ROCK OF AGES – 1955-1963- LONNIE LEE

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Starlight Starbright (J Marascalo) and Yes Indeed I Do (J Fuller) and I Found A New Love (N Kipner) and Defenceless (O Blackwell) – Lonnie Lee and the Leemen 1960

Lonnie Lee (real name David Dix, 1940) was born on a sheep farm in Rowena (NSW) and was discovered when he appeared on a 2UW talent quest, Alan Toohey’s Amateur Hour, and was signed to Leedon Records in 1959. His musical influences were Johnny Ray, Nat Ling Cole, Guy Mitchell, and he would embrace the rockabilly genre throughout his career.

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He had his first chart entry with Ain’t It So, a gentle rocker self-penned by him and his then-manager and mentor, Johnny O’Keefe, which charted #15 nationally. The flipside Lover Doll was written by American tunesmiths Sid Wayne and Abner Silver originally for Elvis Presley, but Lee made it a local double-A-side hit, both songs were produced by Eddie Cash Jnr., the pseudonym that Johnny O’Keefe used when working behind the scenes at the production desk.

Gentle rocker.

Lonnie Lee would hit the charts consistently between 1960-62 with no less than seven top forty hits, and while his manager Johnny O’Keefe was known as the “Wild One” in a deliberate ploy to counter the more relaxed, boy-next-door rock image of Col Joye, Lee cultivated a milder more restrained style, similar to Rick Nelson, Marty Robbins, and Bobby Darin.  

A great Marascalo/Blackwell song from the early days of R&R,

Lee’s backing group The Leemen were a talented ensemble and the classic lineup was Derby Wilson (lead guitar), Peter Bazley (rhythm guitar), Dave Scott (sax), Johnny Ryan (bass) and Tony Gaha (drums). Lonnie’s follow up single was Starlight Starbright written by John Marascalo who with Robert “Bumps” Blackwell had already written such seminal rock hits for Little Richard as Good Golly Miss Molly and Rip it Up. The title of this song was derived from the name of a nursery rhyme “starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight…” however the song’s lyrics were completely different. The original version of the song by Portuguese Joe (real name Joe Alves) and the Tennessee Rockabillies was released in 1957 and was an early country/rockabilly crossover minor hit. Below The Leemen L-R – Peter Bazeley, Tony Gaha, John Ryan, Dave Scott, and Derby Wilson.

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Lee’s version was substantially re-arranged and had a solid rock/doo wop ambience, echo chamber effects on Lonnie’s vocals provided depth and resonance and the backing vocalists added to the rollicking beat and accessability of the song, on this record the backing singers included Danny Finlay and Peter Robinson of the Strangers who sang in falsetto. 

This was Lonnie’s #6 follow up hit and he became a regular performer on Six O’Clock Rock and Bandstand in the early rock era, he followed Starlight, Starbright up quickly with Yes Indeed I Do, a #14 hit in April 1960. Echo chamber effects, and a solid beat underscored by engaging backing vocals and great bass lines by Johnny Ryan, delivered a solid hit for Lonnie. 

Before the end of 1960 Lonnie Lee produced his biggest hit, the double A-side single I Found A New Love (#2 nationally), written by Sydney producer Nat Kipner backed with a cover of Otis Blackwell’s Defenceless(#17 locally). Lee delivered a very cool and mature sound with I Found A New Love, percussive finger snaps and bass intro the song and there is a Fever aura about the opening, before Lonnie and the band kick up the tempo and gently rock the Nat Kipner lyrics. Great backing vocals, subtle saxophone flourishes by Dave Scott and Kipner’s impressive production standards, made this the #18 best-selling record for the year.

Johnny O’Keefe was the Wild One, but his protege Lonnie Lee was the Mild One.

The B side, Defenceless, was written by one of the most prodigious African-American R&R songwriters of the early rock era in Otis Blackwell who was responsible for many of the rock standards of the period, including – Great Balls of Fire, Breathless, Don’t Be Cruel, All Shook Up, Return to Sender, Handy Man and Hey Little Girl. Defenceless was well-suited to Lonnie Lee’s more laid -back vocals and the record benefited from strong vocal backing, sparse echo chamber effects, a convincing guitar solo by Derby Wilson at the bridge and the strong rhythm section of Johnny Ryan and Tony Gaha on bass and drums respectively.

Lonnie would have several more minor hits including Sit Around And Talk to Me (#18 in ’61), and When The Bells Stop Ringing (#25 in ’62), but the bells stopped ringing for Lonnie once the British Invasion started, he relocated to the USA and lived in Nashville 1971-84, as a songwriter-for-hire, for such artists as Roy Orbison, Cher, Florence Henderson, and Glen Campbell. Lonnie would ultimately move onto country/rockabilly/pop crossover songs and subsequently the rock revival and rockabilly heritage circuit in the future; in 2007 he promoted a successful national tour here with himself, Crash Craddock, Bobby Vee, and Lesley Gore.

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 Lonnie married Pam (above) in 1960 but they were divorced several years later, he would ultimately settle into a long-term relationship with his present wife Suzanne, below.

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