Dinah Lee Biography
Diane Marie Jacobs was born on 19 August 1943 in Waimate, known as Dinah Lee, is a New Zealand-born singer who performed 1960s pop and then adult contemporary music. Her debut single from early 1964, “Don’t You Know Yockomo?”, achieved No. 1 chart success in New Zealand and in the Australian cities of Brisbane and Melbourne. It was followed in September by her cover version of Jackie Wilson’s, “Reet Petite”, which also reached No. 1 in New Zealand and peaked at No. 6 in Melbourne.
The Australian release was a double A-sided single with “Do the Blue Beat”. On her early singles she was backed by fellow New Zealanders, Max Merritt & His Meteors. Lee appeared regularly on both New Zealand and Australian TV variety programs, including Sing, Sing, Sing and Bandstand.
She toured supporting Johnny O’Keefe, Ray Columbus & the Invaders and P.J. Proby. According to Australian rock music journalist, Ed Nimmervoll, in the 1960s, “Lee was the most successful female singer of in [sic] both her New Zealand homeland and Australia … on stage and on record Dinah had all the adventure and exuberance for the time the boys had”
Dinah Lee Age and Early Life
Dinah Lee was born as Diane Marie Jacobs on 19 August 1943 in Waimate, South Island, New Zealand. After her parents separated, she was fostered by a family near Christchurch where she attended Cashmere High School. Her father was a saxophonist, who worked selling carpets in a Christchurch department store and, part-time, ran a teen dance club – The Country Club Cabaret. In 1958, Lee was asked to sing at the club on Saturdays and became popular with local patrons.
As a 15-year-old, she had her first professional gig with Bobby Davis & the Dazzlers in a small hall and they later worked in a coffee lounge. In 1962, Lee was working with Christchurch group, Saints, and dating their guitarist and vocalist, Phil Garland. By year’s end Saints had split and Lee and Garland formed The Playboys with Mark Graham on guitar, Brian Ringrose (ex-Ray Columbus & the Invaders) on guitar, Dave Martin on guitar and Graeme Miller on drums.
They relocated to Auckland for a residency at Top 20 Club, Lee shared lead vocals with Garland, one of her covers was Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Don’t You Know Yockomo?” popularised by American R&B artist Dee Dee Sharp. Playboys returned to Christchurch, but by 1963, Lee returned to Auckland to pursue her solo career, she supported gigs by Max Merritt & His Meteors or Ray Columbus & the Invaders. Playboys recruited Graeme’s brother Dave on vocals and later became The Dave Miller Set in Sydney.
Lee adopted the latest Mod fashions following advice from boutique owner, Jackie Holme – a page boy haircut, white make-up, op-art clothes and white boots. After being recommended by Merritt, she joined the Startime Spectacular Tour of North Island which was headlined by Bill & Boyd and Max Merritt & His Meteors – Merritt’s band backed her during her set.
Her performances were more animated and energetic than typically demure female pop artists. Lee was heckled at some regional venues and her mother was unable to recognise her when catching up at an airport. Tour organiser, James Haddleton, became her manager and she was signed with Viking Records, an independent label based in Wellington and she was promoted as ‘Queen of the Mods’
Dinah Lee Husband
She is married to Christopher Lee.
Dinah Lee Family
She was raised by a foster family in Christchurch, when her parents split up, but Diane always kept in touch with her father.
Dinah Lee Songs – Career
Dinah Lee’s debut single, “Don’t You Know Yockomo?”, was released in August 1964 – under the name Diane Lee, chosen by Viking – and peaked at No. 1 in New Zealand. Viking used Merritt’s band to back her in the studio and after the first pressings had sold out, Viking changed the attribution to Dinah Lee.
Ray Columbus & the Invaders’ single, “She’s a Mod” became the first by a New Zealand act to reach No. 1 on an Australian chart. Only weeks later, Lee’s single, “Don’t You Know Yockomo?” was issued there by EMI on their HMV label and reached No. 1 in Brisbane and Melbourne.
Lee’s second single, “Reet Petite” was a cover of Jackie Wilson’s hit and had also been recorded with Merritt’s band, when released in September it reached No. 1 in New Zealand. Her third single, Ray Rivera’s “Do the Blue Beat”, followed in October in New Zealand. “Reet Petitie” and “Do the Blue Beat” were issued as a double A-sided single in Australia and reached No. 3 in Adelaide and No. 6 in Melbourne.
Lee toured New Zealand and Australia on Starlift ’64, promoted by Harry M. Miller, with a bill headed by The Searchers, Peter and Gordon and Del Shannon. Backing Lee at some gigs were Ray Columbus & the Invaders and, in Sydney, a newly formed group – The Easybeats. With “Reet Petite” charting in Australia, rock’n’roller Johnny O’Keefe invited Lee to appear on his television series, Sing, Sing, Sing and join his Sydney club shows.
Upon return to Auckland, Lee issued her fourth Viking single, “Who Stole the Sugar?” in November. She featured on two half-hour specials on New Zealand TV, while “I’m Walking” was issued as her next Australian single by HMV. By year’s end, Viking had also released two extended plays, Don’t You Know… and Yeah, Yeah We Love Them All and her debut album, Introducing Dinah Lee.
In early 1965, Lee appeared on Australian TV shows, Bandstand and Saturday Date. One of her Bandstand performances was at Myer Music Bowl with headlining Jamaican Blue beat singer Millie Small. Lee travelled to the United States to appear on Shindig! – she sang with Glen Campbell – and on other TV shows.
Lee then went to the United Kingdom where she released, “I’ll Forgive You Then Forget You” on Island Records’ label Aladdin. In August–September, Lee toured New Zealand and Australia with US pop sensation, P.J. Proby – noted for splitting his pants on stage in the UK in February – who had been banned by the BBC.
In Australia, HMV released “Let Me In” to coincide with the tour. Lee won ‘Entertainer of the Year’ at New Zealand’s inaugural NEBOA Awards in late September – soon after she decided to base herself in Australia. Late in the year, Viking released a string of singles, “He Can’t Do the Blue Beat”, “Nitty Gritty” and “That’s it I Quit”, in New Zealand. In November, they released her second studio album, The Sound of Dinah Lee.
Late in 1965, Dinah Lee relocated to Sydney and in March 1966 she undertook a second tour with Small. Lee’s next single was “He Don’t Want Your Love Anymore” but her chart success had begun to decline. On 29 June 1966, Australian teen newspaper, Go-Set published “The Dinah Lee Story” and she appeared on their front cover. Her public popularity was still high – she was voted No. 2 ‘Female Vocal’ in Go-Set’s pop poll in October and was in the top 5 for 1967 and 1968.
Lee continued to release singles in 1966, she toured with Proby in September–October and followed with a third studio album, The Mod World of Dinah Lee late that year. In April 1967, she became the ‘face’ for Yardley Cosmetics’ commercials on Australian TV. Her July single for Viking and HMV was “Sorry Mama” but neither company renewed her contract.
Lee spent most of the late 1960s on the night club circuit with occasional variety TV appearances. Lee successfully sued her former manager, Haddleton, for money owed and re-took control of her financial interests. According to Australia rock music journalist, Ed Nimmervoll, in the 1960s, “Lee was the most successful female singer of in [sic] both her New Zealand homeland and Australia … on stage and on record Dinah had all the adventure and exuberance for the time the boys had.” Lee entertained troops in Vietnam in the late 1960s on Australian Broadcasting Commission-sponsored tours (under her birth name, Diane Jacobs) and was awarded the Vietnam Logistic and Support Medal.
In the 1970s, she continued to release singles including “Tell Him” in 1972 on Polydor. In 1974, she joined O’Keefe on his comeback show, The Good Old Days of Rock’n’Roll, at St. George’s Leagues Club. Her next single, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” appeared in 1976 on Festival Records. “I Can See Clearly Now” was released in 1979 on Laser Records.
In 1982, a compilation, Best of Dinah Lee was issued on Music World. By 1984, she had become involved in body building winning the ‘Australian Female Body Builder of the Year’ in the over 35s category. In the 1990s and 2000s, Lee continued performing on the club circuit and became a motivational speaker.
ABC-TV series, Long Way to the Top, was broadcast in August 2001. Lee featured on “Episode 2: Ten Pound Rocker 1963–1968” where she discussed the mod look and her appeal to rebellious teens, “I had this image and it wasn’t cute and pretty”. The TV series inspired the Long Way to the Top national concert tour during August–September 2002, which featured a host of the best Australian acts of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Lee’s performances of “Yokomo” [sic] and “Reet Petite” at the final Sydney concert, as well as an interview with promoter, Michael Chugg, feature on the associated DVD, Long Way to the Top: Live in Concert released in 2002.
Where Is Dinah Lee Now
Dinah Lee, 74, has been singing for 50 years and says she won’t stop as she ”loves it”.
Easing herself into a large elaborate chair, preparing to have her elegantly coiffed bob attended by one of London’s finest hairdressers, Dinah Lee saw the Beatles drummer, Ringo Starr, sitting beside her.
It’s London, 1965, and the Kiwi singer labelled the Queen of the Mods, is music royalty worldwide.
If you can remember the 60s, it’s been said, you weren’t really there, but Lee remembers everything.
Elegantly combining sharp fashion sense with a love for obscure R’n’B, she has had 15 Top 10 hits, including her major No 1 chart successes, Reet Petite, Blue Beat and Don’t You Know Yockomo.
A pioneer in New Zealand music, in 1965 she became the inaugural winner of New Zealand’s Prestigious Entertainment Award.
Lee toured London in the mid 1960s with a young mod called David Jones, who later changed his surname to Bowie.
“He was a beautiful boy,” says the 74-year-old wistfully from Sydney.
She and her friends hung out with Marianne Faithfull, met the Small Faces and Mick Jagger, among others.
Lee recorded with Chris Blackwell who went on to own Island Records, and who forged the careers of artists such as Bob Marley, Grace Jones and U2.
Lee remembers visiting Manchester and an audition for the show Ready, Steady Go.
“I had to go down into a basement with a piano player and I hated it,” she declares.
In London in the swinging 60s, Lee lived in a block of flats “filled with gangsters”. Her flatmate was Millie Small, who had the world’s first ska hit, My Boy Lollipop.
“You know,” says Lee, breaking into song by way of explanation: “You make my heart go giddy-up”.
She still has a fantastic voice.
Before the wild parties in London, Lee went to the United States, and was the first New Zealand artist to perform on the Shindig TV show.
“I sang with Ray Charles, the Righteous Brothers… I did a duet with Glen Campbell,” she recalls.
She didn’t get shot at in Vietnam but she did in New South Wales.
“I was on stage and a bullet came through the floor right beside me,” she recalls.
“Some guy tried to get in to one of the shows I was doing and came back with a shotgun. He fired it and it went up through the floor.”
It prompts the memory of the time a group of students kidnapped her in Adelaide and held her overnight for ransom.
“It was when students did pranks,” Lee says, matter-of-factly.
“They had to pay money to get me out. Now the stars are well protected with bodyguards. Then we had to make our own way and do our own image and things like that.”
At 74, Lee is still recording and performing as enthusiastically as ever.
“I can still move across the stage,” she says. “I’m just a bit slower.”
She has plans to release a new album this year and has been busy, recording and mixing it in her home studio.
“I have all the latest technology,” she says, rattling off a list of the latest drum sounds she’s working with. “It’s incredible how easy it is now compared to back then. You’ve got to keep up with it, be in the race.”
She doesn’t like to talk about the past because she’s the sort of woman who prefers to look to the future.
To write this story, I’ve interviewed Lee several times over the past five years.
“I prefer to live in the now,” she’s often repeated, in a no-nonsense voice that is all class, as I have attempted to mine her memories. “I’m not much of a girl who lives in the past, I live for the now and what’s happening now.”
When we spoke in 2015, for example, she surprisingly steered the conversation to American heavy metal band, Disturbed and declared she “loved” their cover of Sound of Silence.
In 2016, when we chat, she’s poised to release a new EP. Then aged 72, she released a new single in 33 countries. Her fans are just as dedicated as ever, even if the media haven’t kept up.
That EP included a song called Cathedral Square, a collaboration with Exponents frontman, Jordan Luck, who wrote the song in a Christchurch flat around the same time he wrote Victoria.
But it’s harder to get people to play your music when you’re a woman in her 70s.
“They put us in these little boxes and to find your way out of it is not easy,” says Lee.
“The beauty of getting older is you can say whatever you want and I’m loving that, I don’t care what anyone says, I do what I want to do.”
In many ways, Lee was arguably the Lorde of the 60s.
Lee sees much of herself in her.
“Lorde’s come out with her own look which I did back in my day. When I see the way she moves her arms on stage I think ‘hello, I did that too’. What will she do next? I like her.”
You had to have a backbone of steel to be a female in the music industry in the 1960s.
“The female artists back in those days were considered a fill in, the pretty fill in between the male stars,” says Lee. “That wasn’t me.”
Lee wasn’t a “pretty dolly”. She was a feisty feminist who won an army of teen fans with her rebellious look and non-conformist approach.
“No, no, I picked that apart and gave them heaps. It was the 60s and the world was changing… we took the bull by the horns and went for it.”
She’s thrilled by the #metoo movement.
“It’s fantastic, just fantastic that women are standing up again. I saw others, in my time, who experienced things… the casting couch I guess you could say. It didn’t happen to me, I think they were scared, intimidated by me and my bold look.”
Lee is a genteel woman with immaculate manners so her next words should be read in the strong voice with which she uttered them: .”You just couldn’t take any crap in those days, you just stood up and did it.”
What would our music scene now look like for our women if pioneers like Lee hadn’t “stood up”?
“I do think that was the start of the women becoming more dominant in our music scene and it’s grown from there.”
Her distinctive mod look saw her advertising everything from clothing to make-up. As the face of Yardley cosmetics, she points out that she was one of the first artists to create her own “image”.
“Yardley Cosmetics approached me because I had the hit record and they wanted me to take the mod look to Australia, the same way Twiggy took it to Britain,” she says.
The make-up launch was “fabulous”.
“We had earrings which had lipsticks dangling down from them, fabulous, psychedelic colours… We went right around Australia to promote that. I remember it so well, such a great time.”
Born in Waimate as Diane Marie Jacobs, her stage name became Dinah Lee when Ron Dalton from Viking Records pulled the name from a hat.
“I’m originally from Christchurch and I started my career there in the 1960s with dear Ray Columbus and everyone like that,” she says.
In 2007, Lee and Columbus were presented with the key to the city of Christchurch and both performed as part of the Band Together concert following the September 2010 earthquake.
She made the move to Sydney at the height of her career, instantly the darling of the Sydney fashion scene, but still calls Christchurch home.
“I went to Cashmere High School, back then it was all farms and we were all farmers’ kids,” she says. “I started my singing career in Belfast, my father ran a cabaret there. I also did Time Out for Talent when TV first started in Christchurch and also sang around in the little dance halls and everything way back then. I have very fond memories.”
In Auckland her first job was working in a gym, showing people how to use weights.
“We had to wear a little dolly pink uniform and wear high heels all day,” she says, following the comment with a broad laugh.
“We were lifting weights in high heels.”
It should be noted that, in 1984, Lee was the over 35s Australian Female Bodybuilder of the Year.
During those lunchbreaks from the gym in the early 1960s, she would walk across to a jazz club, the Montmartre, opposite the Embassy Theatre, and wait for her chance to sing.
“We only got half an hour for lunch so sometimes it would be close that I would get back to work on time.”
After work she sang in coffee bars. She still speaks fondly of her peers – Max Merritt and the Meteors and Ray Columbus and The Invaders.
Pop stars then did not have “image makers”.
Lee became a fashion queen with a bit of Kiwi D.I.Y.
“I remember buying those white nurses’ tights and chopping up skirts,” says Lee. “It was just a matter of making do with what you had and changing it to the mod style I wanted.”
She is still interested in fashion but doesn’t “go overboard”. She takes care of her voice, and still goes to the gym. She keeps up with music trends and listens to a variety of genres.
Interested in abstract photography, she creates all the artwork for her albums and uploads everything to iTunes herself, too. She also designs phone cases.
“With my music I do it all myself, from start to finish,” she says.
She and her husband dote on their three “absolutely adorable” black Tibetan terriers.
Now in possession of images taken throughout the swinging 60s and glam 70s of her career, she is seeking a publisher for her photographic memoir.
A pioneer in the music industry, Lee knows it is difficult for women to find their feet on stage.
More than 50 years after Lee first fought to be heard, there are still festivals held in this country which don’t include a single female musician on the line-up.
Lee, a 50-year industry success story, has not yet been included in the NZ Music Hall of Fame.
“It’s still not easy for women in this business but you just got to… it’s attitude, you have got to do it, power on and believe in yourself and go for it. I still enjoy doing it, but in some ways, as an older woman in the music industry, I have to fight just as hard now as I did in the 60s,” says Lee.
“I’ve been in this business since 1964. I love what I do and want to keep doing it until someone tells me I can’t.”
Dinah Lee Do The Bluebeat
Album: Introducing Dinah Lee