a music shop on Charters Towers Rd across the road from Woolies/Hermit Park and stocked Kay guitars…He offered me this beautiful Kay guitar with a Kelvinator headstock…I rode home with this guitar in one hand while steering the bike in the other…He sure trusted me back then…Needless to say,I wasn’t allowed to buy the guitar and returned it…Sorry i don’t have any photos Nick but I sure cherish the memories…!!
    PS:Ric Montgomery was from Cairns so I tend to agree with Kevin-Not sure Charlie taught Ric…??…

  5. Kevin permalink
    August 21, 2015 12:34 am

    Hi Cliff, You sure ring a bell. I can almost place you. I’m sure it will come to me. Yes, Charlie did teach the Voss Brothers. Barry in particular turned out to be a top class musician. Guitar is his main instrument of course, and to this day he is still brilliant. Less well known is his expertise on Pedal Steel, Trumpet and Piano. He doesn’t perform in public any more, being content to write and record. With Barry up there among the best, Charlie turned out some seriously good musicians. I think that all of us who had the honour of being taught by Charlie would agree that the man was a genius.

    • Cliff permalink
      August 21, 2015 11:23 am

      Go back deep into your serious thought senses Kevin and I’m sure I will appear somewhere in there..Hahaha..!!..We all went to a jazz symphony type concert held in the Theatre Royal or the Wintergarden when we were 15(1963)
      Charlie was performing with a big band of brass,percussion and a pianist…Can’t remember if there were strings..??..Anyway we were so excited to see Charlie on stage all dressed up(normally in shorts and a singlet)…However we were disappointed that Charlie wasn’t given the opportunity to show his skills and consequently,played rhythm behind the band all night…But we all knew how amazing Charlie was when he amazed us personally with his playing…
      Charlie should have been up there with all of the fabulous jazz guitarists of the time…
      Charlie was the first and really the only musician I know who had perfect pitch…
      Barry is on Facebook….Remember the family music store at Rising Sun next to the pictures..??..

  6. Cliff permalink
    August 21, 2015 11:26 am

    “played rhythm behind the band all night”…His rhythm playing,his jazz chords…Wow…!!

  7. Kevin permalink
    August 21, 2015 12:53 pm

    Hi Cliff. I’m with you there. Charlie in my mind was one of the greats. I remember him sitting down across the table from me when I was 12 years old and transcribing “Guitar Boogie” completely from memory. He would hum a bar or two, and then write it down. I still have that manuscript, and it is completely accurate to the last note. Yes, he was pitch perfect. I have come across many musicians over the years who say they have perfect pitch. Not so, a couple have reasonable relative pitch, but none can compare with Charlie’s ear. Of course in those days I didn’t realize that Guitar Boogie was a nursery rhyme for Charlie.
    Barry Voss and I are still great mates. We talk on the phone almost every week, and he visited me recently. When I go to Townsville for a visit, I always make a bee line to Barry’s place. Barry holds Charlie in the highest esteem, rightfully so.
    I remember in the later years watching Charlie playing solo at one of the pubs on Charters Towers Road. As usual he had a skin full, and was virtually asleep on his chair. But the music – unreal – he was playing the most beautiful jazz. Such was his talent.
    Cliff, try to give me a clue, and jog this old memory. Maybe a place or a time. You’re on the tip of my tongue, and I’d really like to recall.
    This is my music email, if you would like to catch up.

  8. starfirepromotions permalink
    January 6, 2016 2:46 pm

    Hi Kevin and fellow fans of Charlie Lees …My name is Barry Voss & I’ll turn 71 years next May 29th 2016. So I am writing this with a sense of urgency as I am getting old in the tooth.

    I was a student of Charlie Lees from 1959 1960-1961-1962-1963.Charlie was a wonderful world class musician with a soft kind heart and gentle manner that exuded sheer class – I appreciated him very much.

    The heights that I was lucky to rise to in the industry later can be attributed to Charlies teaching me and his helping me as a young lad……..

    Charlie’s war service:….re Vietnam In 1964 I was sent by 1SAS to conduct operations in Laos with blokes from Green Berets USA also the 22SAS Wales (we were Based at Udorn Royal Thai Airforce Base Thailand.. I heard that Charlie was mentioned in Despatches for the Brit Commandos in WWII . In our Infancy the Australian 1SAS wore the red beret of the Brit commandos .it was only later around Aug-Sept 1964 when the company became a Regiment that the 1SAS adopted the Sandy Beret.

    My first lesson 1959 with Charlie was one block from the Seaview Hotel on the Strand in Townsville…2nd storey.

    Charlie’s next abode was Morehead Street South Townsville (2nd storey again).He had a georgeous girlfriend there named Daphne Godwin I think she was related to one of my ultra best top students and closest friend Kev Godwin who also learnt off Charlie for a couple of years before coming to me in my new Music Centre (Voss’s Music Centre)

    …. When I came back from Udorn the sole survivor of the squad’s last op I formed “The Legends” from myself and my 3 brothers very late 1964. 1st gig was New Year’s Eve 1964.
    While we were doing the gig someone burnt the shop down and the stock which we were buying off Charlie.(Charlie had agencies etc for gear).

    Shifting it between Christmas and New Year we hadn’t even thought about insuring it . We paid Charlie anyway and it took me a year to to fix and pay for all the fire damage. It was like I put my life on the line in Laos for nothing .

    Charlie wrote magnificent charts for our whole repertoire .

    Bass,Drums,& Lead Guitar and Brass sections for some National TV shows we did.
    It was Charlie’s charts which set us apart from everyone else.We ended up doing National broadcasting having our own show on ABC every month to 32 regional stations for 4 years.

    Charlie soloed with us live on big international shows with 1000’s in the audience on the Strand and also on Magnetic Island playing Guitar – Steel Guitar – Banjo .

    Very late.In 1964 Charlie went to a 6 nights a week gig at The Barkly hotel at Mount Isa and after that I deduce he went to Sydney because me and my newly wedded wife stayed at Charlie’s place in Sydney on our honeymoon in 1970. He was working a big club gig down there but I can’t remember the name of the club.

    Charlie’s daughter was very young when I was first learning. I saw Mark and Anton (Charlie’s sons) grow up and Mark ended up with a trawler fishing in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

    I have just finished 2 albums with Beau (Brian) Bosanquet who was Charlie’s solo steel guitarist and bass player in local Townsville gigs and Charlie’s greatest fan in north Queensland …

    Brian’ and Charlie’s gigs at the Hermit Park Hotel went for 4 years.circa 1964 onwards. From late March to Sept 1964 I was in Thailand and Laos. After returning from Thailand I set up Voss’s Music Centre back in Townsville —New Year’s Eve 1964-January 1965 and started my Band of 4 brothers -“The Legends”…. Our first gig was New Year’s Eve 1964.That night someone burnt my Music shop down and I had to start again. Eventually the Shop opened in late Feb 1965

    Fo0r details Contact me on 0450648408 Australia


    Barry Voss

    Lead Guitarist and Vocalist on tour with:…

    “The Legends” – the 4 Voss brothers
    Johnny Young and the Young Talent Team – Johnny Farnham – The Seekers – The New Seekers – Normie Rowe Kerry Ann Kennealy – Simon Gallaher – Slim Dusty (one tour to Mt Isa when his Guitarist had injured his wrist.) – Cole Joye and the Joyboys. as The Beatles Tribute Show – The Roy Orbison tribute Show –

    • Don Leong permalink
      December 12, 2016 9:23 am

      Hi Barry ,
      Don Leong here, I met you briefly years ago as a guitar struck teen . You kindly showed me
      your new Fender Stratocaster Sonic blue as well as another matching strat and bass for your brothers – I was impressed !
      I visited your store in Rising Sun , we spoke a while , I wasn’t aware it burnt down .
      I’m sorry you had such bad luck with that.
      Your sister Sandra had a Organ store in Hermit Park shopping Centre.

      I came across this site after googling Charlie Lees .
      I , like you and Kevin Godwin and many others , studied with Charlie.

      I took lessons from Bruce Clarke in Melbourne in late 70’s- 80’s.
      Bruce had played with Charlie so when he found I was from Townsville we agreed to get
      any old photos Charlie had .

      Attached is a damaged copy of the article written by Bruce with photos supplied by Charlie.
      I am considering sending this to Bruce Johnson – Australian Jazz Historian if he doesn’t
      have it.

      Catch up in Townsville next time , maybe ?


      Donald Leong

      Photos / article not able to attach , I’ll try find you business address.

    • April 17, 2017 8:11 pm

      I learnt from Charlie when he lived near the Seaview Hotel and then in Morehead St in the early 1960s. I still have many of his transcripts of The Shadows, Ventures tunes etc. I left Townsville in the Army in 1966 but saw Charlie briefly several times after that. He was great Jazz player (or just a great player).


      Dr Michael MacLellan Tracey BA (Hons) ANU, PhD ANU
      Archaeologist and Paleoanthropologist

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