In January 1986 in Sydney I interviewed Dinah Lee, the singer of one of the first three songs I can remember hearing (besides ‘Do the Blue Beat’, the other two are the Beatles’ ‘All My Loving’ and Nat King Cole’s ‘Ramblin’ Rose’). The interview was arranged by my friends Maxine and Bronte, who were well connected then and surely still are. It ran verbatim in the March 1986 issue of Cha-Cha, Auckland’s free fashion newspaper edited by the talented Ngila Dickson. Besides all the ads for Workshop and Zambesi, Cha-Cha ran a fascinating series of Q&A interviews that are excellent source material for social history. Among the subjects were pioneering journalist Marcia Russell, radio pirate David Gapes, broadcaster Peter Sinclair and entrepreneur Charley Gray. The two main interviewers were Wayne Washington (aka Russell Brown), and Bryan Staff. Depending on the interviewee, the tone sometimes emulated Interview magazine. After the interview, in central Sydney, I took her picture outside a mass-market boutique called Beatnik Girl. The thing that comes through is Dinah’s determination; 27 years later, she is still regularly performing.
“A chick-a-chick, a chick-a-chick a chang-chang!”
Dinah Lee will always be New Zealand’s Queen of Mod. She was our first pop superstar, wowing audiences with her effervescent personality and exuberant versions of R&B hits – at a time when the Beatles were still playing Hamburg. For many of us, the 60s began with ‘Do the Blue Beat’ at the top of the New Zealand charts, and the sight of girls training their hair with Sellotape, trying to imitate Dinah’s side-curls.
Inevitably, she made the migration to Australia, where she has been based since 1964. In June last year  Dinah returned to New Zealand to appear in television’s 25th anniversary concert; she will be in Auckland this month  to perform at the Easter Show. “Come-on ba-by! Do-wah yakka way!”
Mmmm I’ve been dying for this. What a good cup of coffee – some places you go and they give you little fiddly cups of cappuccino, and it’s down in a second. I’ve never got used to the heat here in Syudney. I came from Christchurch originally. I was born in Waimate – do you know where Waimate is? You do? A lot of people don’t …
Yes, I’ve been there. Norman Kirk’s buried there.
Is he? In Waimate? … (looks puzzled) … I didn’t know that.
I’ve seen a couple your records in the second-hand stores here in Sydney – Introducing Dinah Lee and The Mod World of Dinah Lee. They’ve got very expensive prices on them.
I know, aren’t they expensive. They say they’re collector’s items now. I have a friend here who’s in a collector’s club and if I can’t find any of my singles, he’ll write all around Australia for them. I’ve got copies that way of songs I haven’t had for years, such as the songs I recorded in England, but they’re re-releases a lot of them.
‘Blue Beat’ wasn’t a big hit over here [in Australia]. No, ‘Don’t You Know Yockomo’ was No 1 and ‘Reet Petite’ was No 1, but ‘blue Beat’ was only on the flipside of ‘Reet Petite’ out here. It got quite a bit of airplay in Queensland, but ‘Don’t You Know …’ is the one. A few people know ‘blue Beat’ but I wouldn’t do it in my show here, but I have to do ‘Yockomo’ and I havae to do ‘Reet Petite’, otherwise people go, “What’s happening?” But if I go to New Zealand as I did not too long ago, it’s gotta be ‘Blue Beat’.
Where did you get your material from? ‘Reet Petite’ and so on …
That was an old Jackie Wilson song, but I found it on some album by … I can’t remember, it was so long ago … it was some girl singer doing it.
‘Don’t You Know Yockomo’ was an early R&B hit as well, by New Orleans’ singer Huey Smith. Were you listening to those R&B records in the early 60s?
Oh yeah – into all that, cos it was sort of the Motown thing, and even before that there were your black singers like Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke and even Little Richard. There were lots of little coffee clubs in Auckland that people used to go to hear this music. Places like the Beatle Inn, the Shiralee, the Top Twenty … there was a jazz venue near Queen Street there, the Montmartre – I used to go in there and sing pop with a jazz band. Just piano, with slap bass and drums, and I’d sing, oh, Dusty Springfield stuff. So I had all that grounding.
I used to do ‘Yockomo’, ‘Reet Petite’, all those numbers, with Max Merritt and the Meteors and the Invaders even before I recorded them. We did shows all around New Zealand in the 60s with, like, Peter Posa, Lou and Simon – all these people. I don’t know if you hear of them any more … Bill and Boyd, the Howard Morrison Quartet, of course. All those people, all the time. And then I did my own shows, and shows with PJ Proby and Little Millie. [Millie Small is pictured here with Dinah Lee and Max Cryer, from Playdate magazine, 1966.]
She had ‘My Girl Lollipop’ – ‘Blue Beat’ is like an early reggae song too …
Yeah, Jamaican ska.
Where did you pick that up?
The record company [Viking] got that one for me and we just did it as we felt it should be done. Funnily enough in Australia reggae is quite big now, yet this was in the 60s when reggae wasn’t known. It’s quite unusual isn’t ‘it, how we got into reggae. I don’t know who produced that one; I’m just trying to remember … (shakes head). No, it’s just so long ago.
There’s a reggae group here called the All Nighters, and a couple of years ago they did a big show up at the Tivoli and they wanted me to do ‘Blue Beat’ with them. It was great. They all loved it, because they said, “Well, you’re one of the original reggae people we know of.” You know, I never really got into reggae after that.
Where did you get your look from? The mod style, the haircut, the Mary Quant look – you were very early with that.
Oh, yeah – that was mine. There was a girl in Auckland, a model called Jackie Holme – she was an English lady. I used to have a bouffant haircut – the rocker image – and she just got me and cut my hair in the back of a boutique that used to be there. She cut my hair and put on all these clothes, and away I went. The whole image completely changed. Gone was the Diane Jacobs image – Dinah Lee appeared. As soon as I got this new image it was a completely new character that sort of took me over all of a sudden. It was like, “Yes, this is good … I like this … this is me.” [Jackie Holme, a former girlfriend of Max Merritt, moved to Australia and became a top model. This image is a detail from a 1969 photo by David Mist.]
Did you decide to take show business more seriously then?
Oh no. Serious? It was just a hoot! The madder you could look the better. We used to paint freckles on our faces and wear the weirdest clothes and the shortest mini dresses when they came out. Everything. Whatever hit, we got it, and we started the trends.
You went to England in the mid-60s and mixed with the mods there …
I went to America first, in 1965, and then to England. I recorded Shindig, the television show in America, and then I did more TV and recorded some songs in England. I was on thank Your Lucky Stars, not Ready Steady Go because you had to have a hit record, it was like Countdown is here. I lived with Little Millie and her manager in London …
Didn’t Chris Blackwell manage her?
Yes, Chris Blackwell was her manager then, and he’s still got Island records – ‘My Girl Lollipop’ was one of his first records, I think.
Was Blackwell doing some work for you as well?
Yeah, he recorded me on Island. He of course had Little Millie … Jackie Wilson … Stevie Winwood and the Spencer Davis Group. I was in London through that period, meeting people like your Jane Ashers – who was going out with Paul McCartney – your Peter and Gordons and your Stevie Winwoods, Marianne Faithfull … they all used to come to the big parties we used to have. It was all Carnaby Street fashions. And then I used to have parties over here in Australia, and we used to invite all the overseas stars to them like the Byrds and the Yardbirds. Oh, just everybody that we knew back then.
The music industry was quite different then – less sophisticated.
It was completely different. Then, it wasn’t a business – it was like a big party. Because that’s what the 60s were – it was a whole new thing. Because all of a sudden you had the introduction of English sounds and mad things and kookie things, and mod. You were just insane. They get insane now, but it’s all been done. We did it – back then.
I remember you came back to New Zealand for a visit in about 1968: your arrival was covered by the local TV news …
During that period, of course, I did the Vietnam War twice. That was pretty horrific, but we got treated pretty well because we were entertainers. We’d do shows and have to go to hospitals and entertain people that had got blown up. I can tell you what – that was hard. And the first time we went up there we didn’t even have a band, we used backing tapes. The second time, I went up there with the big ABC orchestra, which was fantastic – singing rock’n’roll with a large orchestra was great … this was in the mid-60s.
In 1964 you moved to Australia. I suppose your migration was made easier than most because you’d already had a hit there.
I remember being on a tour in New Zealand with Max Merritt and the Meteors, and all of a sudden I heard ‘Don’t You Know Yockomo’ was No 1 in Australia, and I thought, “Wow! I’ve got a No 1” – I didn’t realise till I came over here what that really meant. I mean, I worked when I came over here. I was lucky, I had a hit, so I didn’t have to start at the bottom. I had hit records, I did all the TV shows, bookings all the time.
I was working 364 days a year type of thing. Okay, the realisation now is I wish I’d known a lot more than. I mean, I was very green – I got ripped off a lot, which most people in the 60s did – really ripped off. I mean, I should be very very rich now – I know in New Zealand alone, ‘Blue Beat’ sold 50-60,000 copies. In New Zealand! I mean, crazy. And I know all my albums … it just boggles my mind to think back at what I didn’t do, because you just didn’t know anything. Nowadays you have a business manager and an accountant and a public relations person – all these people who do all that and work for you, but back then you didn’t – you just trusted who it was that was looking after you.
It wasn’t until, like, 1970 that I realised that – hang on a minute – all these things went wrong. I’ve been making all this money – where is it? I got solicitors onto it, oh (sighs) we had a court case here – but a lot of things couldn’t be proved because it was just so long ago. It was only when I realised what you have to do that I started making money again – you’ve gotta do everything yourself. You’ve gotta learn, and I’ve learnt.
Also I’ve learnt, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a job or you haven’t, you don’t just go for any job. You’ve still got to keep a reputation, and you don’t let anyone take you down at all. You can’t afford to – because you’ve already done that for a start. I’ve had a good past though, and without a past you can’t have a future. I’ve done a lot – and I aim to do a lot more.
Your popularity in Australia was across the board, wasn’t it – you were a family act.
Yes, that’s because of the different venues. You did the rock venues and then the clubs were coming up, and to make money you did those as well. Ithink, in a way, it was a mistake that I did that – to go into that club scene. I should really have stuck to the mad rock scene. I took the safe way out. Okay, I did television and became a member of the Bandstand team over here – it was great career-wise, because my name was known all around Australia as it was in New Zealand.
By 1969 I came back to Australia after another trip to Britain. I was working around the clubs, interstate venues, pubs, upmarket nightclubs, that sort of thing. And in ’73 I went to Mexico city and did a Las Vegas revue for six months. They billed me as the big Aussie broad – there were all these American girl dancers and I was the girl rock singer in it – that was fun.
Then, back in Australia I joined up with Johnny O’Keefe – the late Johnny O’Keefe, he was to Australians what Elvis was to Americans, he was so big. We did shows all around Australia called ‘the Good Old Days of Rock & Roll’ – we put Johnny Devlin, Lonnie Lee, all these Australian people together. Cleaned up. That was fantastic, people hadn’t seen anything like it in a long time. JOK died in 1978 and I’ve been working since then doing clubs and interstate gigs. But now is the time for me to move. I’ve gotta move.
Doing the club circuit has meant you’ve had a long career …
But it was very safe, and now I’m looking to get out of that safe thing. I want to start all over again and do, like, rock’n’roll. I’ve got together with Johnny Dick, who used to drum for Max Merritt and the Meteors, and we’re now going to put together a band and just do really good rock.
What sort of material will you be doing?
Oh, a couple of old numbers, but mainly contemporary, today stuff. Because here in Australia there are a few groups kicking around that are into the 50s and 60s stuff. I’ve done all that, I want to do something different. I want to do, hey, this is me, now.
I’ve recorded a song which might come out in New Zealand. It’s by an American guy called tom Scott, who was with the LA Express. It’s called ‘He’s Too Young’ – it’s about, naturally, an older woman falling for a younger guy, which is all the rage. It seems alright, I’ll see how it turns out, but I do need a record. That’s a priority.
I’m going to go back to the rock scene, but in a little bit more upmarket way. I mean, Tina Turner did it. She’s come back, but she came out here a few times and did cabaret. And now she’s come back and she can do the Entertainment Centre – a bigger band, a bigger venue, but it’s still Tina Turner. That’s the same with me – I can still do it, but will do it now with a rock band, just fly into it.
Performing is something you’ll never be able to give up, isn’t it?
No. You see, I was a pioneer in the rock industry in Australia and New Zealand. We’re a little bit funny here, they go, “Oh God, is she still around? She’s still alive?” People forget – or they like to think, “Oh, you’ve been up there, I want to get you back down” … you’ve just got to get up there and do it. Not back up there, because I don’t consider myself as ever being down, I’ve just been doing other things.
You see I’m a worker, I love to perform and I know how to entertain people It doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 80, you’ve still got to entertain people.
We heard news that you won a prize for body building.
Yeah, that’s right. (laughs) Muscles – yeah, yeah (laughs). I got into that when I was about 35. As you roll along through life, you start looking at yourself and you think, now hang on a minute, you’re getting older, all these people are up and coming, you’ve just gotta start taking care. Cos in the 60s you just had fun – parties, booze … no drugs, cos you didn’t really know that much about drugs then. I mean the hippies were smoking pot and all that, but there were no real hard drugs. For us, bourbon and coke was like, “Wow, yeah, let’s get into bourbon and coke! And have a good time!”
But as you get older, you can’t do things like that. You see what happens to everybody, and you think, I don’t want to end up looking like that. I love the business and I want to do things. So I started getting out on the road and did a bit of running. I ran a lamp-post and collapsed at the next one. I was so unfit! But now I’m a gym junkie – that’s it, I’m gone. If I go away for a week, I think, “Oh! What am I going to do? I’m earning all this money, but I’m doing no gym!” But the money’s quite important too.
I ran for a couple of years and then I went to the gym and starting pumping iron, lifting just light weights, and I realised, I like this. I just went into that competition for a bit of fun, see how it went – it went well – and naturally got a lot of publicity out of it, which is great. Doesn’t hurt anybody. But I also wanted to prove that you’re not 40 and fat and forgettable. You can still say, hey, you’re a person, you’re still interesting and can still make it in what people put as a young scene. Because when you look at a lot of the big stars, even TV stars, they’re all getting on.
The win [Australian Women’s Body Building Champion, Over 35] got a lot of TV coverage here – Mike Willesee and the Today show and lots of newspapers and magazines. It’s funny, but there are all these young people, especially young girls of 18, 19, who say, “Oh, you’re the one who won the contest.” They don’t know I’m a singer – so it’s still kept the name there, which is important these days.
You’re very positive about your new direction.
You’ve gotta be, I’ve learnt that. Now I feel the time is right. Okay, I did it back then, but age doesn’t worry me – the people down there don’t care how old you are, as long as it’s good music. Which is great. Now there’s a trend here where they’re bringing back a lot of the older stars of the 60s. I think they’ll do it in New Zealand too, so maybe a tour, or a record – who knows?
How do you feel about the revival of mod fashions?
It’s funny, because we did it and had fun doing it, and the kids of today are exactly what we were like, except it’s harder for them today – the world’s harder. But you’ve gotta have a bit of fun and that’s what we did, and sure, I think it’s fun. I have a good laugh when I see kids in their little pointy-toed shoes and mini-skirts and Wow – it’s just like looking at myself 20 years ago. I think, “Yeah – I’ve done that.”
© Chris Bourke 1986
NZ On Screen has a four-minute Dinah Lee documentary here, which includes footage of her recording ‘Do the Blue Beat’. Meanwhile …