Gary James' Interview With
Johnny Chester

He was a teen idol in his native Australia in the early 1960s. He had hit records and his own TV show. Then, The Beatles came to Australia. Johnny Chester was offered the job of opening for The Beatles during their 1964 tour of Australia and New Zealand. I don't believe you'll read a more fascinating account of what it was like to open for The Beatles in 1964.

Johnny Chester spoke about his own career and his days with John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Q - Johnny, you were born in Melbourne, Australia?

A - That's right.

Q - And you had nine hit records that charted?

A - In the '60s I had nine or ten. In the '70s, I had another nine or ten, but by then I had changed over to singing Country music. It was an interesting thing. I started with Rock 'n' Roll. I was seventeen and we put a little band together and the typical thing you did back then was run a little dance. My mother sold the tickets and my dad was on the door. Our friends came along and supported us. It got big. We rented a little church hall and it developed from there, so we had to get a town hall, which was not in Melbourne, but in the suburbs of Melbourne. Then, we approached one of our local disc jockeys, who was one of the biggest radio personalities in Melbourne at the time, told him what we were doing and I think because we were only kids, he took an interest in us. He came out and compared the dance and used to promote it for us, so it became probably the biggest Rock 'n' Roll dance in Melbourne. It was really by default. It wasn't so much that we were particularly great. It was more the fact that there wasn't a lot happening and we got this wonderful support from Stan Rofe. He was the biggest disc jockey in Melbourne. And it sort of developed from there.

Q - What year was that?

A - That would've been 1960. I started in '59, but Stan met us in 1960. He got behind the dance and really promoted it on the radio. It became "the" place to go, if you know what I mean.

Q - What was the name of the band?

A - Johnny Chester and The Chessmen we used to call ourselves.

Q - Then you had a TV show called Teen Time?

A - Yeah. That was a couple of years later. Stan also got me my introduction to my first record label and got us an audition...WG Records. They were an independent label. They had their own studio and distribution and their own pressing plant. They weren't associated with the EMI's or the Warners or any of those people. They were independent of those. Out of that, I sort of developed into 1963. Another friend of mine from radio had been compering a television show in one of the country areas in Victoria and he'd been offered a better job in radio, so he suggested me as compere. The first one (TV show) was called Teen Time On Ten and then Teen Scene came about because of The Beatles.

Q - Were your parents in show business? How did you know you could sing?

A - No. It was pretty accidental really. I remember the summer '58, '59, I was down staying with some friends. A friend of mine, Stanley, used to camp in a tent down o the beach, not far from where I live now. They invited me to come down and spend a week with them, camping in sort of the tent, down on the edge of Port Phillip Bay, which is the bay that Melbourne is situated on. While I was down there, I just turned 17. I went to the movies one afternoon or one evening. I forget what it was. Actor John Saxon was in a movie called Rock Pretty Baby. As I remember, it was about a group of high school kids who had a Rock 'n' Roll band. He was the lead guitar player. The thing that impressed me greatly about that, I'm sad to say, was it seemed to me a great way to meet girls. That's probably what got me into the music business I think. I felt if I could get a good looking guitar like that, it might help with meeting girls. So, I guess when you're in your adolescent state, you think these things. I loved Chuck Berry. I love Elvis. I loved Buddy Holly. I love Little Richard, Eddie Cochran and all those people. It really wasn't because I wanted to get into music, it was more that I wanted to meet girls.

Q - Did it work? Did you get to meet a lot of girls?

A - Actually, after that summer of 1959, I'd gotten to know a young lady for a year or so. I started to go to a youth club in the very church hall that I later on started a dance in. That was Liz, and Liz and I have been together even since. We've been married forty-four years. And we went together five years before that. So, I never really got to try out my theory.

Q - So, no wild "groupie" stories from Johnny Chester?

A - (laughs) No. It's funny. That's sort of the way it developed. I'm not complaining, don't get me wrong.

Q - You shared the bill with people like The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Connie Francis and Bobby Rydell. How were you treated by those people?

A - Well, I never did get to meet Connie. It was very much one show or two shows we did in Melbourne. It was back in those days, 1961, I had my first single record out, so that was the reason they got me on the show. I don't think it was because they particularly wanted me, I'm talking about the promoter here. I think it was something similar to that with Bobby Rydell. I think Chubby Checker was on that same bill. With Roy Orbison, which was by 1962, Roy wasn't particularly well-known out here. I think he had one single, "Only The Lonely". So, he wasn't very well-known. He had Dion DiMucci on the show. Jack Scott, the Canadian singer who had "What In The World's Come Over You" and also Ray Peterson, who did "Corina, Corina", "Tell Laura I Love Her" and "The Wonder Of You". In fact, he was probably a bigger name than Roy, in the sense of the songs he did with success in Australia. So, that was the line-up. Then, they needed a band from here and the band I was working with at the time called The Thunderbirds, were probably the best Rock 'n' Roll band in Australia. So, because I sang with them, I think part of the deal was that they got me as well. Roy and all those guys were terrific. The same with The Everly Brothers. They were very good to work with. We were well treated and well regarded by all of those people. I have a very high opinion of all of them.

Q - Besides your record that was out, what else were you singing?

A - Back in those days, you only did about fifteen minutes. It wasn't' like you were expected to do an hour or two, which I've done since then. So, in those days you went out and did maybe two or three of the songs you recorded and a couple of classics. "Johnny B. Goode" seemed to get featured quite a lot on shows in those days. Even The Beatles only did eleven songs. They were only on stage for probably not quite half an hour. It's quite amazing.

Q - Yes, it is. They didn't have two and a half hour concerts then. Rock 'n' Roll was in its infancy.

A - Probably lucky they didn't because the production was pretty much you used whatever the sound equipment was in the hall. You used the lighting that was in the hall. There was no particular show and many of the artists in those days didn't really do a show. They came out, sang their songs and walked off again. In Australia, because of the very small population, you really had to work hard. We really didn't have too much television to get exposure. So you probably developed a bit more of the entertainer, even in the Rock 'n' Roll acts of those days, as opposed to walking out and singing your hit song and a couple of others and then wandering off. You needed to do a bit more than that. Roy was a good example, although he managed to just stand there and sing his songs forever. He never really had what you'd call an act. But that worked with him. That was all he needed to do.

Q - He had that voice and he had those songs.

A - Absolutely.

Q - In your early years you were Johnny Chester. Now you're known as John Chester?

A - No, no, no. I still use Johnny. It's not my preference. It's just one of those things. It's like my brand name. You don't change it if it's been there all those times. I get called John. Most people call me Chess. It's a nickname. There'd by more people in the entertainment business and radio and media over here that would refer to me as Chess. They might introduce the song as Johnny Chester. If they're talking about me or talking to me, it'll be "What are you doing Chess?" or "I'm gonna talk to Johnny Chester." "Chess will be along in a minute."

Q - Where did the offer come from to open for The Beatles? And, were there other acts on the bill?

A - I think there were two or three promoters involved in it. There was a company called Stadiums Ltd. and they were the people who owned or controlled the three major venues on the east coast of Australia. That was Festival Hall in Brisbane, The Rush Cutters Bay Stadium in Sydney and The Festival Hall in Melbourne. So, they were involved in it. Then there was a fella, Ken Brodzink, who was probably the main instigator of the tour and I'm not sure who else, but I have a feeling somebody else might've had money in it. I don't know. The actual approach to me was made by Dick Lean, who was the managing director, I think of Stadiums Ltd. and Dick was Melbourne based and quite frankly, and I've said this many times, I do believe the reason I was asked to do the tour was because it was a Melbourne based promoter that brought them out here. I think if a Sydney promoter had brought them out, I wouldn't have even been considered. That's the truth of the matter. But, I guess that's the way things work sometimes. So, Dick Lean called me one day. This was early '64. I'd spent six weeks performing up in Brisbane. I got back and about two days after I arrived, the phone rings. Dick said "I'd like you to come in and have a chat." So, I went in to see him. He said "We've got The Beatles coming out to Australia and I wondered if you wanted to be part of the show." He put it that way. It wasn't like support act. "You wanna be part of the show?" I said "That would be terrific." He said "This is what we're doing: we'll do all Australia and New Zealand. It'll be two shows a night, probably six nights a week." I said "the one thing I'll have to do is check with my band because I'll probably need to get another piano player for the other tour because my piano player worked in a bank. None of them were full-time musicians. It was a hobby. I knew three of the guys could get the time off. I said "I'll check with them, but," I said "I will ask him. He may be able to get out of the bank job for three weeks." He said "Oh, no. We don't want the band. There's a band called The Phantoms going and they're going to back you. We just want you." I said "Well, I'm sorry. I don't want to do the show." He said "Why not?" I said "This is The Chessmen. We work together. I don't want to do it." He said "This will be the biggest thing in Australia. This could be an enormous boost to your career." I said "I know I won't do as good a show with another band, so thanks, but no thanks." He said "Look, go talk to your family. Talk to your band and explain what I've offered you. Think about it and get back to me in a day or so." I went home and told Liz, my girlfriend at the time, my mum and dad and the band. I said this is what they want me to do, but they've got another band. They all jumped up and down and said "You idiot! You've got to take it on." They convinced me that I should do it. So, I went back to Dick Lean and said "OK. Thanks very much. I'd like to." So that's how it came about. As to support acts, there was a fella named Johnny Devlin. John was from New Zealand. That was the big reason for him being on the show, I think. He was living in Australia, performing in Australia, but he was actually a New Zealander. They figured that would be good. And then The Phantoms were a part of it. And then a Brian Epstein managed a band called Sounds Inc. were on the show. They were fantastic. It was compered by an English comedian named Alan Field. Alan had been brought out to host a teenage television show which was about to go into production. They thought this would be a good way to introduce him to the Australian public 'cause nobody knew him at all. So, he compered the show. So, that was the basis of the whole program. It was quite a big show, but it probably all condensed down to about ninety minutes.

Q - How long of a tour was this?

A - About three weeks I think.

Q - What happened to you after the tour?

A - You mentioned Teen Scene before and that came about directly because of The Beatles tour. My manager at the time organized for me to have a meeting while I was in Sydney with The Beatles, with the executive of the ABC television network. ABC is not really like your PBS thing, but it's not a commercial network. It's the biggest network in Australia. If you can get television anywhere in Australia, you can get ABC Television. So, she organized for me to go and have a meeting with them, with some of my ideas for a television show, which I did. And once again, it was the fact that I came into town on the shirt tails of The Beatles tour, that they were very much interested in what I had to say. Out of that, I got the job of host of Teen Scene, which was a national television show that ran in 1964 and again in 1965. So, I guess I stopped touring entirely for the time we were doing that show and I didn't tour again with another overseas act until probably the early '70s. But by then I was into Country music. I also worked as a disc jockey for many years, doing midnight to dawn and then working in programming and promotions, production work and all that stuff, with the number one station in Melbourne. But that's another story.

Q - You were doing what on that TV show? Singing? Hosting?

A - Doing both actually. I would sing a song with The Chessmen. They were the backing band on it. I hosted the show, introduced the artists. The usual stuff. It used to go to air, I can't even remember, I think it was Saturday night. It was very much an American Bandstand type of show, except I used to sing as well. Kids used to dance.

Q - Was it a half-hour show or an hour show?

A - Goodness, you've got me there. I think it was an hour.

Q - You probably had the stars of the day passing through Australia on the show?

A - Actually, the budget wasn't big enough to have internationals on. The closest we got in, we had Olivia Newton-John on the show before she was known outside of Australia. In fact, I've got a flyer on my wall of Olivia and myself on the set of the show. Even the Bee Gees, who at that stage weren't known outside Australia, and Barry was a friend of mine; even they didn't get onto the show, because they were from Sydney and we just didn't have much of a budget to bring people from either side let alone overseas.

Q - Did you travel on the plane with The Beatles?

A - Oh, yeah, we traveled on the plane. We ate together every night in-between shows 'cause there was two shows every night. We stayed mostly in the same hotels. I think in Adelaide they couldn't fit us into the same hotel, and I think in Dunedin we stayed in a different hotel. I think pretty well everywhere else we stayed in the same hotels. Do you want stories about the tour?

Q - Sure. Go right ahead.

A - Before we got to Sydney and while they were organizing the tour, the promoter approached the Chevron Hotel, which was the best hotel in Sydney at the time, and said "We're coming through with The Beatles. We'd like the whole party and crew to stay at The Chevron." I wasn't party to the way it was said, but apparently the management said they really didn't want The Beatles because the young people would be at the front of the hotel sort of day and night, which is what they used to do, chanting and bothering the other guests. So, the promoter then went to the Sheraton Hotel, which was directly opposite the Chevron, and said to the people there, we'd like to bring (in) The Beatles. We need the top two floor for The Beatles and another twenty rooms, or whatever it was. They said "fine" and they took the booking. We were there I think for about four nights, something like that. Well, of course when word got out The Beatles were staying there, all of the kids came down to stand in front and sing "We Love You Paul, Oh Yes We Do" and all of that stuff and chant "we want the Beatles." This went on all day and all night for the whole time we were there. When we first got there, the Sheraton was virtually built right on the pavement, on the sidewalk. The Chevron had steps leading up to the front, to the foyer and all that. When the kids got to the Sheraton, they all stood outside, underneath the windows and called out to Paul and called out to John and all the stuff they were doing. Then they realized they really couldn't see because they were looking straight up the front of the building. So, even if The Beatles came out the front, they couldn't see them. So, they all went across the road and stood outside the Chevron and all sang. So, not only did the Chevron not get The Beatles, but they got all the kids anyway because they couldn't see them when they were in the Sheraton. It was quite a funny thing to see these hundreds and hundreds of kids all camped virtually for the whole time we were there on the steps, opposite the Sheraton Hotel, right outside the Chevron. They weren't really welcome, but there was nothing they could do about it.

Q - Were you able to get any sleep if that was going on non-stop?

A - Say it was a ten story building. I think we had the top five stories. You couldn't hear it all that well from up there, if you had the windows closed. I don't think I had a front room, nor did The Beatles. I think we looked out over the back of the place.

Q - How tight was the security at that hotel? Could a "groupie" get in or would she be stopped?

A - I would think so (she would be stopped). Security as we know it today just didn't exist. The Beatles had Mal Evans, who was their road manager. He was sort of quite a big fella. He was kind of like a bodyguard. It really wasn't like what it is today. In fact, at the Sheraton as I remember, the rest of the hotel was booked out by people who were just near The Beatles. They booked in to stay there from the time they were there. It was like a party, the whole hotel for the whole time we were there. Most of the people who were staying there were there because of The Beatles. I don't think anybody would've been able to get into The Beatles rooms. There probably was a lock on the elevator. But, certainly to get into the hotel, I don't think would've been a problem at all.

Q - Did you get to spend time with each of The Beatles? How did you find their personalities to be?

A - I never actually got to talk to Ringo because the first show was in Adelaide and Ringo didn't arrive until the Melbourne show, which was like the second or third day. So, it was in Adelaide that we did all the introduction. They were just three young blokes that were all about the same age at the time. So, that's when the introduction came about and from then on I probably said no more than "How are you doing?" to Paul McCartney. But, I did get to spend quite a bit of time backstage with George Harrison and John Lennon in particular. In fact, we hit it off pretty well. He made me feel very good...John I'm talking about. When I decided I was going to do the show knowing that there would be absolutely no interest in what I was doing, I had to find something different to present. Back in those days you had to use the house P.A. and the house production in general. But I thought, I've got to do something that might make people at least go away and remember one of the songs I did. So, a friend of mine who used to help me with the dances I ran, I was telling him I want to do that old Peggy Lee song, "Fever". What I'd like to do is, I'd seen this effect somewhere, in the black and white minstrel shows or something, where they used to use the ultraviolet lighting. They'd have white gloves and white shirts and switch all the lights off and the ultraviolet would pick out whatever was white on the stage. I said because it's only bass and drums basically in that song, I want to get the drummer some white gloves and a pair of drumsticks painted in that day glow paint that is also lifted up by ultraviolet and I want the bass player to wear white gloves and I'm gonna get the keyboard player to play bass for the finger-snapping effect. I want him to have white gloves too. Then I want to use a red spotlight on my face. So, the lighting on stage all you would hopefully see is white gloves playing with drumsticks, white gloves playing the bass and the white gloves playing the keyboard bass and my face bathed in a red gel with a red spotlight. That was what I wanted to do, but you couldn't organize that in the hall. So, I got a big suitcase and my friend got me some ultraviolet strips and fluorescent tubes and a little spotlight that would fit into a suitcase with the red gel in it. I took that all over Australia and New Zealand as part of my baggage. In those days you didn't have a road crew. The effect was quite remarkable for the time. I'd say to the lighting man from the stage, "Could we have the lights out please?" So, the room would be blacked out and they'd start the song. When it came to the vocal part, I angled the spotlight so it was sitting on the floor in front of me, up into my face. As my vocals started with the keyboard player, he had a switchboard. On time, the light shining on my face and it was a very effective thing. We did it in Adelaide for the first time. I'd been very, very nervous, as you can imagine, about doing the show. I was one of these people who used to throw up before I went onstage. John Lennon had been watching through the side curtain, and as I walked off the stage, he said "Where'd you get that idea from?" I said "I think it's an old black and white minstrel thing, wearing the white gloves. I just thought it might work on that song." He said "That was fuckin' great! Fuckin' great!" And I went "Aaah, nah." (laughs) From then on, he was very encouraging and it lifted me up as you can't imagine how, how good it made me feel to have him say that. I really was very, very nervous about doing the show. (laughs) It was the biggest thing that happened to me at that point.

Q - You were ahead of your time. Theatrics weren't the norm for Rock acts in those days.

A - Well, he (John Lennon) sort of said similar things. He said "I've never seen anything like that before." Looking back, it's probably the most basic thing you can come up with. It was certainly something that wasn't happening over here or probably anywhere else and certainly not in Rock 'n' Roll.

Q - Did you meet Brian Epstein?

A - No. He came in with Ringo. He didn't actually come over with the rest of the guys initially because Ringo had been ill. We would've said hello backstage because that's where most of their contact happened. As you can imagine, Brian and The Beatles were the best anybody had seen at handling the media. There was a huge entourage of media people on the plane, staying at the hotels. They didn't have much time for socializing. But, they used to have a party nearly every night. In fact, John Lennon said to me again one day, "You never, ever come to our parties." I said "I don't feel right about going up there and sponging off you blokes. It's your money and you're spending all this money on entertaining everybody else. I doesn't feel right." He said "That's all about to change," because he was getting a bit sick of it himself I think. All these people were coming around and drinking beer and wine and not contributing to it. He said "That's all about to change, but you'll always be welcome." But other than Paul's birthday party in Sydney, I didn't really socialize in that way, but I saw a lot of 'em backstage. It was lovely. When I think back on it, I had a long talk with George Harrison one day, backstage in Melbourne. We were sitting there talking about influences and musical favorites and it was amazing the parallels you could draw. We were all pretty much the same age and we all loved Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and Elvis and Eddie Cochran. Even they started off with the Cavern Club thing in Liverpool where they had virtually their own little dance, much the same as we did with the church dance that I started. So, we had lots in common in that respect. But there was one difference. We were talking about cars. I at the time had a pretty ordinary, old car that used to get me from A to B. George Harrison had had a pretty ordinary old car, but had just bought an E-type Jaguar. I thought that shows one of the great differences between us - the cars we were driving!

Q - You mentioned that Ringo was not in Australia for the beginning of The Beatles tour there. They were using a drummer by the name of Jimmy Nicol.

A - He was a very nice bloke and a hell of a drummer. I remember remarking to the drummer from Sounds Inc, who was also a fine drummer, must've been just before Ringo arrived 'cause Jimmy only did the Adelaide shows, I forgot just how I worded it, I said something like "Jimmy's a real good drummer, isn't he?" He said "but wait 'til you hear Ringo." (laughs) Ringo really rocks! Ringo wasn't the flashiest drummer in the world, but he was a very driving drummer. They'd been together three or four years before they got to Australia and they'd done a lot of work together, so it probably wouldn't have mattered how good Jimmy Nicol was. It wasn't gonna be the same. You develop this band thing I guess you would call it.

Q - You're a very fortunate guy.

A - I've been very lucky. I've worked with some fantastic people. It's been some interesting times.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.