American born promoter Lee Gordon arrived in Sydney in 1953, after a chance meeting with an Australian used car salesman, and immediately put his American know-how to work.
Gordon was responsible for bringing 472 American entertainers (including Nat King Cole, Johnnie Ray, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, The Platters, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, Frank Sinatra, Bill Haley, The Everly Brothers, Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, Guy Mitchell, Del Shannon, Duane Eddy, Connie Francis, Bobby Vee, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Burnette and Harry Belafonte) to Australia between 1956 and 1962. He was also a hustler, entrepreneur, drug addict, eccentric and visionary.
Above all, he was a capitalist, who bankrolled his first plunge into promoting rock & roll shows with the proceeds from scams at Sydney’s Royal Art Furniture Shop, where cheques were offered to housewives over the phone if they could answer a simple question.
Everybody won, but the cheques turned out to be discounts redeemable only at the furniture shop.
Lee was a small fastidious man in the latest skin-tight pants, with a lust for life. Always a big gambler, Lee only felt comfortable when he was broke – so after making thousands of pounds from his furniture shop rackets, Lee hired an accountant and shipped in Ella Fitzgerald and Artie Shaw, booking them into an old cavernous boxing shed in Rushcutters Bay. Gordon’s “Big Shows” at the Sydney Stadium were to become the Mecca for rock ‘n’ roll in Australia – and Lee Gordon its Messiah.
After reaping a fortune, Gordon nearly lost it all on a series of disasters that climaxed with an absurd whim to bring Roller Derby to Australia. Surviving that by the skin of his teeth, he went to the US in 1957 and made a bid to woo Elvis Presley by promoting a series of Elvis concerts across the states.
Also in 1957, he lost £100,000 when Frank Sinatra aborted his second tour of Australia by refusing to board a plane in Honolulu which had insufficient sleeping booths for his entourage. By way of compensation, Sinatra offered Gordon the chance to promote a string of his appearances in the US.
Returning to Australia in 1958, Gordon launched his own record label and began managing local singer Johnny O’Keefe, the man whose hit single The Wild One would mark the birth of a home-grown Australian rock ‘n’ roll business that same year.
His enthusiasm and energy were unrelenting, although his tactics were unorthodox, to say the least – He often hung around Las Vegas gambling tables waiting for celebrities to go broke.
When they did (allegedly including Sammy Davis Jr), Lee was there to offer them cash in return for a trip down under.
Gordon set up shop in Rushcutters Bay near the Stadium. Here he flitted from one strange idea to another. He also operated nightclubs and cabarets in Kings Cross, Sydney – several of which came under close police scrutiny. He opened the country’s first strip club, The Primitif in Kings Cross, and a nightclub called The Birdcage.
By the early 1960s, Gordon was drinking heavily – in one of his last interviews he acknowledged being an alcoholic – and his drug consumption had spiralled, which made his business judgements increasingly erratic.
A drive-in restaurant on Parramatta Road in Sydney’s west was an ambitious folly that quickly collapsed; the same fate befell Lee’s of Woollahra, an upmarket adult cabaret spot featuring exotic entertainers such as a Parisian hermaphrodite, Conchonelle, for whom Gordon developed a fixation.
In 1961, Gordon announced his engagement to an American stripper called Lee Sharron – a remarkable achievement considering he had already married and divorced her twice before in the US.
But the marriage plans collapsed and Gordon cracked up while travelling overseas, ending up in a New York mental hospital.
Somehow he managed to line up Sinatra for another Australian tour. This time, the tour was a huge success, not least because Sinatra waived his fee in a magnanimous gesture toward the ailing Gordon. In early 1962 when Gordon married his sixth wife, Queensland-born dancer, Arlene Topfer (pictured below) in Acapulco, Sinatra was there as his best man.
By now, Gordon was in partnership with Abe Saffron, the Sydney nightclub owner accused of underworld connections. His ventures see-sawed between success and disaster.
He brought Lenny Bruce out to Australia in 1962 for a tour that was shut down after only one night, when Bruce’s obscenity-rich spiels shocked the owner of the venue.
Gordon then opened the first drag queen revue in Sydney, but a rival promoter stole his thunder by offering the dancers more money and transforming the show into the hugely successful Les Girls.
During his ten years as Australia’s show business king, Gordon was reputed to have personally made and lost £3 million. He appeared in the Sydney bankruptcy court in April 1963 where his counsel said his only assets were “his ability and his name”.
Gordon never had a bank account, never owned a home, rented nearly all of his possessions and had very little interest in the finances of his business.
His ambivalence about money had a fatalistic quality – both his father and stepfather had committed suicide – but it also gave him a zen-like equanimity in the face of catastrophe.
On 19 July he was arrested in Kings Cross and charged with having tried to obtain the prescription opioid pain medication Pethidine without a prescription on 28 June. He was released on bail to appear at Sydney’s Central Court of Petty Sessions on 22 July.
He did not appear and it was later confirmed that he had left the country on an Alitalia flight with a ticket to Rome. A warrant was taken out for his arrest upon his return to Australia.
A few months later he was discovered holed up in a cheap Waikiki apartment – broke and in bad health – before eventually moving on to London with his wife and their baby daughter, trying to hustle work in the West End.
Lee Gordon passed away on 7 November 1963 in a room at the Princes Lodge Hotel in Kensington, London. He was just 40 and had been preparing to visit friends in America. The official cause of death was recorded as coronary occlusion.