Guitar Lessons

Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington, cried Noel Coward. Don’t send your son to guitar lessons was probably more apt for my mother. She didn’t, and I wouldn’t have gone, being of that rebellious age, determined to decide my own musical career. However, after a year or two of bashing barré chords, and attempting to play punishing pentatonic solos, I acquiesced. I’d heard that an old guy who once played guitar in Sydney had arrived in town.

Like moths to the flame, every guitarist in Townsville made an appointment to see Charlie Lees. My first encounter with Charlie consisted of me turning up at his house, his wife calling out to him, and him appearing in shorts, t-shirt and thongs. The second lesson I made the mistake of asking him about diminished chords. He launched into a diatribe such that to this day I haven’t heard the likes of. It took me many years to understand what that lesson was about.

I went back to my rock’n’roll band with nothing more than a high and mighty impression of a bigger sort of music. It took six years on the road, from Townsville to Perth and back to realise that Charlie had held all the clues all along. By that time it was too late. He’d gone out fishing in his boat, and whether it was too many beers, or too rough weather, or divine intervention, Charlie checked out and went to the Jazz Club in the sky. He was a trooper, an original, possibly the first real jazz guitarist in Australia. He was also the resident guitarist in this long-serving band at the Trocadero.

I later studied with George Golla and Don Andrews, jazz guitarists of the highest calibre. They remembered Charlie Lees. As they opened my eyes musically, I realised that Charlie could have taught me the same stuff, if I’d been ready for it.

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30 responses to “Guitar Lessons

  1. regrets or appreciation of enlithement wisdom? or both? love ooxx

  2. Both, thanks for your comment

  3. Well, Gig that struck a chord. No pun intended. I took a few lessons, which bored me shitless,due no attention span at that age, so I blundered on and learned from chord books. If I’d persisted, I may well have been a full time muso, instead of a part time Tweep, but that’s life………

  4. Hi Gig,

    Interesting post. I am another of Charlie’s old students. I used to go to lessons at his house in Currajong (?) in the early to mid 70s, and they consisted mainly of him trotting out some riffs with a half-done cig drooping from his lower lip. I got my first electric, an Ibanez Les Paul copy, and my my first amp, a Randall solid-state job, from him. My brother learned piano from him as well. His wife’s name was Shirley. I heard of his mishap not too long after he went ‘fishing.’ Some time later I ran into Shirley walking in the Mall. She was still shaken about what happened and didn’t know what to do with his old National guitars an some LPs he had played on. I told her to keep ’em. Hope she did. They would be worth a pretty penny now. I played on and off for a few years and when I went back to uni in 82 I payed my way as a muso. These days I live in Canada, I have a nice guitar collection and jam with friends regularly. I lived in Hong Kong before moving to Canada and played regularly in pubs there with other expats. I still have some of the original music books he wrote out for me. They are very treasured as are my memories of lessons with Charlie. Thanks for your post. I hope his memory endures. Cheers, Greg

  5. justin andrew lees

    my name is justin lees charlie is my grandad iam trying to get as much information as i can havent even heard any of his music yet

    • Hi Justin, I was also a student of your grandfather’s for a few years. Let me know if you are still around. I can fill you in with what i remember about Charlie, Regards, Michael

  6. Hi Justin,
    I don’t have much more info on your grandfather other than noted on my blog. I know of a couple of guitarists who studied under him in Townsville. I’ll forward those addresses to you when I find them. I have some music on CD. Once again, I’ll forward mp3s when I find the CD.

    All the best, keep in touch, your granddad was an inspiration to many guitarists and a trailblazer in Australian guitar music.

    • thank you very much that would be awesome very much appreciated. Date: Sat, 22 Dec 2012 17:43:10 +0000 To: pankcake@msn.com

    • Hi Justin, I was also a student of Charlie in the 70’s, but that’s another story. I’ve always wanted to get hold of a copy of Charlie playing, if you still have copies and are willing?

    • Sorry, That was meant for GD. Even if you could let me know the name of the CD. Cheers, Michael

      • Hi Michael, it was a CD of the Trocadero Orchestra in Sydney. I found it at a library. Frank Coughlin was the band leader. You can’t hear Charlie playing, as was the style in the big bands. He was most likely on acoustic or slightly amplified acoustic guitar.

        As George Golla told me, ‘you couldn’t hear the guitar so much as feel it’.

  7. I too went took guitar lessons from Charlie Lees for many years. It was in 1960 that I started, as a 10 year old. The only reason he found a vacancy for me was that he was living with my 1/2 sister (Daphne) at the time. I continued with Charlie for years until he finally left Townsville. I remember one day (I guess I was 11 or so) asking him to teach me all of the “pretty chords and runs” that he would play for me. Up to that stage he was teaching me The Shadows (for which I am eternally grateful – set me up with plectrum technique). I remember him looking at me, smiling, and saying “That will take you many years”. Anyway, eventually he left Townsville for years, finally returning to live in Currajong. By this time, I had grown up, and had continued with guitar. This time, by co-incidence he had partnered with another of my relatives, this time from my Mum’s side – a lady called Shirley. Charlie and I became very firm friends at this stage, and we had endless long conversations about his life, his music, jazz of course, and his plans for the future. I’ll mention that at this stage we did have these advanced jazz lessons, promised so many years ago. Of interest, I clearly remember Charlie telling me that one day he would take his boat to sea, and would never be heard of again. I don’t know if he actually died at sea or not, however it would not surprise me if he lived out his life in the Torres Strait or similar.In my mind he was a musical genius. To this day I still have his hand written manuscripts dating from 1960. Some of the later ones are seriously complicated arrangements, written in minutes from his head, while I watched on in amazement. To hear him play was both a pleasure and a privilege. To this day, in my mind he was the best.

    • hey kevin just wondering what your last name is as i have been talking to my father charlies son mark.he asked me to ask you what your last name would be

      • Hi Justin. I remember your father and his siblings well. I’m sure he knows who I am. Last name starts with “G”. I’m a bit reluctant to put heaps of personal info on the internet, but I would love to catch up with your dad sometime, if possible. Your Grandfather was an amazing man, and had a major influence on me in my younger years. In my humble opinion, he was by far the best jazz guitarist to ever come out of Australia, and that includes all of those contemporary players who may be more well known. Over the years I have run into some of the musicians who worked with him in the early years in Sydney, and they indeed share my opinion.

    • Hi Kevin, I had a similar experience with Charlie, in the 70’s, albeit without the family connections of course. He was The Master. I saw him play twice, I remember; once at the old Pony Club near Cluden and at Panorama House on Castle Hill in Townsville. Yes, I’m sure he ended up further up the Nth Qld coastline. Apparently,from memory, his last words to his next door neighbour fishing mate, who was going to meet up with him, were, “… I’ll see you in New Guinea”.

      • Hi Michael, I’ve done some more research on Charlie’s disappearance. It seems, unfortunately, that foul play is suspected, although the Police could not solve it completely, nor find his body. Apparently he was cooking on a trawler in the gulf country when he decided to take his tinny crabbing up one of the rivers. That was the last anybody saw of him, however they did find his boat. Conjecture is that he may well have accidentally come across some unsavory chaps on that trip. I’ll keep you up to date if I can find out more information.

        • Hi Kevin, That’s really strange as I was told he put his tinny in at The Bohle River, in Townsville. His next door neighbour claims that he was going to take the boat trailer further up the coast to meet Charlie. That was when he said, “I’ll see you in New Guinea!”. One day while I was having a guitar lesson with Charlie, he’d had a major disagreement with his wife. He sat down next to me with an angry look on his face; the only time I’d ever seen him in that mood. He said to me, “One day I’m going to get in my boat and disappear”. So, when I’d heard that he’d done just that, I wasn’t surprised. My partner tells me that, when she was living outside Cooktown in the 90’s, she had heard of a Charlie Lees that was in Cooktown; a musician. I said that was odd. If he wanted to “disappear”, then picking up a guitar, even for 5 minutes, would have insured that the whole district would have known about it. Charlie was not a good guitarist, he was a master. I’m going to follow that Cooktown thread up when I can and let you know..

          • Hi Michael, He said exactly the same thing to me. His wife was actually my cousin, and I sure do remember their volatile relationship. For many years I thought exactly as you – that he just decided to disappear. Very recently one of my very good friends since school filled me in on some of the details. This friend of mine was extremely good friends with one of Charlie’s sons, who I also knew as a young man. Charlie’s son told him that the trawler was owned by the son (or sons), and Charlie was on the trawler with them apparently cooking for them. Anyway, apparently one day Charlie decided to go crabbing, or maybe fishing in the tinny, and disappeared up a creek. That was the last anybody heard of him. The police did find his tinny, and I think it’s been assumed that he probably ran into bad types who harmed him. I think I have relayed the story to the best of my recollection. I’d like to catch up with his son Anton, or Mark – and ask them directly. Charlie to this day is still my hero. Quite simply a freak, whether on guitar, banjo, or vibes – and a very good drummer also. Please do let me know if you turn up anything. Cheers

            • Hi Kevin, A long time, and a couple of laptops, since I’ve seen this thread. I thought I might catch up. I know of you and Charlie did mention you a few times. In fact, I think you played with one of my brothers at one time. Are you ever in Townsville? My email address is mjcussen@internode.on.net. If you are inclined, I’d enjoy meeting and catching up on Charlie. Cheers.

  8. Hi guys, thanks for your comments about the great Charlie Lees. Some of our comments have been quoted here by another Charlie Lees fan.

  9. PS I’ll up-date my links as they have broken. Also I have a few more pics now. Got to keep the memory alive.

    • what sort of photos do u have I might have some different ones and some different information iam going to get in contact with dads brother anton lees apparently Shirley lees has scrapbooks of him which I wouldn’t mind having a look at I had a slim dusty interview about him which iam trying to find as well

      • Charlie loaned his scrapbooks to me for a couple of weeks at one stage. Then when I brought them back he went through them with me and told the stories behind many of the photos and newspaper articles. Those scrapbooks are amazing. Well worth looking at. Please pass on my regards to Shirley (my cousin).

  10. Thanks, guys for keeping this thread going for so long. The original post was 2010. I’ll find out how to make this thread a separate blog. Please continue contributing.

    Here’s some history..

  11. Charlie often spoke to me about his time at the Trocadero. He enjoyed that time. One of his favourite stories is one night something happened to the drummer, and Charlie played drums for the night. Apparently the other musicians were pleasantly surprised that he was a very good drummer. In fact Charlie played Guitar, Drums, Vibes and Banjo extremely well. While best known as a great jazz guitarist, I personally loved listening to his 4 mallet work on vibes.

  12. If anyone is still reading this, I was probably one of the last few people to talk to Charlie. This was at the Marlin Jetty in Cairns, prior to his departure.
    I had played with him in Sydney at the Texas Tavern, where he was playing banjo with Heather Pitt and Ronnie Carson. I am trying to track down media taken of those performances. What confuses me is that he was listed among the top 10 guitarists in the world in Downbeat, 1954, I think (I have seen that edition). So why isn’t there any recordings? He was a contemporary of Ike Isaacs, I’ll see if the Isaacs know of any recordings.
    Otherwise I know nothing more than what has already been said.

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