On my recent visit to the Sydney Jewish Museum to experience the exhibition Jukebox Jewkbox! A Century on Shellac and Vinyl I was interested in how the Sydney Jewish Museum has explored the technology of recorded music. The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences holds many similar examples of these objects, and it is great to see them exhibited in this context.
Another crossover of the collections of MAAS and SJM is the documentation of the artists and promoters in Australia’s music industry. Two people featured in Jukebox Jewkbox! caught my attention – promoter Lee Gordon, and musician Debora Conway; both of whom are people in the Australian Jewish community who had a great impact on the music industry. And both are features of the MAAS and SJM collections. I was interested to find out how these people are important in the context of Jukebox Jewkbox! So, I again had a conversation with Shannon Biederman, curator at the Sydney Jewish Museum.
The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences has documented the career of 1950s and 1960s entertainment promoter Lee Gordon with collections of material related to his management business. MAAS holds photographs and programs from the office of Lee Gordon’s company, Big Show. These include Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Johnnie Ray and Harry Belafonte. The tour by Bill Haley and His Comets in January 1957 was the first of many rock ‘n’ roll tours promoted by Lee Gordon. Another highlight of MAAS’s performing arts collection is the costumes worn by Australia’s original rocker Johnny O’Keefe – whose career was greatly helped by Gordon.
DM: Shannon, can you talk a little bit more about Lee Gordon, and why it was important to include him in Jukebox Jewbox!; and also how Gordon is regarded by Australia’s Jewish community?
SB: Members of the community interested in music are certainly aware of Gordon, in fact, it is through them that I came to learn about him. Gordon certainly wasn’t religious, to say the least, nor was he involved in the community. I think quite the opposite, he was worried about being seen as a ‘Jew’ and there is anecdotal evidence that he concerned about having a ‘Jewish nose’. His immense impact on the Australian music scene is undeniable, which is why we wanted to include him, but also looking at others who came after, such as Michael Coppel, another promoter who brings out huge international acts. An interesting connection, Johnny O’Keefe, who was very close to Gordon was signed by Festival Records, which was founded by Paul Cullen, who was very involved with the Jewish community.
Musician Deborah Conway is another person featured in Jukebox Jewbox! whose career has been documented by MAAS. Conway is a prolific performer who has made a successful career for herself not only in the music industry, but also as a model and actress. The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences holds in its collection Deborah’s beautiful Astro-Jet electric guitar, made by Gretsch. The Astro-Jet is an interesting guitar as an object, along with having been owned and played by Deborah Conway. In 1964 Gretsch guitars wanted to create a hip, space-age image with their new, modern guitar design. They chose to name the model the Astro-Jet, inspired by the television cartoon The Jetsons!
DM: Can you to tell me more about Deborah Conway, particularly her contribution to Australian music, and how her identification as a Jewish woman has helped shape her career?
SB: Conway’s Jewish and musical identities are intertwined. She has made huge contributions to the Australian music scene since the 1980’s, but it wasn’t until her later albums Stories of Ghosts and Everybody’s Beginning that she explores Jewish themes. These latter two albums were done with her partner of 25 years, Willy Zygier, with whom she not only shares a career but three children. He is also from a Jewish family, though they describe themselves as “atheists who are very Jewish’’. They are involved in the Australian-Jewish music scene as co-curators of Shir Madness, the Jewish Music festival.
Jukebox Jewkbox! A Century on Shellac and Vinyl is on display at the Sydney Jewish Museum until January 2020.