Gil Dech & other early gay Oz recording artists

On February 22, 2016 I visited gramophone and record collector Wayne Dempsey at his home in the suburb of Chatswood in Sydney, Australia. Although I visited Dempsey to take a look through his collection of vintage recordings, he passed on a bit of hearsay about ‘Gil Dech’ or Gilbert Pinfield (1897-1974), a pianist, recording artist and conductor whose talents left an enduring legacy in the music histories of both Australia and New Zealand. You will find no other mention in published sources that Dech was likely a gay man.

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Dempsey had met the two daughters of Len Maurice (1900-1952), a prolific recording artist and baritone who worked with Dech at the Columbia studios in Homebush, Sydney during the late 1920s-30s. Ray and Barbara Maurice lived close-by in the suburb of Lane Cove, and visited Dempsey at his home, where he also recorded informal oral history tapes with them on cassette. He also told me that the two daughters had passed on a rumour that Dech was gay, and that he was apparently caught by police while on a ‘gay beat’, and had to be bailed out by the Columbia company.Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 2.30.21 pm

Regardless of whether this specific event actually occurred or not, the possibility of Dech being gay is intriguing given key biographical facts – that he never married, there were no significant women in his life, that he became a spendthrift and ended up alone and destitute in his later years.

Researcher Chris Long responded to my appeal for information on Dech’s sexuality, writing on 25/3/2017 that “…it was not openly discussed before the 1970s. Len Maurice’s two daughters referred to his homosexuality and said that he taught them both piano in the 1930s. However that he was a ‘sad, unfulfilled individual…”

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New Zealand broadcaster and historian Peter Downes shared his thoughts on this rumour via email correspondence. Downes explains:

“I can’t say for certain whether Gil, was or wasn’t homosexual. He wasn’t married and there don’t seem to have been any women in his life, well not seriously anyway. All I can say is that his sexual orientation was never really thought about. He was a Gil, he was a fine musician, and that was that. Some of his close friends might have occasionally had opinions but they never were mentioned within my orbit and I’m pretty sure I would have heard. The incident with Columbia could have been true, but it comes as news to me.

Of course I didn’t get to know him really well until he was quite old (he would have been in his early 70s) and had recently moved from Christchurch to Wellington. He was an enormous spendthrift and when I knew him he was living in a bed-sitting room in a City Council accommodation block for aged beneficiaries who had no other income. It was tragic, because here was this sad old musician who’d given so much to NZ music, living alone, with few friends, and who had sold his piano probably to help keeping himself alive. He was a proud man, inclined to be a bit grumpy. I first came to know him because he was friendly with one of the senior executives at Radio New Zealand, where I was a producer, and arrangements had been made for him to book the music studio when it wasn’t being used so he could play the large Steinway to his heart’s content. I used to hear some of these sessions and considering his age they were pretty wonderful. Sometimes I’d wait until he completed whatever he was playing and then go and talk to him. What a fund of memories he had. At one stage the NZ branch of HMV gave him a radiogram and he was able to play his records although I don’t think he had very many.

Along with a couple of other people who knew him, I visited him at his home many times and we had long chats although not helped by serious falls in 1962 and 1970 he was becoming very frail. It was accepted that visitors were welcome as long they took him a bottle of sherry! I finally managed to get him to agree to being interviewed and I took a portable tape recorder along with me several times in 1973 and 74. With many stops and starts we managed to cover his early years up to about the early 1930s but regrettably he died before we could get any further. Some of the material was of no use but I managed to salvage enough to write a biographical radio programme which was, unknowingly at the time, broadcast just on a month before his death. Because of an acute shortage of recording tape, most unfortunately the raw tapes had to be erased and used again for something else. It was one of only a few battles with the administration people that I lost. The programme, though, is intact in the Sound and Vision Archive.”

– Peter Downes email correspondence to the author (28/5/2017).

Further on the topic of unrecognised, early gay-musicians from Australia’s entertainment industry, I came across some intriguing tidbits in the oral history tapes of vocalist and Hawaiian-aficionado Johnny Wade (1916-1993), made in 1989 by Peter Burgis.

Wade talks about his career in the late 1930s and how pianist Hal Stead and tenor John Warren were “camp as a row of tents”:

“JW: Hal Stead was a famous pianist who went around the world touring for Father Patrick O’Hagan. We had our own trio with Hal Stead and John Warren, singing duets, the three of us sang. One of the songs I’d sing was those semi-pop things. Tenors…both gays [Hal and John], camp as a row of tents. But lovely people. I wasn’t aware of this. I was too naïve, and they never ever upset me or made any approaches to me. His mother had a boarding house. A lot of jockeys and stable boys stayed there. And we formed this trio.”

– Extract from interviews conducted by Peter Burgis at the home of Johnny Wade in the suburb of Bexley, Sydney on Friday July 14, 1989. Courtesy of the National Film & Sound Archive.

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Elisabeth Welch, singer with Hal Stead, Australian pianist, giving a concert to workers at an unidentified Armament Factory on February 2nd, 1944 /​ [Vauxhall Motors Ltd.].

Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 3.41.40 pm.png The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933) Fri 7 Oct 1932, Page 9. Courtesy of Trove.

Wade also opens up about homosexuality within the industry when Burgis asks:

PB: That form of lifestyle, was that common in the Australian entertainment industry?

JW: Yeah it was, a lot of gays around radio and vaudeville shows, stagedoor Johnnies. Half-gays. And the ballet boys…some chorus boys. Some of the big shows at the Tivoli would have eight or ten chorus boys…I make the general statement. It’s a known fact that most principled boy ballet dancers, they’re all poofs. Cos none of them married, Nijinsky never married. All the ballet boys are all gays. They got to be a poofta to dress and dance like that.

PB: Did it influence the industry in anyway?

JW: No, but it just made them…the common people just didn’t like it, to see a man with tights up here.

PB: What about singers and musicians?

JW: Not many of the musos, but many of the singers. Wally Carr is one. And couple of others I don’t want to name. In the business there was a lot of gays, we called them poofs, for a feminine person. Take John Warren and Hal, they were gay but they were lovely people to work with. I’ve worked with some lovely…that fella who played a lot of shows, but it was common throughout the profession.

– Recorded Thursday, July 12, 1989 by Burgis. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

Dubbed as “the crooning troubadour”, Hal Stead’s recorded legacy amounts to just two songs he set to disc for the Parlophone label in Sydney in July 1931: “I found a million-dollar baby” and “Running between the raindrops.”

I have found no copy of this 78rpm record in private collections, however one copy is (thankfully) deposited in the collection of the National Film & Sound Archive.

John Warren had a relatively more prolific recording career from 1928-1938 both as a solo artist and as a vocalist for band leader Jim Davidson. Curiously, there is documented evidence that Dech and Warren worked with each other in the studio. According to the discography of Ross Laird, Dech was the credited band director and piano accompanist to five sides featuring Warren’s vocals, recorded on June 12 and September 25, 1929.

Covering the period of Ross’s discography from 1924-1950, “Wally” or Walter Carr sang on 6 sides from 1947 – 1950 for the orchestras of Bob Gibson, George Trevare and Art Wranzer.

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I wonder if there are any other anecdotes out there about gay singers and recording artists from Australia’s early sound and music heritage.

– Michael Alexandratos, 

Sydney, 25 April, 2019. 


Sources
Special thanks to to the National Film & Sound Archive and Peter Burgis for the oral history tapes.
Also thanks to Chris Long, for his extensive notes and images in the two-volume CD reissue production:

Sydney 1926: The First Discs

A 2-CD set released on the 75th anniversary of Sydney’s first commercial disc recordings. The package contains every dance music and jazz track recorded by Sydney’s first commercial disc recording studio from its inception (July 1926) to the end of its initial ‘R’ matrix series (February 1927).

Antiquarian CL107 – “Sydney 1926: The First Discs” (CD 1). Produced by Chris Long and Mike Sutcliffe.

Antiquarian CL108 – “Sydney 1926: The First Discs” (CD 2). Produced by Chris Long and Mike Sutcliffe.

*Note: CL107 and CL108 were issued as a 2-CD set combined with a 56-page illustrated A4-sized book.

 

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