Shifting Racial Attitudes Through Music: African American Performers at West Melbourne Stadium

Shannon Peters

On the evening of Sunday July 25th, 1954, an enthusiastic crowd of around a thousand people gathered at Sydney’s Mascot Airport, eager to catch a glimpse of celebrated jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s arrival in Australia had been delayed by a few days due to her mistreatment by prejudiced Pan American airlines’ staff, who had refused to validate her first-class ticket.1 Despite this controversy, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported that she ‘waved happily to the crowd and signed autographs for her fans’ before departing on a transfer flight to Melbourne.2 Although this event may have seemed like a typical fan meeting with a popular musician, it in fact held deeper significance. Fitzgerald’s visit marked an important milestone in Australian entertainment and social history, signifying the end of a two decades-long ban that prohibited African American performers from touring Australia. Indeed, as revealed by the University of Melbourne Archives’ collection “Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd” (1987.0094), Fitzgerald’s tour became the first of a succession of music concerts featuring African American performers held at West Melbourne Stadium throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Figure 1: Chuck Berry – Promotional Concern Booklet, January 1959, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.0000.0022.

As the “Records of Stadiums” collection demonstrates, West Melbourne Stadium, which opened in 1913 at 300 Dudley Street, West Melbourne, was originally used in the early twentieth century as a venue for much publicised boxing tournaments. However, by the mid 1950s onwards, the venue was increasingly used to host musical performances, resulting in its renaming as “Festival Hall.” Many famous American music stars were brought to Melbourne to perform at Festival Hall in this period by American music promoter Lee Gordon, called by Harry M. Miller ‘the pioneer’ of large-scale arena concerts in Australia. Lee had arranged a deal with Stadiums Limited to use their stadiums in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane to host visiting acts from the United States.3 Gordon was responsible for bringing both Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to Australia in 1954, followed by a range of other African American artists over the next decade, including Nat King Cole, Chubby Checker, Little Richard, and Sammy Davis Jr. While Lee Gordon appears to have been motivated by financial gain rather than by any overt desire to combat racial prejudice, his efforts nonetheless had the effect of helping to challenge the stronghold of ‘white Australia’ through the unifying power of music. A rival company, Headliners, soon began emulating Gordon’s approach, bringing over stars such as Chuck Berry and Johnny Mathis.

These Festival Hall performances represented a considerable cultural shift, given the antagonistic treatment African American musicians had received a few decades prior, when the Musicians’ Union of Australia had called for the prohibition of black American performers.4 African American performers had not always been excluded, as evident in this timeline exploring the history of African American performers in Australia. However, a 1928 controversy involving vaudeville group ‘Sonny Clay and the Colored Idea’ had resulted in a quarter-century long ban restricting the entry of African American musicians. 5 The band’s abrupt deportation following several members’ sexual relations with white women in Melbourne was driven by heightened concern over the need to protect Australia’s status as a white nation. By the time Lee Gordon brought jazz artists Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to the country in 1954, the early-twentieth-century fear over the morally and racially degrading effects of jazz music was giving way to similar concerns over a new genre, Rock ‘N’ Roll. The first appearance of Fitzgerald and Armstrong in Australia also coincided with the year most often considered the onset of the U.S. civil rights movement.

Figure 2: Ella Fitzgerald – Souvenir Programme, 1960, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.0000.0003
Figure 3: Sammy Davis Jr. – Promotional Concert Booklet, April 1959, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.0000.0003

Included as part of the “Records of Stadiums” collection are an extensive range of souvenir concert booklets from the 1950s and 1960s, which offer insight into the ways in which music promoters sought to generate excitement among Australian concertgoers towards the visiting African American stars. These materials are not currently available online but can be viewed in person by appointment with the University of Melbourne Reading Room. The booklets for each concert feature glossy, brightly coloured covers, photographs of the visiting musicians, multipage biographies, setlists, and advertisements for various airlines, radio stations, and albums. Given that the booklets were created as promotional materials, they fittingly include glowing praise for each artist’s impressive career achievements. A 1957 concert booklet, created for Nat King Cole’s third Australian tour, describes Cole as ‘a creative pianist with originality, sensitivity, artistry, and polish.’ Similarly, a 1960 concert tour booklet proclaims Ella Fitzgerald as ‘the foremost singer in the field of popular music,’ possessing instinctive technique and effortlessness. While the booklets include occasional references to the musicians’ struggles with racial and economic adversity, such as Little Richard’s triumph over ‘bone-aching poverty,’ they appear primarily aimed at portraying the artists in a relatable and endearing manner to Australian audiences. For instance, Sammy Davis Jr.’s love of photography was emphasised, as was Nat King Cole’s devotion to his family.

Figure 4: Louis Armstrong – Promotional Concert Booklet, March 1963, University of Melbourne Archives, Records of Stadiums Pty Ltd, 1987.0094.0000.0022

Taken together, this collection of concert memorabilia provides a useful record of the impressive range of well-known African American musicians who performed at Festival Hall during a period of increased American influence on Australian popular culture. When considered alongside media coverage of the era, it is evident that these artists were widely embraced by the Australian public, thus helping to shift racial prejudices in a nation long defined by its commitment to whiteness. Nat King Cole attracted attention not only for his music but for his contributions to charity while visiting the country.6 Likewise, the 1960s shows of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were both televised as part of the Australian variety series BP Super Show, receiving much commendation.7 8 In addition to offering insight into shifting race relations, the memorabilia in the Stadiums Collection would also be of value for researchers interested in exploring the relationship between the entertainment industry and other aspects of society, such as gender, consumerism, advertising, and celebrity culture. While the souvenir booklets contain limited reference to the concurrent Cold War tensions or civil rights movement, they nonetheless offer an interesting glimpse into the role of music in facilitating a transformation of cultural attitudes amidst such a turbulent period of social change.

Click here for a timeline exploring the history of African American performers in Australia.

Shannon Peters is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. Her research explores the intersection between progressive education and social activism in early-twentieth-century New York City.

References

  1. “Ella Fitzgerald May Sue Airline,” Advertiser, July 27, 1954, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/48120429.
  2. “1000 to Greet Singer,” Daily Telegraph, July 26, 1954, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/248931261.
  3. “Leading U.S. Entertainers to Play Here,” Sydney Morning Herald, July 8, 1954, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/18440369.
  4. See Deirdre O’Connell, Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age (Melbourne University Press, 2021).
  5. Kyla Cassells, “Sex, Scandal and Speculation: White Women, Race and Sexual Desire in the Colored Idea Scandal, 1928,” Lilith: A Feminist History Journal 19 (2013): 4–17.
  6. Nat King Cole and patient at the Royal Children’s Hospital, 1950s, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry, and Health Sciences Museums Collection, MHM2021.4, Medical History Museum, University of Melbourne.
  7. “Ella’s Show Best of Its Type Seen on Melbourne TV,” Age, January 19, 1961, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=3cBVAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ULsDAAAAIBAJ&pg=7093%2C2631820.
  8. “Satchmo on Channel 7 Tonight,” Canberra Times, April 20, 1963, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/104250758.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *