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Rockin' Ray From The Western Suburbs - The Ray Houston Story

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

It must have been his lucky day, but hitch-hiking in Melbourne one day, 15-year-old Ray Houston got picked up by Laurie Bell, guitarist with one of the most popular bands in Melbourne at the time, The Thunderbirds. Ray was a bass player and had gone along to watch The Thunderbirds play on several occasions. He could not help but notice that bass player Peter Robinson was playing a big white ‘homemade’ instrument that sounded much better than his bass. Laurie Bell told Ray that he had made that bass and would make him one for £40.

Born on May 29th, 1945, in Colac in the Western District of Victoria, Ray Houston was the youngest in a family of four boys. At 14 he got his first guitar and learnt to play from a friend who took guitar lessons. Each week Ray would get his mate to show him what he had learnt. When his friend started a band, Ray wanted to be part of it but the group already had two guitarists, but they needed a bass player. So Ray asked his mother for some bass strings for his birthday, and he converted his acoustic Ibanez guitar into a bass. Another friend gave him a cheap pick-up, which he connected with sticky tape, and he was up and running. He did not know it at the time but it was the start of a life long journey as a musician.

The group called themselves The Lectrons which consisted of Bill Rewuk on guitar, Royce Nichols (Nicholas) on guitar, Ray Houston on bass and Alan “Pancho” Griggs on drums. Tony Mercer was a later member. Ray took up Laurie Bell’s offer to make him a bass like the one Peter Robinson was playing in The Thunderbirds and paid him off at £1 a week. After spending many hours practicing The Lectrons scored their first gig at the Sunday afternoon dance at the Migrant Hostel in Brooklyn. Another group playing at the same dance that day were The Blue Jays, one of the most entertaining groups on the Melbourne dance scene.

“The Blue Jays, a really up-and-coming young Melbourne combination, don’t regard themselves as just a rock’n’roll team but as a troupe of entertainers with an act they believe can take vaudeville, stadium and nightclub shows in their stride.” (Woman’s Weekly 1960)

After The Lectrons played a few songs that afternoon, some of the members of The Blue Jays called Ray aside and said, “Our bass player’s leaving us you know, we’re looking for a bass player. Come along to our rehearsal.” Ray could not believe his luck; he had only been playing for a short time and now he had the chance to play in one of Melbourne’s best bands. So, Ray attended The Blue Jays next rehearsal and after running through about four songs with them Bobby Johnson said to him, “Come along to our dance on Friday night and listen to us play and you’ll know what’s going on.”

The Blue Jays at the Newmarket Theatre: Bobby Johnson, Frank Brent, Lyn Langford, Alan Easterbrook, Chris Lawson, Laurie Allen, Ray Houston (kneeling).
Bobby Johnson, Frank Brent, Lyn Langford, Alan Easterbrook, Chris Lawson, Laurie Allen, Ray Houston (kneeling).

Ray went along to The Blue Jays dance and as soon as he got there the band started signalling him to come to the side of the stage. Ray recalls, “I went to the side of the stage and up the stairs and they slung a bass around my head and said, ‘Well you’re on.’ So that’s how I ended up in The Blue Jays.”

The Blue Jays used to run their own dance at the Mariana Hall in Sunshine on Friday night. Bobby Johnson’s mother and sister worked on the door and his father was one of the bouncers. The dance was popular and would regularly attract over 1000 teenagers on a weekly basis. Blue Jays leader Bobby Johnson knew that to achieve a good sound the group needed the best equipment, so each week a different band member would be given the door takings and told to go out and order the best instrument available. When it was Ray’s turn, he ordered a Fender Precision Bass from America. The price tag was £180, a lot of money in those days (roughly equivalent to 10 weeks of a tradesman’s wage) and it took 10 weeks to arrive.

Ray sold his white bass made by Laurie Bell to Peter Robinson who lent it to Pete Carroll. Pete recalled to Ray on Facebook an incident that occurred when he took the bass to a dance one night,

“The lead guitarist’s girlfriend in my first band The Mustangs was carrying the bass out to the car for me after we finished our gig. She was holding it by the strap and the strap came off and it dropped onto the floor and snapped the head off. I shit myself and had to tell Pete and give it back to him. Surprisingly, he took it OK. I don’t know if he got Laurie Bell to fix it or not. I also don’t know what happened to it.” (Facebook comment 31st March 2013)

Laurie Allen, Allan Easterbrook & Ray Houston at the Hillbilly Roundup Ferntree Gully 1961

The whole dynamics of The Blue Jays changed when Laurie Allen joined. Laurie was a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. Ray recalls,

“He was quite an influence on all of us, he was on me. He was always constructive and would give suggestions. He would say, ‘You should do this, you should do that.’ But in a polite way. No one was a greater influence on me.”

Laurie Allen had originally been with Malcolm Arthur & the Knights, and he convinced saxophone player Alan Easterbrook to move to The Blue Jays as well. Shortly after Laurie Allen joined the group he talked Ray into coming into radio 3DB to play bass backing country & western singers on ‘Dick Cranbourne’s Hillbilly Show’. Many good up-and-coming musicians passed through the ranks of the Hillbilly Showband including Laurie Allen (Bobby & Laurie), Ray Harris (The Blue Echoes), Graeme Trottman (The Playboys), Ray Eames (The Blue Jays) and Noel Tresider (The Premiers). Once a year they would hold a picnic called ‘Dick Cranbourne's Hill Billy Round-up’ at Ferntree Gully National Park and there would be a performance on the back of a semi-trailer.

The dance at the Mariana Hall proved popular with teenagers but the noise soon started to annoy the local residents and they were forced to close the dance. In a 2003 interview, Bobby Johnson recalled,

“It (the dance) was very successful, but the noise started to annoy a lot of the locals, so Father Walsh who I used to hire the hall off for £6.5s a night said we’d have to stop.”

The Blue Jays moved to another dance at the Newmarket Theatre which was run by Mrs Margaret Watson. This dance proved to be an even more popular venue attracting crowds of 1000 to 1200 teenagers each week. The superior sound The Blue Jays produced on stage with their quality equipment soon attracted the attention of one of the most experienced recording engineers in Melbourne. Marcus Hermann had originally started the Planet label in 1951 in partnership with Bob King Crawford and released a variety of recordings. Hermann wanted The Blue Jays to record the first single for a new label he was starting called Crest.

The single, Everybody Loves Saturday Night/Maori’s Farewell was recorded live at the Newmarket Theatre. It received quite a lot of airplay on local radio and reached No.28 on the charts. The group were pleased with the Boot’s Randolph style growling sax sound on the track which Alan Easterbrook was able to achieve by attaching a special mouthpiece to his saxophone. After the success of the first single, a second single was released, Wolfman/Kept A Broken Heart In Broken Hill featuring Laurie Allen on lead vocals. This was the start of a very successful recording career for Allen who would later achieve outstanding success as part of a duo with Bobby Bright.

Encouraged by the success of these two singles, Hermann decided to record an album with The Blue Jays. The album titled, ‘The Arthur Murray Twist Party’ was also recorded live at the Newmarket Theatre and included instrumentals and vocals tracks by Laurie Allan, Beverly Trimm, Jill Peachey and Lyn Langford. Bobby Johnson was impressed with the sound quality Marcus Hermann was able to achieve on this album.

“I admire Marcus Hermann so much because I still look back at the sound he got and all he used was a Rola two-track machine in a theatre. It was just amazing the sound that this man could do as an engineer.”

All of the album tracks plus The Blue Jays first two singles were re-issued on the Canetoad CD, ‘Shake Rattle & Roll’ along with some other early Crest singles.

Everything was going well for The Blue Jays during 1962 and they seemed destined to achieve national success. Unfortunately, a disagreement amongst some of the members caused Ray to leave along with the other two guitarists, Frank Brent and John Cosgrove. They formed a new group and because they all played Fender equipment, they decided to call themselves The Fendermen (not to be confused with the American country duo of the same name). They needed a drummer, so Ray called Frank Burns (older brother of singer Ronnie Burns) to see if he was interested. Frank Burns was with a group called The Roulettes who were heading for Perth. Frank did not want to go to Perth, so he agreed to join The Fendermen. Graeme Trottman took Frank’s place in The Roulettes.

The Fendermen 1962: Frank Brent, Ray Houston, John Cosgrove, Frank Burns

It's interesting to note that one of Ray’s bandmates from The Lectrons, Royce Nichols, later joined The Blue Jays as bass player when the group relocated to Brisbane to back singer Tony Worsley. Royce went on to co-write with Mal Clarke several songs recorded by the Brisbane singer as well as other Sunshine artists.

The Fendermen managed to secure a contract to play at dances run by promoter Hal Kennedy. They worked three nights a week at Leggett’s Palladium in Prahran and one night at the Orama Ballroom in Footscray. The dances were 50/50 dances. The Alan Flynn Big Band would cater for the older patrons playing Ballroom Dancing music and the Fendermen were employed to attract the younger crowd playing Rock’n’Roll. All of the dances included guest singers, usually one male and one female singer per night. Some of the featured singers included Joy Lemon, Arlene Forrest, Joan Mifsud, Colin Cook, Johnny Valentine and Len Walsh. Ray also remembers backing a very young Bee Gees and Olivia Newton-John at the Orama. Terry Dean was another singer who was the guest vocalist at the Orama and recalled to Ray on Facebook,

“I have fond memories of you guys backing me one night at the Orama Ballroom. I remember singing ‘Michelle’ and feeling a bit uneasy at the silence when I finished singing until I realised the crowd was waiting for Cosgrove to finish his guitar solo at the end.” (Facebook Nov 28th, 2016)

The Fendermen produced a great sound on stage and were highly regarded by the people who saw them perform live, as this You Tube comment confirms,

“Back in 1965 I used to watch them (The Fendermen) perform at Leggett’s Ballroom. They were the best pop/rock band in Melbourne around that time. They sounded great and they were tight.” (Jon Calderwood. YouTube August 2021).

The Fendermen were kept busy at this time because as well as working at Hall Kennedy dances they would do regular late-night spots at other venues. Usually on a Friday night after finishing at the Orama at 11.45 pm they would pack their equipment into their cars and drive to St Kilda to a well-known late-night venue, the Palais de Dance. They would start at 12.30 and play until 2 am. Another late-night venue they played at often was in Darling Street playing at private birthday parties and corporate functions.

The Fendermen were approached by W&G to do the backing for a single for popular vocalist Frankie Davidson. W&G wanted Davidson to record the song Six Days On The Road originally recorded by American Country singer Dave Dudley. W&G managed to delay the release of the single so they could get Davidson to record a version as they thought it would be a sure-fire hit. The Seekers were bought in as backing vocalists and The Fendermen rehearsed the song and had it down pat ready for the recording. But when Davidson came into the studio he said, “No, I don’t want to record that, I want to do ‘Sally Was A Good Old Girl’.

The W&G executives were not impressed and argued, “We had this record held back for you and now you don’t want to do it!” Davidson managed to get his own way and recorded the song. But when Sally Was A Good Old Girl/Nothing To Do (And All Day To Do It In) was released it created very little interest and was not successful. Davidson restored the confidence W&G had in him in May 1962 with backing by The Sapphires when his song Have You Ever Been To See King’s Cross was a big hit. Interestingly, Sally Was A Good Old Girl was included in a Seekers compilation CD called ‘Hidden Treasures Vol.1’ in 2020.

***(If any readers have a copy of Sally Was A Good Old Girl and the B-side Nothing To Do, please contact the author. The last time Ray heard these two tracks was in the recording studio and he would like a copy).

Ray left the Fendermen in 1967 but it was not the only big change in Ray’s life that year, because it was the year he married Alice. After getting married Ray decided he needed to have a more stable income a he got a full-time job. He initially worked in purchasing then moved into payroll. He joined 3-piece band Grandma’s Tonic, a group formed by Ray’s Blue Jay’s bandmate Bobby Johnson. Johnson formed Grandma’s Tonic in the latter part of 1966 with Paul Shannon on bass and vocals and Dennis Whitehead on lead guitar. The group achieved chart success with two singles Hi Hi Hazel/Johnny The Hammer (10/66) and I Know/Lost Girl (04/67). Paul Shannon was the lead vocalist on both of these singles.

Shortly after Ray joined Grandma’s Tonic, they became the backing band for popular vocalist Peter Doyle, and they backed the young singer at a recording session at Armstrong’s Studio. Peter Robinson (The Strangers) produced/arranged the four tracks, John Farrar (The Strangers) played guitar and Olivia Newton-John and Pat Carroll were the backing vocalists. The four tracks recorded at the session were released on two singles on the Astor label. The first If You Can Put That In A Bottle/I’m Not The Boy You’re After was released in April 1967 and the second, released in June 1967 was, Plastic Dreams And Toy Balloons/You’re My Remedy. Peter Doyle’s version of the Neil Sedaka penned Plastic Dreams was outstanding, but was largely ignored throughout Australia, except in Melbourne where it received quite a bit of airplay and reached No.23.

“The last charting hit for Peter Doyle as a solo act was in a slightly different direction to his earlier work under the Sunshine Records umbrella. A more mature Doyle emerged with this late in 1967 on Astor Records, backed by Grandma’s Tonic (who morphed out of the Blue Jays, another Sunshine act) who themselves notched up a couple of hits around this time. It was Ian “Molly” Meldrum who bought this song to Melbourne radio personality Stan Rofe as a strong contender to be recorded, with both of them then persuading Peter Doyle to cover it.” (Liner notes: 'Age Of Consent'– Aust. Pop Of The 60s Vol.5 CD)

Ray did not stay with Grandmas Tonic long and in 1968 he joined Melbourne pub band The Escorts. The group had been around since 1958 as Neil Sloane & the Escorts and when Ray joined in 1968 there had been quite a few line-up changes. The 1968 line-up included Johnny Eager on guitar, Mark Gillespie on saxophone, and Ron Whitehead (aka Ron Laine) on drums. Eager was the only person left from the early days. The group had a long-standing residency playing four nights a week at the Royal Hotel in Essendon and played general Top 40 music of the day. Ray recalls they played nearly every song off Neil Diamond’s ‘Hot August Night’ album.

Ray left the Escorts in 1972 to travel overseas and when he returned in 1974 he re-joined them. At this stage Johnny Eager had left and had been replaced by John Sullivan (ex-Rondells). Brian Lloyd did vocals and trumpet, Bruce Davies was on keyboards and John Jardine (Terry Dean’s older brother) played drums. When the group’s residency at the Royal Hotel ended in 1978 the group disbanded.

Ray was not out of work for long because he was offered a job with a continental type band called Mutiny. The 7-piece Mutiny was an interesting group because it included some members that went back to the early days of Melbourne rock’n’roll including Brian Lyons (ex-Planets) on saxophone and John Frank/Ward (ex-Fabulous Autocrats) on drums. The rest of the band was made up of people from various European countries including Ingo Gaida (from Germany) on guitar and vocals, Hennie Aarts (from Holland) on vocals and George Bogdan (from the Ukraine) on piano accordion. Geoff Haycock played trumpet, flugel horn and vibraphone.

Mutiny: Ingo Gaida, Ray Houston, Brians Lyons, Hennie Aarts, Geoff Haycock, George Bogdan, John Frank

Mutiny: Ingo Gaida, Ray Houston, Brian Lyons, Hennie Aarts,Geoff Haycock George Bogdan, John Frank.

The band played a mixture of rock’n’roll and European music working four nights a week to packed houses of enthusiastic patrons at the Stokehouse in St Kilda. Mutiny built up a solid following of loyal followers from 1980 until 1988. But when the crowds started drop off in 1989 the group was reduced to a 4-piece before finally disbanding in 1990.

The Premiers 1991: Ray Houston, Andrew King, Lex Pirotta, Stan Azzopardi, Mal Ronay, Sam Semple

In 1991 Ray received a call from Stan Azzopardi who asked him to join the reforming Premiers. Stan Azzopardi regarded as ‘one of the Godfathers of Melbourne rock’n’roll formed the original Premiers in 1959 and they broke-up in 1967. The band played on several recordings in the early 60s backing a variety of artists including Betty McQuade and Bobby Cookson. In March 1963 they issued their own single, Mary Had A Little Lamb/Song Of India. Both sides of the disc were instrumentals done in the style of the Champs, and it just scraped into the Top 40 in Melbourne. The reformed Premiers included Stan Azzopardi on guitar and vocals, Ray Houston on bass and vocals, Ken ‘Sam’ Semple (ex-Bobby James Syndicate) on saxophone, Andrew King on keyboards and vocals, Mal Ronay (ex-Bobby James Syndicate) on drums and Lex Pirotta on vocals.

The reformed Premiers recorded one cassette and two CDs, all recorded at Stan’s recording studio Premier Studios. It was while Ray was playing with the Premiers that he started being called Rockin’ Ray. Andrew King would introduce him as ‘Rockin’ Ray, Mr Western Suburbs, Mad Dog Houston'.

Ray on stage with The Premiers backing Betty McQuade

During the time Ray was playing with the Premiers he started filling in for another group called Gentry. When the Premiers finished up in 1998 he joined Gentry as a permanent member. In 2000 the group changed their name to Honey B & The Stingers. The band plays a blend of music ranging from 50s to 80s adjusting their music to suit the audience they are playing to. The current line-up includes Lyndal Alderson (lead vocals), Ron Evans (lead guitar), Ray Houston (bass/vocals), Leo Dalton (guitar/vocals) and Michael Hardware (drums/vocals). While performing with Honey B, Ray’s ‘crazy stage antics’ have been a feature of many of their shows. Bobby James explains Ray’s on-stage behaviour as follows,

“It’s hard to explain what he does. He behaves a little bit like he’s still in his teenage years. When he’s playing, he’ll move from side to side a bit a la the Shadows with Lyndal the lead singer of Honey B. He says little things and when he’s singing, he might change his voice a little bit. But funny. You’ve got to see it to understand it.”

Joe Galea Band 2021: Rory McKibbon, Joe Galea, Jimmy Sloggett, Peter Westwood, Ray Houston

Another group Ray played with was The Joe Galea Band from 2015 (when he was not playing with Honey B & The Stingers). Joe Galea is a veteran of the Australian music business who started singing in the 60s with Sydney band the Midnighters working in places like Suzie Wong’s, Surf City and Whiskey A Go Go. The band members when Ray was playing with them included, Joe Galea (vocals), Rory McKibbon (guitar), Ray Houston (bass), Peter Westwood (drums) and Jimmy Sloggett (saxophone). Ray played with the band for around six years until 2021 when Joe had to stop singing following a lung operation.

Ray continues to perform with Honey B to this day. They play regular gigs at various venues around Melbourne and their shows are always well received. The group have also performed as part of the Victorian Seniors Festival in Federation Square in October 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2022. In 2003 they released a CD which they sell at their shows and there are a number of video clips of their performances posted on You Tube. Ray also performs in a duo with Bobby James. Their most recent show is a Cliff Richard Tribute Show.

This year marks Ray’s 63rd year in show business and there are no indications that he intends to hang up his bass anytime soon. When asked about his incredible journey as a musician, he says simply,

“Time flies when you’re having fun.”

Honey B & The Stingers performing at Federation Square Oct 16, 2022: Ron Evans, Leo Dalton,Michael Hardware, Lyndal Alderson, Ray Houston


With the Blue Jays

Maori’s Farewell/Everybody Loves Saturday Night Crest CRS-700-1 1961

Wolf Man/Kept A Broken Heart In Broken Hill (with Laurie Allen) Crest CRS-7-003 1962

The Arthur Murray Twist Party LP Crest CRT-12-002 01/62

Sheba, Let’s Twist Again, What’d I Say, The Monster, Peppermint Twist, Mama Don’t Want, Long Pony Tail/Do The Twist Some More, Dance With A Dolly (With A Hole In Her Stocking, Old Spinning Wheel Twist, Early In The Morning, Shakin’ All Over, Buckeye, Ballin’ The Jack, Twist.

With the Fendermen backing Frankie Davidson

Sally Was A Good Old Girl/Nothing To Do (And All Day To Do It In) W&G S1650 1963

With Grandma’s Tonic backing Peter Doyle

If You Can Put That In A Bottle/I’m Not The Boy You’re After Astor A-7078 04/67

Plastic Dreams & Toy Balloons/You’re My Remedy Astor A-7082 06/67

With the Premiers

Juke Box Gold Cassette 1992

Seven Nights To Rock, High School Confidential, Sam’s Song, One Night, He’s Back, Chantilly Lace/Sea Cruise, Mean Woman Blues, Feel So Fine, Guitar Boogie, Cathy’s Clown, Queen Of The Hop, Breathless.

Rock & Roll Party CD 1995

Lucille, Who Put The Bomp, Corrina Corrina, Twistin’ The Night Away, Poetry In Motion, Cho Cho Ch’ Boogie, Danny Boy, Let The Four Winds Blow, Sixty Minute Man, Hallelujah I Love Her So, Mr Bassman, See You Later Alligator, Charming Billy, Stagger Lee, Guitar Boogie, He’s Back, Mean Woman Blues, One Night With You, Diana, Seven Nights To Rock, I Feel So Fine, Sea Cruise, Chantilly Lace.

The Premiers CD

The Twist, Little Bitty Pretty One, Be My Guest, Blue Moon, That Boy, Summertime Blues, Unchain My Heart, That’s Alright, My Girl, You Never Can Tell, Boom Boom Boom, A Lover’s Question, The Boss’s Daughter, Charlie Brown, Spanish Harlem, Mona Lisa, Queen Of The Hop, Breathless, Sam’s Song, Cathy’s Clown, High School Confidential.

With Honey B & the Stingers

Buzzin’ CD 2003

Good Rockin’ Daddy, The Chicken & The Hawk, Cincinnati Fireball, I Only Want To Be With You, Cracker Jack, Wild One, My Guy, Born To Boogie, Lucille, Rockin’ Good Way, Boney Maroney, Do You Want To Dance, My Boy Elvis, The Shape I’m In, Soulful Dress, Kansas City, This Little Girl’s Gone Rocking, I Knew The Bride, Shazam, Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean, Come Go With Me, At The Hop.

With Bobby James

A Tribute To Cliff Richard CD 2022

Dancing Shoes, In The Country, Summer Holiday, Please Don’t Tease, Living Doll, Lucky Lips, I Could Easily Fall In Love With You, Bachelor Boy, The Young Ones, Gee Whiz It’s You, On The Beach, Singing The Blues, Dream, Move It, Do You Wanna Dance, We Say Yeah.

Shake Rattle & Roll CD Canetoad Records CTCD-036

Wolfman, I Left My Heart In Broken Hill, The Monster, Buckeye, Peppermint Twist, Sheba, Old Spinning Wheel Twist, John Peel, Shakin’ All Over, Mama Don’t Want, Long Pony Tail, Funiculi Funicula, Moonshot, Early In The Morning, Dance With A Dolly, The Reason, Please Understand, Cross My Heart, Jezebel, Like Greensleeves, What’d I Say, Sixteen Candles, Don’t Care Too Much, T-W-I-S-T, Let’s Twist Again, Do The Twist Some More, Suzanne, Yes I Do, Farmer John, Stan Rofe interviews The Blue Jays Everybody Loves Saturday Night, Stan Rofe interviews The Blue Jays Maori Farewell.

Sources: – The Fendermen bio, March 4th, 2021

Graeme Brown – The Bobby Johnson Story, Australian Music Museum

Pete Carroll – Interview July 6th, 2022 - bio

Ray Houston – Interview July 7th, 2022 & August 30th, 2022

Bobby James – Interview October 1st, 2022

Bobby Johnson - Interview August 25th, 2003

Zbig Nowara – comments via email August 3rd, 2022 – The Premiers bio



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