Music performance costume, 'Ink Spots', cotton / metal, made and used by Les Welch, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1950-1957
This performance costume has significance as an illustration of the versatility and career of the Sydney musician Les Welch. It was worn many times by Welch during a comedy skit in which he parodied the American vocal group the Ink Spots, by singing their song 'I'd Climb the Highest Mountain'.
The Ink Spots were a black American vocal group who released a number of hit records in the 1940s. They generally sang Tin Pan Alley pop songs, with the lead taken by Bill Kenny's high tenor, and often with a spoken verse from bass vocalist Hoppy Jones. Among their hits were 'We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me), 'Java Jive', 'I'm Making Believe', 'Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall' and 'To Each His Own'.
Welch's performances often included comedy routines, sometimes with the help of Frank Strain and Keith Petersen. One skit included dressing up as the 'Andrews Sisters' (Welch, Arthur Guildford and Jock McKenna). At a Conservatorium jazz concert he included a half hour segment taken from an old comedy play called 'A Fruity Melodrama or The Doings Up at the Hall'.
In the 1940s and 1950s, as a bandleader, singer, pianist and recording artist, Les Welch brought the sounds of rhythm & blues to Sydney's dancehalls and nightclubs. His talents were first noticed during World War II, and he was still a teenager when recruited to perform for the American Red Cross. When the war ended Welch obtained regular gigs at town hall dances and night spots. He developed a reputation for his piano playing, his 'blues shouting' vocal style and a repertoire that combined boogie-woogie, dixieland, blues and jump R&B. In April 1948 he was voted 'King of Swing' at a Sydney Town Hall concert. The first of his appearances at the Sydney Conservatorium, in 1949, is thought to be the first complete jazz concert held there. He became a star of the Sydney live scene, leading his band at night spots like the Stork Club at Sylvania, Sammy Lee's at Woollahra, the Roosevelt Club at Kings Cross and the Elizabeth Bay Tavern.
Welch was suspicious of the trend evident in the US which saw modern jazz become increasingly oriented towards sit-down, concert hall audiences, feeling that such music risked losing its mainstream following, particularly the youth. His own performances reflected his commitment to the more exciting 'danceable' sounds of rhythm & blues and boogie woogie. He argued that any form of modern music, whether hot jazz, cool jazz, swing, bop or popular, must have a beat. The views he expressed in the early 1950s now seem as a premonition of the coming rock 'n' roll revolution.
In 1949 Welch scored a hit with his first commercial recording, a cover of Red Ingle's 'Cigareets, Whusky and Wild Wild Women'. Welch signed a recording contract with the Australian Record Company and, by 1952, had recorded over 200 songs and released a large number of 78rpm records on ARC's Pacific label. He was often mysteriously familiar with American records before they were released here. The visiting American jazz singer Helen Humes reportedly described Welch as the greatest white blues singer she had heard. He was described in 1950 by 'Pix' magazine as a 'new bobby-sox idol'.
Welch was one of the founders of Festival Records. He was Festival's first recording artist and, as the new company's first artists' manager, was the major creative force behind many of Festival's Australian recordings. He beat EMI to the punch, securing for Festival the Australian rights to Bill Haley's 'Rock Around the Clock', confirming the future of 45rpm discs and revealing a huge untapped teenage market for rock 'n' roll. He left Festival Records and lead the studio orchestra at Sydney's Channel 7. A motor accident interrupted his career, although he continued to perform occasionally.
Worn many times by Les Welch during a comedy segment parodying the American vocal group the Ink Spots. Welch, Keith Peterson, Keith Silver and Ken Flannery (a trumpet player who was a co-founder of the Port Jackson Jazz Band) each wore similar ink-stained costumes while singing the Ink Spots' song 'I'd Climb the Highest Mountain'. Welch wore this one. Peterson took the lead vocal while the three others would go into a frozen position behind him, urging him to sing higher and higher. Welch took the spoken verse and turned it into an extended comic monologue about climbing high mountains.
This costume remained in Les Welch's collection until lent to the Powerhouse Museum in 2001 for the exhibition 'Spinning around: 50 years of Festival Records'.