By any chance are you a fan of the Australian rock singer Johnny O’Keefe? We’re sure that you love Ella Fitzgerald and that you’ve laughed while listening to one of Lenny Bruce’s stand-up routines. Well, there’s one man who was behind helping these entertainers and many more become big stars – especially in the Land Down Under!
Lee Gordon was an American show business promoter who had a notable career in Australia and was instrumental in promoting jazz and rock music in the country. Without a doubt, he helped many great entertainers further their careers.
His final years steep in one struggle after the next. He dies early at the age of 40 and his death is a mystery…
Let’s look back at Lee Gordon’s mysterious death, incredible life life and career …
LEE GORDON’S EARLY LIFE AND CAREER
Lee Gordon was born as Leon Lazar Gevorshner. There are many conflicting records of when he is born but accepts that he is born on March 8, 1923, in Detroit, Michigan.
He went to school at Highland Park High School in Michigan and then went on to receive a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of Miami. Soon after his graduation, he began his career promoting entertainers.
He helped present a jazz concert at an ice-skating rink in Muskegon, Michigan. Later, he worked with the famous publicist Benn F. Reyes to organize a project called ‘Shakespeare in the Round.’ He also briefly worked with a traveling carnival company called Royal American Shows – based in Tampa, Florida.
LEE’S VARIETY OF BUSINESSES IN AUSTRALIA
In the mid-1940s, Lee Gordon emigrated from the United States to try a variety of businesses abroad. He worked for a direct mail business in Lima, Peru and then later moved to Havana, Cuba where he started a business exporting cigars and roses to the United States.
While in Cuba, he discovered Havana’s famous Tropicana Club. It was during this time that he began booking American acts to travel to Havana to perform at the nightclub. While he was a versatile entrepreneur, it was clear that he was most passionate about promoting entertainers.
He would soon emigrate to Australia to try his luck there. However, before moving to the Land Down Under he returned to the United States and his activities during this time are a bit mysterious.
EMIGRATION IN AUSTRALIA 1953
Lee Gordon is famous to give various accounts on his life, these seem to change over time and occasionally contradicted his previous statements. He apparently returned to the United States in the late 1940s and remained in the country until his emigration to Australia in 1953.
One story states that Lee Gordon had opened a chain of “House of Grams” and “House of TV” stores throughout the U.S. It states that he puts out of business by the US Electrical Retailers’ Association and lost a lot of money.
However, another story states that Lee was successful in this business venture and sold his stores for $550,000. It claims that he lost his fortune through various enterprises relating to music promotion. This particular story then states that he emigrated to Canada to start a business selling TVs.
In one story, his friend Arthur Schurgin, a promoter from Detroit urged Lee to emigrate to Australia to try his luck at entertainment promotion. In another story, Lee met an Australian car salesman in Toronto who convinced him to emigrate to the country.
We don’t know how he got to Australia but he eventually did and it was in this country where he became a household name…
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LEE’S AUSTRALIAN CAREER
Lee Gordon arrived in Sydney, Australia, on September 30th, 1953. He eventually settled in the suburb of Point Piper where he lived until he left Australia in 1962.
Lee’s first business in Australia was a marketing firm that focused on promoting an Australian furniture retailer, Royal Art Furnishings. He succeeded in this venture and helped the company sell lots of furniture and appliances. Due to his high earnings, he realized that he had a gift for marketing and decided to try, once again, to become an entertainment promoter.
ROCK AND ROLL GENRE
As he was passionate about music, especially jazz and the new genre of rock and roll, he decided to promote and plan music concerts. He still had connections in the American music business and helped bring artists from the States to Australia.
Through his company, The Big Show, he helped introduce Australians to many prominent artists from America and other Western countries. Before long, Lee Gordon had become a household name in Australia.
A mention makes some of Lee’s biggest achievements while in Australia. He helped book The Beatles for their only Australian tour. He also booked Frank Sinatra for an Australian tour. One of the most popular concerts organized by Lee Gordon included Bill Haley & The Comets, Freddie Bell and The Bell Boys, The Platters, Lavern Baker, and Big Joe Turner.
AUSTRALIA’S WHITE POLICY
Lee Gordon also wasn’t afraid to challenge social attitudes and even laws! During Australia’s White Australia Policy which prohibited non-European peoples from migrating to the country, he introduced Australians to some of America’s most popular black entertainers.
He booked performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte and countless others to perform in Australia. No doubt he deserves credit for helping to break racial barriers in the country.
Apart from booking musical acts, Lee Gordon was also a huge comedy fan and booked performances by famous American comic performers. These included Abbott and Costello and even Bob Hope. But one of his biggest risks was when he brought comedian Lenny Bruce down to Australia.
Lenny Bruce was at the height of his career but also the height of his controversy. He had garnered a reputation as a brilliant comedian but also one who wasn’t afraid to challenge taboos and use profane language. Even in Australia, there was some backlash toward Lenny Bruce.
But Lee Gordon booked Lenny Bruce anyways – as both he and Lenny had never been afraid of challenging audiences.
By the way, if you’re interested in Lenny Bruce you can check out our FactsVerse video on his life and career and his tragic death…Now, back to Lee Gordon…
Apart from booking talent, Lee was also involved in managing talent. He served as the manager for the Australian rock and roll star Johnny O’Keefe and helped launch the latter’s career. Lee also wished to manage Elvis Presley and bring him down to Australia, though this never came to fruition.
DIANA TRASK AND LEE GORDON
He also helped discover the Australian singer Diana Trask and even opened an exotic nightclub called Lee’s of Woollarah. Here he introduced the rather puritanical Australian society to performers that they weren’t used to – including Coccinelle, the French transgender singer and performer.
Toward the end of his career in Australia, Lee set up Leedon Records which released music. Some of his label’s early releases included “Oh Oh I’m Falling in Love Again” by Jimmie Rodgers and “Rockin’ Robin” by Bobby Day.
However, shortly after Leedon Records was set up – Lee handed the management over to two of his colleagues and disappeared to the United States.
Details aren’t entirely clear about what he was doing back in the U.S. but it’s believed he suffered a nervous breakdown. He eventually returned to Australia before deciding to leave in 1962.
LEE’S DEATH AND LEGACY
While there isn’t any hard evidence, it’s believed that while he lived in Australia, Lee Gordon had connections with organized crime in the country. Some of his tours and concerts weren’t as successful, including the performances by Bob Hope.
He opened another drag club, and this wasn’t a huge success. His booking of Lenny Bruce’s stand-up had mixed results. Lenny had success at some nightclubs and was unable to find gigs in others. At many of his performances, there was a large police presence – just in case Lenny made any obscene jokes.
Lee was deeply in debt and his businesses were no longer the successes they once were. While he had done so much for the Australian entertainment scene, it seemed that he was making poor business decisions by the early 1960s.
BANKRUPTCY IN AUSTRALIA
Some of the details during these last months of his life are a bit fuzzy. He apparently filed for bankruptcy in Australia, but his request was denied. Around this time, he began abusing drugs and was eventually arrested and put in a Sydney jail. He was released on bail the next day and then fled Australia forever. Lee was due to appear in an Australian court due to his drug possession.
He fled to the United States and then later went to London. His wife Arlene and their baby daughter eventually left Australia to meet Lee in London.
Lee Gordon was found dead in his London hotel room on November 7th, 1963. He was 40 years old. The official cause of his death was coronary occlusion – though, to this day, many are skeptical of how he actually died.
While the last few years of his life were mired by one failure after the next and poor business decisions, one cannot underestimate his importance in the Australian music scene. While his booking of Lenny Bruce had mixed success and his nightclubs may have been ahead of their time for Australia’s conservative society, he managed to break racial barriers by booking black entertainers.
For some, his legacy is sadly forgotten. But for others, one can’t imagine live entertainment in Australia without him. His life was tragically short and mysterious but it’s one worth remembering and celebrating…
Now, let’s hear from you:
Did you know about Lee Gordon?
In fact, here’s what we’d like to know:
Do you think that promoters such as Lee Gordon deserve more credit for introducing us to great entertainers?
Or would we have eventually learned of these great artists even without the work of promoters?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
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