As a bandleader, singer and musician in the late 1940s and 1950s, Les Welch brought the sounds of popular jazz and blues to Sydney’s dancehalls and nightclubs. He developed a reputation for his piano playing, his vocal style and a repertoire that mixed rhythm & blues, trad jazz, boogie-woogie and pop. Hailed as the ‘King of Swing’ and the ‘Original King of Rock ’n’ Roll’, he was a prolific recording artist and a driving force behind the early success of Australia’s largest independent record company, Festival Records.
Leslie Welch was born the youngest of five sons at Newcastle-on-Tyne on 6 August 1925. He was a toddler when his parents David and Lilian (nee Mitchell) brought the family to Australia and settled in Gladesville.
Welch taught himself to play piano by correspondence. After attending Fort St Boys High, he enrolled at university but was bitten by the music bug. His talents were first noticed in 1941, as he played piano and sang the blues at parties. The departure of musicians to the armed forces and war industries created opportunities for underage players like Welch to gain professional experience in nightclubs. He was still a teenager when he was hired by the American Red Cross to entertain US servicemen. He performed with his band at War Loan rallies, notably one held in Kings Cross to a crowd of 20,000.
In 1946 the news spread about the young pianist at the California coffee shop, where Welch was joined by some of Sydney’s top instrumentalists. Regular gigs followed at town hall dances, society gatherings and Swing Club sessions for radio station 2KY. Soon he was receiving top billing at jazz concerts and embarking on interstate tours. He led his band at night spots like the Stork Club at Sylvania, Sammy Lee’s at Woollahra and the Roosevelt at Kings Cross. In April 1948 he was voted ‘King of Swing’ at a Sydney Town Hall concert, outpolling the formidable bandleader Frank Coughlan.
Welch liked to tell how he staged ‘the first jazz concert at the Conservatorium’. He recalled that ‘Jazz was forbidden at the Conservatorium. When I filled in the form to hire the hall, I wrote “piano recital” but I omitted to say it was a boogie-woogie one’.
As the big band swing era came to a close, Welch was ahead of the game, assembling smaller combos to keep audiences dancing. Although his band had various names and the personnel was fluid, he always engaged top-notch musicians. A limited pianist himself, his strengths lay in his ability to present a song and in his ear for new sounds. When he made a surprise appearance at the 1950 Australian Jazz Convention at Ashfield Town Hall, Tempo magazine reported that ‘the dyed-in-the-wool mouldy figs were cynical of Les’s blues with a modern touch, but he received a terrific ovation from the audience’.
He was suspicious of the overseas trend for modern jazz to be performed to seated audiences in concert halls. His own performances reflected a commitment to the more danceable sounds of rhythm & blues and boogie-woogie. Reviewers praised his showmanship, describing young fans jumping in their seats and howling for more.
In 1949 Welch scored a double-sided hit with ‘Cigareets, Whusky and Wild, Wild Women’/’Elevator Boogie Blues’. He was lured into signing a lifetime contract with the Australian Record Company (ARC) and, by 1952, had already cut over 200 songs and released a large number of 78rpm discs on ARC’s Pacific label. Through his contacts at local music publishing houses, he became familiar with the latest American hit records that were unreleased in Australia. His trumpet player Wally Norman would transcribe the arrangements, and Welch would record the songs with local singers such as Larry Stellar, Edwin Duff, Georgina De Leon, Joan Robey or Pamela Jopson. Often he handled the vocal duties himself, with an effortless delivery and a savvy attitude.
For three years from the late 1940s he hosted his own unscripted weekly radio program on 2SM, The Les Welch Show. He starred in a lavishly filmed cinema advertisement for Kriesler radios. In 1950 Pix magazine described him as a ‘new bobby-sox idol’.
On hearing Welch’s recording of the blues standard ‘Outskirts of Town’, the American jazz singer Helen Humes assumed the singer to be black. Welch later served as an accompanist to Humes, and to other visiting rhythm & blues artists like LaVerne Baker, Big Joe Turner and Mabel Scott, with whom he recorded four songs, including ‘Mabel’s Blues’ and ‘Boogie Woogie Santa Claus’.
Welch left ARC to help establish a new Australian company, Festival Records. In November 1952 Festival released its first record, a 78rpm single titled ‘Meet Mr Callaghan’ by Les Welch & His Orchestra. In 1953 his album Tempos de Barrelhouse, released as a 10 inch LP on Festival’s Manhattan label, was one of the very first 33rpm microgroove records by an Australian artist.
As artist and repertoire manager, Welch selected and directed the company’s early recordings. In 1955 his version of ‘A Man Called Peter’, with vocals by Darryl Stewart, became the first locally produced 45rpm hit, selling well over 100,000 copies for Festival.
It was also in 1955 that Welch brilliantly gazumped EMI by negotiating with the US label Decca for Festival to secure the Australian rights to Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’. By October the following year it had sold an extraordinary 144,000 copies, rescuing Festival Records from financial troubles. Welch proudly retained the telegram from Decca granting a licence to release the record, and eventually donated it to the Powerhouse Museum with other memorabilia from his career.
He had long been playing a style of rhythm & blues that foreshadowed rock ’n’ roll. This was acknowledged in October 1957 when Welch was described as the ‘Original King of Rock ’n’ Roll’ in the advertising for Bill McColl’s Jazzorama, a concert that introduced the rising stars Johnny O’Keefe and Col Joye. This billing would have surprised none of the fans who had followed his musical development since the 1940s when, Welch always maintained, he had starting using the term ‘rock tempo’. In 1957 he tried his hand at cutting contemporary rock ’n’ roll material for ARC’s Prestige label. These recordings (‘Hound Dog’, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’, ‘Peggy Sue’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’) usually come up in dinner party debates about what was Australia’s first rock ‘n’ roll record.
However it would devalue his musical achievements to define his significance purely as a precursor to Australian rock ’n’ roll. He showed remarkable breadth and versatility, recording material that ranged from old-fashioned novelty songs like ‘I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’, to the raucous jump boogie of Louis Jordan’s ‘Saturday Night Fish Fry’, to the urbane blues of ‘Snatch and Grab It’.
With the arrival of television in Australia, Welch left Festival Records to lead the studio orchestra at Sydney’s Channel 7. His career was interrupted in 1958 when a motor car reversed into him at high speed on Pitt St. Severely injured, he remained out of action for years. Returning to television, he worked for Reg Grundy in the production of game shows and developed other business interests. His music was heard on the soundtrack to the 1978 film Newsfront.
In 2001 Welch gave a lively performance at the opening of the Powerhouse Museum’s exhibition Spinning Around: 50 Years of Festival Records. It was fitting that Festival’s first recording artist should provide the evening’s entertainment. The exhibition did something to acknowledge his place in musical history. In the end, Les Welch outlasted Festival and most of his contemporaries. He is survived by his brother Gordon and nephew David.
Written by Peter Cox, Curator