Lee Gordon 1923-1963

Lee Gordon

Lee Gordon

In July 1954, in partnership with Benn Reyes and Arthur Schurgin, Gordon hired the vast
boxing stadiums in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane for the first of his now legendary Big Shows.

Over the next decade Gordon brought many of the world’s top popular entertainers to this country.

 

In July 1954, in partnership with Benn Reyes and Arthur Schurgin, Gordon hired the vast
boxing stadiums in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane for the first of his now legendary Big Shows. That ground-breaking bill featured four great names: jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, ace drummer Buddy Rich, clarinet genius Artie Shaw and the zany comic Jerry Colonna, all backed by a superb locally recruited big band led by Dennis Collinson. He remained Gordon’s musical director until his death in 1959. The venture resulted in a small loss, but Gordon’s next tour, which extended to Adelaide, Singapore and Hong Kong, was a bonanza. He headlined the sensational ‘Cry’ singer Johnny Ray and backed him with comedian Dave Barry and dancers Ray McDonald and Peggy Ryan. Local Tivoli all-rounder Babs McKinnon was added for her feminine glamour. Initially bookings were disappointing, but a typical Gordon stunt, in which thousands of promotional leaflets were dropped from planes, resulted in packed houses and a tidy profit. He rounded off 1954 with tours by Louis Armstrong and the All Stars and Billy Daniels with the Andrews Sisters

Over the next decade Gordon brought many of the world’s top popular entertainers to this country, frequently adding local acts to fill out the bill. It was a roller-coaster ride. Some of his shows minted money; others lost heavily. And through it all Gordon became increasingly addicted to drugs, spending vast amounts of money and time in a bizarre search for a ‘legal’ form of marijuana. 

In 1955 Frank Sinatra made the first of his four tours for Gordon, Johnnie Ray returned, and Nat ‘King’ Cole, Frankie Laine and comedians Rowan and Martin drew crowds. Gordon, it was said, had ‘made a million’. Then the bubble burst. Instead of concentrating on the big pop personalities, Gordon put together a series of shows featuring legendary Hollywood stars: Betty Hutton, Bob Hope and Abbott and Costello. They were used to playing in theatres, not arenas, and they all flopped. To add to the dilemma, the West Melbourne Stadium burnt down, forcing Gordon to rent the totally unsuitable Leggett’s Ballroom in Prahran as a temporary venue. He returned to safer fare in 1956: Gary Crosby, a Record Star Parade featuring Joe ‘Fingers’ Carr, Stan Freberg, Buddy Rich, Don Cornell, with the local group Bob Horsfall’s Tune Twisters, plus return visits from Johnnie Ray, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Frankie Laine and Louis Armstrong and the All Stars, who toured for Gordon in Britain as well as Australia.

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Biographical references

Toby Creswell: Love is in the Air, ABC Books, 2003
Alan Heffernan: Big Shows: The Lee Gordon Years, Alan Heffernan, 2003
Max Moore: Some Days are Diamonds, New Holland, 2003
Michael Sturma: ‘Lee Gordon’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 14