She first made a name for herself on the stages of the coffee bars of Christchurch and then inner city Auckland. The name was Diane Jacobs.
The singer spoke to Chris Bourke (ChaCha magazine, March 1986) about singing pop and soul live. “There were lots of little coffee clubs in Auckland to go to hear this music. Places like the Beatle Inn, the Shiralee, the Top 20, and there was a jazz venue near Queen Street [Lorne St, opposite Central Library], the Montmartre – I used to go in there and sing pop with a jazz band. Just piano with slap bass and drums, and I’d sing Dusty Springfield stuff. So I had all that grounding.”
Dinah Lee explained that the songs she recorded with Max Merritt were not new to her. “I used to do ‘Yockomo’, ‘Reet Petite’ and all those songs with Max Merritt and the Meteors and The Invaders even before I recorded them.”
When I went to see the first (and last) night of Hugh Lynn’s poorly attended “Kiwi Rock 1955-1990” concert series at Carlaw Park, Jan 13, 1990, the stellar line-up of New Zealand legends had an audience of 200 and by mid-show nobody had got the party started.
A massive hit in New Zealand, 'Don't You Know Yockomo' also went to No.1 in Sydney and Melbourne, making moving to Australia easy.
I wrote at the time (RipItUp February 1990): “Suddenly things changed at Carlaw Park, as if by divine intervention, as if Dinah Lee arrived on a chariot of fire. The band sparked into life, launching raucously into Motown classic ‘Dancing In The Street’. Ms Lee now struts in the Tina Turner school of sultry mature chic. The crowd took one look, moved 50 metres forward and sat down again. Dinah was a hit! The crowd loved her old hits ‘Don’t You Know Yockomo’ and ‘Reet Petite’ but alas she announced her final number (her new single), Wilson Pickett’s ‘In The Midnight Hour’ and Dinah left without doing an encore and she didn’t do her biggest NZ hit ‘Do The Blue Beat’.” On that night Mark Williams and Max Merritt both found Dinah Lee to be a very hard act to follow.
Dinah Lee was born Diane Jacobs in Waimate, 1943 and got her new name when she released her debut single ‘Don’t You Know Yockomo’ for Viking Records, August 1964. The first pressing read “Diane Lee” but from the second pressing the label read “Dinah Lee” and the band on the session were also credited – Max Merritt and the Meteors. A massive hit in New Zealand, 'Don't You Know Yockomo' also went to No.1 in Sydney and Melbourne, making moving to Australia easy. “I worked when I came over here,” she told Chris Bourke, “I was lucky, I had a hit so I didn’t have to start at the bottom.”
Dinah Lee’s three-year career with Viking Records (and HMV in Australia) reads like a whirlwind of work. Her first four (and best known) NZ singles came out in the last five months of 1964: ‘Yockomo’ (August), ‘Reet Petite’ (September) ‘Do The Blue Beat’ (October) and ‘Who Stole The Sugar (November).
‘Do The Blue Beat’ was too funky for Australia audiences and became the flip side of the double A-sided single ‘Reet Petite’. Dinah Lee was fortunate to have been backed by a band as fine as Max Merritt and His Meteors on two hit singles and on several major tours. In 1965 Lee had fellow-headliners The Easybeats backing her on an Australian tour.
Dinah Lee adopted a “mod” look in 1964 and this look was popular with teenagers, a non-conformist image that was “feminist” and empowering, whether that was intended or not. A contemporary doco described Lee as, “a left field act from New Zealand” with “a rebellious edge that teenage girls identified with. She brought with her the classic 60s look, from of all places, Christchurch.”
In 1965 Dinah Lee travelled to the USA and on to London, making TV appearances in both countries. In late 1965 Lee returned to the USA for a second appearance on Shindig. In London, Lee stayed with Millie Small and her manager Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. Lee toured downunder with Millie Small twice, once in 1965 and again in 1966.
After the release of a final single for Viking and HMV in July 1967, her contract was not renewed by either company, but the reason or reasons are not known to this writer. Lee continued to be in demand for live work and has stayed busy in the decades that followed her tumultuous three years at the top of the charts.
For an in-depth trip through the 1960s with Dinah Lee, read Garth Cartwright’s hilarious interview with Bobi Petch – Dinah Lee’s personal assistant and best friend. Click on “Stories” in the top right hand corner of this page, or the link above.
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In NZ, Dinah was signed by local label Viking Records and recorded three singles backed by Max Merritt and His Meteors.
In 1965 Dinah Lee won New Zealand's first Entertainer of the Year award.
In Australia, Dinah became the "Face of Yardley" for the Yardley cosmetic company, used in all advertising, television and promotional tours.
In 1984 Dinah was the over 35s Australian Female Bodybuilder of the Year.
Dinah toured down under with Millie Small (My Boy Lollipop) and while in London, recorded with Millie's manager and co-founder of Island Records Chris Blackwell.