Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gordon, Lee Lazer (1923–1963)

by Michael Sturma

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Lee Lazer Gordon (1923-1963), entrepreneur and rock'n'roll promoter, was born on 8 March 1923 in Detroit, Michigan, United States of America, son of Louis Gordon, retailer, and his wife Jennie, née La Pate. Educated locally at Highland Park High School, and at the University of Miami (Bachelor of Business Administration, 1944), Lee developed a chain of sixty electrical stores across the country. He twice married—and was twice divorced from—the same woman.

Moving to Sydney about 1953, Gordon began merchandising for Royal Art Furnishing Pty Ltd, attracting customers with American sales techniques such as mystery tunes and telephone quizzes. He soon realized that there was an Australian market for live performances by international entertainers and set out to arrange tours by American pop idols: Frank Sinatra played to full houses at the Sydney Stadium in January 1955, Frankie Laine arrived next month and Johnnie Ray received a tumultuous welcome in March. Ray's animated behaviour on stage and the adulation he received were to be characteristic of subsequent visits by rock'n'roll stars.

In January 1957 Gordon organized a tour by 'Bill Haley and the Comets', whose recording of Rock Around the Clock was already a best-seller. On the same bill Gordon included 'The Platters', 'Big Joe Turner', LaVern Baker and 'Freddie Bell and the Bellboys'. The show opened at Newcastle, then played to capacity houses in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne. Over three weeks 300,000 patrons saw the performances, and Gordon offered Haley $US100,000 to stay for an additional week.

Gordon's productions came to be known as 'Big Shows'. In October 1957 'Johnny O'Keefe and the Dee Jays' were the first Australians to be included, opening a show which featured the Americans 'Little Richard', Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. Gordon gradually increased the number of local acts. In 1958 Lee Gordon Records Pty Ltd began recording pop songs (later under the Leedon label). A close friend of Gordon, O'Keefe was one of the company's artists and was also responsible for signing other Australians, among them 'Lonnie Lee', Barry Stanton, Laurel Lea and 'The Crescents'. Artists used the studio facilities of Festival Records Pty Ltd, to which Gordon subsequently sold Leedon.

At Kings Cross, Sydney, Gordon converted a cinema into a discotheque called The Birdcage. He was credited with introducing the striptease club and drive-in restaurant to the city, as well as 'the first Australian Jazz Festival'. Due to his initiative, a club was established for teenage fans of the rock'n'rollers 'Col Joye and the Joy Boys'. Gordon brimmed with ideas that never materialized, including bringing Elvis Presley to Australia, making a film starring Sammy Davis junior, building an Aboriginal village as a tourist attraction, staging a bullfight and opening a casino.

In the course of his career he made and lost several fortunes. It seemed that he enjoyed taking risks and one associate claimed that he did his best work when 'broke'. Gordon estimated that he made £3 million by bringing American entertainers to Australia, and lost it all in unsuccessful investments. Some reporters saw him as overly generous and gullible; others alluded to his shadowy connexions. A small, dark man, he radiated self-confidence. In later years, however, his friends believed that he deteriorated physically, allegedly due to alcohol, drugs and financial pressures. He is also said to have suffered from mental breakdowns.

On 23 January 1962 at Acapulco, Mexico, Gordon married Arlene Topfer, a Queensland-born dancer and model; Frank Sinatra was best man. In May 1963 in Sydney a petition against Gordon was dismissed in the Bankruptcy Court. Next month he was charged with attempting to obtain the drug pethidine without a prescription. He left the country on 20 July. A warrant for his arrest was issued on the 22nd for failing to appear before the Central Court of Petty Sessions, but the offence was considered too minor for the authorities to seek his extradition.

After a brief time in the United States, Gordon travelled with his family to London. There he approached the theatrical promoter Harold Davidson looking for work and saying that he wished to make a fresh start. Gordon died of a coronary occlusion on 7 November 1963 at Kensington and was cremated. His wife and daughter survived him; Arlene gave birth to his son in 1964. By the time of Gordon's death, his only apparent assets in Australia were a small interest in the Sound Lounge in William Street, Sydney, and part-ownership of a Kings Cross all-male revue.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Oram, The Business of Pop (Syd, 1966)
  • B. Rogers (with D. O'Brien), Rock'n Roll (Syd, 1975)
  • J. Bryden-Brown, JO'K (Syd, 1982)
  • M. Sturma, Australian Rock'N'Roll (Syd, 1991)
  • Music Maker, Dec 1963, p 4
  • Observer (Sydney), 30 May 1959
  • Nation, 5 Nov 1960
  • Daily Mirror, 11, 12 Nov 1963
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12, 14 Nov 1963
  • private information.

Citation details

Michael Sturma, 'Gordon, Lee Lazer (1923–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gordon-lee-lazer-10332/text18289, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 31 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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