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BILLY THORPE & THE AZTECS
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Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs
"I took my first breathe on March 29th, 1946 in Manchester England, but life really began for me when I heard "Sur la du pont Paris" ("Under the bridges of Paris") on the radio in Blackpool England when I was 3 or 4 years old. Somehow that syrupy, sentimental French love song with its accordions and Mantovanni style strings got inside my 4 year old head and I was hooked. From that moment I couldn't get enough of music. Any music. I loved it and it was in 1956 in a tiny church hall on the fringes of Brisbane Australia that my own music career got its start. I played my first gig at the age of 10 and within 6 months was performing regularly on local TV and doing gigs.

I was discovered in the classic Hollywood sense while playing guitar and singing in the store room behind one of my parents local stores on Fegan Drive in Moorooka which was then a sleepy little Brisbane suburb at the end of the line. The Beaudesert road tramline that is. By fate, luck or the grace of God, one afternoon a woman came into one of the shops looking for directions and heard me wailing and strumming a Hank William's tune in the storeroom out back. There were three shops and it was the fruit shop I think. The woman just happened to be prominent Brisbane variety booking agent Gwen Iliffe. Her husband, Jim Iliffe, just happened to be the new host of a new QTQ Channel 9 Brisbane children's TV show "The Channel Niners" and QTQ9 just happened to be having auditions for the new show. Gwen left her card with my mum. I auditioned a week later at the "La Boheme" restaurant in Brisbane, got the gig and a contract. And off I went.

I later found out that Gwen Illiffe was looking for the address of Mrs Mary Saint Ledger an incredible boogie-woogie piano player who lived with her family just around the corner from us. Mary often did duets with the legendary pianist Winifred Atwell. She was a killer player who could have stood toe to toe with Jerry Lee. That's Mary at the piano in the photo taken at my first ever gig which was at St Mary's hall in Moorooka. That's my Dad and a bit of my Mum behind me. Bless them both. Mary organized that gig for me. Bless her too. She was a saint. My one regret in life is that I didn't learn to play piano when Mary offered to teach me. I had a couple of lessons with her but my hands were so small at the time it just didn't feel right. Besides, Hank Williams and Eddie Cochran played guitar Daddy-O. As a result of my TV exposure I started to get bookings at various gigs around Brisbane. I played on bills with belly dancers, regurgitationists, jugglers, whip crackers, magicians, plate spinners, adagio dancers and knife throwers. Even played country music for a while doing Hank Williams and yodelling Slim Whitman on TV shows and in the tents with Reg Lindsay and Slim Dusty. Reg sold me my first real electric guitar. A Gretch Country Gentleman. Because of my age, by the laws of the day a child wasn't allowed to perform after 9 PM or on licensed premises, there weren many gigs I could take. I was in demand. My parents were cool with the whole idea because Gwen was looking after me, so to avoid the ever vigilant "child protection agents" who lurked like the KGB at venues and unceremoniously carted me off stage a couple of times, I was given a non de plume. I became, daaa daaa - "Little Rock Allen"- "Australia's youngest rock n roller". Jesus what a moniker. Still don't know who came up with that little gem but I appeared under it at many gigs during that period. See the ad for "Cloudland Ballroom". Still proud of headlining that classic and legendary old venue at eleven years of age.

Sometime around 1957 or 58 I met a bunch of guys in their mid to late twenties who had a band called the Planets. This was a world class, classic, fifties, rock n roll band, baritone sax and all, who ran their own gigs, and played on local TV. From time to time they backed visiting Aussie stars of the day such as Col Joye and JOK and occasionally the odd international act such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. And the Planets occasionally backed Little rock Allen. Somehow The Planets and Little Rock Allen jelled and through that regular association and their standing in the Brisbane rock scene, from the age of eleven I got to be around, stand in the wings and listen, watch rehearsals, be in the dressing rooms and occasionally play on the same stages with many of the worlds rock n roll giants. What a childhood. Its still like dream to me. Moorooka State School and later Salisbury High during the day and Rock n' Roll High school at night.

The Planets ran a regular Saturday night gig called "Birdland" with top local 4BC DJ Brian Atkinson who became compare of the Channel 7 teenage TV show "Tean Beat" on which I also became a regular and the Planets the backing band. Birdland is where I learnt most of what I know about showmanship and music. And a good deal about life. I was an only child and the Planets became my surrogate big brothers who introduced me to all the finer things in life such as rock n' Roll, R&B, beer and, via a girl twice my age one night after a Birdland gig, at twelve years of age I discovered their was a lot more to sex than me and a "Post" centrefold. Birdland was a huge turn of the century second story ballroom in the heart of Brisbane which had a common wall with a pub next door and the beer came up in a waiters lift to a window right next to the stage. I had my first beer from that trolley. I practically lived there and we often played cricket after the gigs on the dance floor. Incredible nights of rock n roll, lunacy and friendship for anyone of any age. But for a pre teen, aspiring rocker in Brisbane in the late 1950's it was Paradise. For the respect and friendship those guys showed me at such a young age I owe the Planets a debt of gratitude I can never repay. I was never treated like the kid. Without realizing it they mentored and coached me into being a performer and what I learned being around, listening and playing with them and the artists they worked with has stayed with me all my life. When I was 15 I talked my parents, who had been phenomenally understanding and supportive of my bizarre musical life, into letting me accompany the piano player Steve Neil on a drive to Sydney. I fell in love with Sydney, discovered the Cross and auditioned with Channel 9 Sydney which led to an offer to perform on "The Jimmy Hannon Show" which was very popular national TV show at that time.

Back in Brisbane I accidentally ended up as one half of a duo with another young singer by the name of Peter James who also appeared regularly on local TV and at gigs. One night at Birdland we did an impromptu version together of the Isley brothers hit "shout", which had been made popular in Australia by JOK. We were a smash and for a while performed exclusively as a duo. I left home at the age of 16 and peter and I moved to Sydney. Peter was from Sydney and we moved in with his parents and hit the agents as soloists and as a duo. We clicked with both and made a couple of appearances as a duo and as soloists on the Jimmy Hannon show. During that time I entered a talent quest at an old converted picture theatre in Kings Cross. Which had become the leading surf music venue in Australia and appropriately named "Surf City". Peter and I won the audition, the prize for which was a trip to New Zealand to perform at Surf City in Auckland. But there was a hitch. They could only afford to send one of us. And here's where fate deals you a hand or doesn't. Peter and I flipped a coin and I won. Well it seemed like I'd won at the time. I ended up singing and demonstrating the stomp at Surf City in Auckland performing 2 shows a night, 5 nights a week until the venue folded two weeks after I arrived leaving me stranded in New Zealand at the age of 16 with no money and no return ticket. I had to literally eat my way out of town and back to Sydney by eating a dozen hamburgers with the lot as a bet. That's a long story. In fact its my first book "Sex and thugs and rock n roll". I'll be posting excerpts from it starting next month. Upon my eventual return to Sydney 4 months later the duo was no more. I auditioned once again at Surf City. This time with a young surf band called the Aztecs. Eight months later Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs had the number one record in the country and played our first major concert to 60,000 people in Melbourne. (See the 60's portfolios also situated in this gallery.)

I had many photos of those early Brisbane days but unfortunately most were destroyed in a flood in Los Angeles in 1978. Hope you enjoy what survived. If anyone out there has any photos of those days I'd love to get copies.

[Thorpie]



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