A man that is often in the presence of large gatherings of people, usually touring retirement villages with music that transports the minds of those listening to various decades of the past, surprisingly, doesn’t live in a densely populated suburb.
As his cheeks become rosy in colour, his white, manicured moustache smiles, “It’s my little oasis here. I don’t mind being here on my own. I enjoy my own company.”
After travelling long, winding dust and sandy roads, littered with house numbers every one-hundred metres and green pastures that hold the occasional horse, Lucky Starr’s home ‘Blueberry Hill’ is found situated comfortably on a forty-acre plot of land. Unlike the popular song that Fats Domino released in the 40s (Blueberry Hill), his home is named after the first business venture he and his late partner, Wendy, undertook. However, LIKE the song, he did find his ‘thrill on Blueberry Hill’.
But this story doesn’t begin at Blueberry Hill, but rather 60 years earlier, on a train. The train had just left Kingsgrove and was travelling towards the city. Sitting in one of the carriages was a young, moustache-less, twenty-year-old man by the name of Leslie William Morrison, his friends called him Les, for short.
Les was working as an apprentice electrician for the Brabon brothers in Sydney and would travel on the train each day. It was on this same train that he met fellow musicians Bruce Gurr who played the piano, and Tony Caperero who played the guitar. “I liked to sing and would often recite Spike Jones’ stuff, but both Tony and Bruce didn’t sing much or well”, Les laughed.
But just as Tony and Bruce didn’t sing, Les couldn’t play any instruments at the time either, so he asked Tony for some help. Five months later, Les was able to play about five different chords. His best mate at the time was a guy named Dave Taylor, who didn’t have much to do during the evenings, so Les said to him, “You can join our band”, before heading to the local music store and purchasing a bass guitar for Dave.
Les recalls, “We got Dave to learn the 12-bar blues in the key of E. He would continually play that, regardless of the key we played in. If it didn’t sound good, we just turned him down.”
For percussion and drums, they found Owen Smith, who played in jazz circles. Upon hearing that he would become a ‘rock n roll drummer’, Owen joined the band, and the Hepparays were formed. In ’59 they recorded one of the first Australian rock ‘n’ roll instrumental singles called ‘Christmas Rock Medley / I Remember Xmas at home’.
“I had to do something to get our head above the rest of the flowers”, said Les. The Sun newspaper had a page of comic strips, and one of the comics was an inclusion by Dale Messiek called ‘Brenda Starr’. “Ahh ha! That’s what I will change my stage name to”, thought Les, who would now be referred to as ‘Les Starr’. All the signage now included stars, but there was one statement piece that was missing. Elvis had the hair, outfits and the dance moves, Johnny cash wore all black which became synonymous with his image. Les Starr decided, “I will make a star shaped guitar. How hard could it be?”
Upon arriving on Park Street, Sydney, Les stood at the front of Harry Landis' music store. Les walked inside and examined a range of guitars before spotting an old Levin, a famous acoustic jazz guitar. “It had a ding in it, so I got it for a very cheap price”, recalled Les.
After arriving home, he cut the neck off the guitar with a saw, then bought a piece of wood and cut it in a star shape for the body. Owen’s (his drummer) dad was a cabinetmaker and cut the groove allowing the neck to correctly connect to the ‘star-shaped’ body, and also glued it together for Les.
A few pickups, wiring and splashes of paint later, it was done. It even featured a white scratch plate with his initials ‘LS’ engraved on the front.
“Sounded like hell on stage, dreadful sounding, but it looked good, and it impressed the girls”, said Les before laughing, “It was a good gimmick. Beast of a thing to play.” Whilst it looked good, Les recalls moments where he would stab the point of the star in his eyes when he would try and take it off. Since Les didn’t need to play any licks of melodic lines, he got away with the dreadful sound, often masked by Owen on the drums, Tony on lead guitar, Bruce on keys, and Dave playing the 12-bar blues in E. If it was a dance night, Les would start with the ‘star guitar’ before switching it over to his reliable Gibson; the guitar that actually sounded “good”.
Nestled on the corner of Railway Parade and Mona street in Allawah, South West of Sydney, rests the Allawah Hotel. Once you have won several talent quests in a row, it could be suggested that you are ‘lucky’, and in Les Starr’s case, it stuck.
Tony, Owen, Dave and the now renamed ‘Lucky’ Starr were performing at the Allawah Hotel, not as a hired band, but in yet another talent quest.
In the late 40s and the early 50s, the hotel put on the ‘Allawah Hotel Amateur Talent Quest’ where the winner would secure 50 pounds. Unlike the previous talent shows which won ‘Les and the Hepparays’ a packet of cigarettes, a few handkerchiefs or a tab at the bar, this quest would provide them with an audition with a record company for a potential contract. “It was my dream to record with them”, said Lucky, before mentioning other artists that were on their label. The same record company that had signed Johnny O’Keefe, Col Joye and the Joy Boys, and Dig Richards and the R’Jays, Festival Records.
Lucky said, “We were just a band of guys that loved music and showing off in front of the girls of course”. The competition was underway and after performing their chosen songs, the results came back: they had won! After a successful audition, Lucky was now officially on the Festival Records’ bill.
The first time Lucky heard the song that would change his career’s trajectory was in Kings Cross, waiting for his gig by the dancefloor. He was working downstairs in the basement, an area he describes as a ‘rat hole’, called Bill Vayda’s Afro Cuban bar, where shows began at 12 midnight.
“Kings Cross wasn’t like it is now; the red-light district and prostitution wasn’t as common, and drugs weren’t as popular either”, said Lucky.
A voice rang through the speakers singing, “Well, I was humpin' my bluey on the dusty Oodnadatta road, when along came a semi with a high and canvas-covered load”. Lucky stopped what he was doing and carefully listened to the lyrics as they continued. Then, he heard 93 different Australian suburbs rattled off in under a minute.
Lucky walked over to Geoff Mack, who was catching his breath. Geoff was the writer and singer of the song.
Lucky asked, “Can I record it?”
Very graciously, Geoff said, “Yes you can”, since Lucky already had the contract with Festival Records. It was a slow burn, taking three weeks to reach number 1, but when it did, ‘I’ve been Everywhere’ stayed in the number 1 in Australia for 15 weeks. Lucky says that it is easy to remember if you can recall the first word of each verse, “Done it so often. As long as I can remember the first word of each verse, the rest of them tumble out afterwards.”
Lucky and Geoff also recorded a U.K. version, American version (which would eventually be covered by Johnny Cash), and NZ version. However, the New Zealand version was the hardest one to record, taking a full day to record the single track. Lucky recalls, “We had to record each verse separately to make sure that it sounded correct. I could never do that one live”, before chuckling, “I was the first Australian rap star”.
Christmas 1965 hit differently, as Lucky star stood on a military base in Vietnam. However, instead of being positioned on the base as a soldier, he was there, under his own steam to support and entertain the Australian troops. On a makeshift stage that had been put together with slats of wood and a trailer, Lucky stood with eyes looking out to a sea of soldiers. Behind Lucky was an array of hanging blankets in varying shades and colours, with two speakers emerging from beneath the fabric on the sides.
He was at a place called the Ettamogah Hotel, which was an army tent made from salvaged materials and designed as a safe place to drink canned beers and cokes with comrades, rather than travelling to Vung Tau’s local bars. Lucky often wore an outfit that was juxtaposed by the troops’ uniforms. His formal polished shoes, black business trousers which looked freshly pressed, and short sleeves shirts. Surprisingly, on top of his head was an item that didn’t match, his bucket hat. “It’s a bush hat, that’s what we they are called in Vietnam”, says Lucky.
“They were some of the best and the worst times of my life”, said Lucky. During one incident, a rocket was sent over the base and set off a site of Surface Air Missiles which hadn’t been programmed. The Surface Air Missiles ignited and flew around until they fell back to earth. “Nearly took out those on the base”, said Lucky.
As of 2021, the man who has sung the song ‘I’ve been everywhere’ 3,016 times, has in fact not been ‘everywhere’. Lucky laughs saying, “I have been to them all, except three. I can’t tell you which three they are though.” While the song is still a hit amongst the crowds he performs to, it is getting harder to sing as he ages. Since the song requires you to sing 12-bars in a single breath, he has to time the song perfectly so that he doesn’t take a breath during a verse. “It is due to less control over your diaphragm…. mainly because of this”, before lifting up his hand and smacking his palm against his stomach.
Currently, back at Blueberry Hill, Lucky is on his iPad sifting through his backing tracks whilst singing the “Ba doo doo, dum da da’s” of the 60s song ‘Five foot, two’. “There are really good backing tracks you can buy, and mine would be ‘ok’, so I buy the good ones”, said Lucky, who is sitting at a round, timber table, surrounded by a dark, wooden interior.
His house was purchased in the 80s as a kit home: racing green roof, and an interior and exterior without a lick of paint, the only colours visible are echoed through the wood grain. Two country hats sit precariously on a stone-carved Buddha that rest on a pedestal, underneath a timber staircase that used to lead to the music studio. His studio is now found in his office titled ‘The Danger Zone’.
A custom Tompkins guitar sits nestled in a hardcase. It appears to have been forged from Australian Red cedar and silky oak, and chosen from a '1960s catalogue' based on its traditional style. At least there were no sharp 'star' points that could threaten Lucky's vision.
Out of its case on a stand, Lucky points to an acoustic, “This a Guild, quite a famous brand of American guitar. This used to be Digby Richards’ guitar. Lovely singer.” The walls of ‘The Danger Zone’ showcase memorable photographs of performances in Vietnam, on stage with his children, or album covers. A caricature of Lucky by Bill Ren sits next to his desk, which is littered with an assortment of notes and a ukulele tucked to the side. In the dining room, eleven different pots rest on his kitchen bench, each with lavender flowers and rich purple African violets. “Don’t get much involved with music when I’m here. I have a little ceramics business up there. I don’t make cups and saucers. Have you seen my bonsai?”, Lucky asks, before picking up his tea and walking outside.
After walking over a red Japanese-inspired bridge and up a slight incline through his garden, he stops and turns before gazing towards two rows of Bonsai. Seventy-nine plants in total, all grown from seedlings. Each plant pot is two feet by two feet, housing a large, carefully, manicured plant. At the end of his driveway, is a large darkened two-car garage, which holds the equipment of Lucky’s supplementary passion; ‘pottery’.
“I started making them because I couldn’t buy pots big enough for my trees. So, I built a kiln and started making my own pots”, said Lucky. Inside his ‘Pottery Shed’, expansive, metal tables hold detailed, custom-made moulds, and prominently centred are three glass jars all with green liquid inside – but glaze in blue, pink and green. Around the space, previous pottery designs sit nestled on shelves covered in dust and cobwebs which haven’t moved since they were fired a decade ago. Pointing to a shelf on his left, Lucky says, “Those are trophies I made for a Melbourne Cup party. They were designed to weigh down balloons. We made thousands.”
Not every singer can entertain, not every entertainer can sing, however, Lucky Starr is a mixture of both: he can sing, and he can definitely entertain through humorous anecdotes and songs. The same passion he has had for people during his career, whether it be performing for soldiers during the Vietnam War, singing in a talent quest with a band of mates, or creating ceramics in his Pottery Shed for charitable causes, the people that get to share in Lucky’s life walk away eternally grateful.
Looking back at his career, Lucky Starr says, “I would have liked to have more hit records. But I’m very thankful that I had ONE.”