Country singer Ken Lemon never gave up his day job. The one time an employer refused to give him time off to go out on tour as part of a Joe Brown package or with his Viking Records labelmate Maria Dallas, he simply quit and found a new job.
Based in Auckland, his debut album was released in the United States, England and South Africa in the 1960s and he was a Loxene Golden Disc finalist with ‘Living In A House Full Of Love’, but by the late 1970s he had seemingly disappeared.
Born in the seaport town of Barrow-in-Furness in Lancashire, England, in 1939, Lemon did a bit of social singing in pubs and dance halls and occasional talent quests in the 1950s and 60s.
He and his brother served apprenticeships as marine coppersmiths, working on electric and atomic submarines, carriers, destroyers and frigates and helping to build the ocean liner SS Oriana, which was launched in November 1959.
With their sister and her husband having immigrated to New Zealand, their mother wanted to keep the family together and she and her husband and the two Lemon brothers followed them to Auckland in about 1962.
He found himself at a singing competition at the Shiralee in Customs Street, winning his heat and progressing to the final.
The brothers started work at the dockyard in Devonport as coppersmiths but almost immediately courted trouble by repeatedly turning up late, despite living only half a mile away. Hauled before the naval commander in charge, they were let go. Although his brother soon went back, Ken Lemon took up sheetmetal engineering work.
After six months or so, he entered a singing competition at the Shiralee in Customs Street, winning his heat and progressing to the final. The manager of the venue engaged Lemon to stay on as the resident singer, performing Friday and Saturday nights and twice on Sundays.
A deal was struck with John Ewan of Octagon Records and Lemon found himself in Stebbing Studios recording his debut single ‘Detroit City’, with Rudy & The Crystals backing.
His next two singles – a cover of Slim Whitman’s ‘China Doll’ and ‘Sailor Man’, both “arranged and directed” by Viking Records star guitarist Peter Posa – were released in a joint Octagon and Viking effort, although the Whitman and Frank Ifield falsetto of ‘China Doll’ didn’t particularly enthral Viking A&R director Ron Dalton.
Lemon’s sister and her husband decided New Zealand wasn’t for them after all and returned to England and bought a pub near London. Lemon’s Octagon releases found their way to the pub’s jukebox where they eventually wore out.
When Lemon and band started playing at dances at the Surfside Ballroom in Milford, Dalton popped by for another listen just as Lemon was putting his rich baritone to its best use on Jim Reeves’ ‘He’ll Have To Go’. Now Dalton’s ears pricked up.
He put Lemon together with Mike Perjanik and his band at Stebbings, the singer pulling country songs from his repertoire, running through them and putting them to tape all in one weekend. The result was his debut LP This Hombre Called Lemon, produced by Dalton and released on Viking in December 1965, which included Roger Miller’s ‘King Of The Road’, Don Gibson’s ‘Oh Lonesome Me’ and New Zealand songwriter Jim Ruane’s ‘I’m Leaving Town’.
He undertook the first of three national Miss New Zealand tours for promoter Joe Brown, organising time off from his employers to further his music career. He struck up a great friendship with singer Eddie Low, who had already spent a lot of time in Australia, and Low got in Lemon’s ear about the opportunities there. But with a wife and child and a mortgage, Lemon wasn’t prepared to take the risk of crossing the Tasman.
He really hit his straps in 1966 with The Second Album, which was recorded at HMV’s studio in Wellington with musical director Garth Young, and Dalton again producing. It opened with probably his best-known song ‘Living In A House Full Of Love’ (a Loxene Golden Disc finalist in 1966) and included no less than seven Lee Hazlewood compositions – ‘Houston’ and ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’ among them.
Lemon’s parents and brother opted to go back to England. A proud Mrs Lemon took copies of her son’s LPs and they were played on the ship’s sound system, but she drew the line at leaving them with the entertainment officer to pass on to the company’s head office.
This Hombre Called Lemon was released on the Roulette label in the United States in 1967.
This Hombre Called Lemon was released on the Roulette label in the United States in 1967. Lemon even received fan mail from there asking him where they could find more of his records.
Lemon toured with Maria Dallas, featuring on the live LP The Maria Dallas Country Show, released in 1967. The two were teamed up for the album Face To Face the same year, although they didn’t sing together on the record.
After several years of little promotion or airplay with Viking Records, Lemon was approached by one of Joe Brown’s employees and told that Brown was interested in recording him but wouldn’t touch him while he was under contract to Viking.
The self-managed Lemon had looked on enviously while John Hore had released two or so LPs a year on Brown’s label, which were then heavily pushed. It was easy enough to get out of the Viking deal, but all Lemon could do then was wait to hear from the Brown camp.
After a few months of being fobbed off by the employee who had first approached him, Joe Brown was in Auckland and Lemon decided to confront him. Brown admitted to being too busy with John Hore to give Lemon any thought and the two men ceased communications.
In 1972, Eldred Stebbing invited Lemon to record a low-cost album for his Zodiac label. The inevitably titled A Slice Of Lemon was produced and arranged by Barry Clewett with Bruce Lynch on guitar and featured songs by Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Jimmie Rodgers. But when the production went over budget, Stebbing refused to spend any money on promotion and it sunk.
Touring without the Joe Brown machine behind him was a struggle. Not able to play an instrument himself, Lemon would arrive in town with Clewett’s carefully arranged lead sheets to find the pick-up band couldn’t read music. Four hours of rehearsal would hardly improve the situation.
He was called on to sing Glyn Tucker’s ‘Hard Lines, Son’ on TV’s Studio One song contest in 1974, competing against artists such as Ray Columbus, Bunny Walters, Shona Laing and a pre-Mi-Sex Steve Gilpin. The exposure helped rustle up some work but it soon trickled down to just the occasional club date.
There was a brief return to the studio in 1986 when songwriter Harry McRae requested Lemon to record his song celebrating the Waipa Delta paddleboat, ‘Roll On Waikato’. The 45 was released on Festival Records and produced by Gray Bartlett.
Always putting family first and without the pushy nature required to get himself out there, Ken Lemon never received the accolades he deserved, and it’s impossible to hear those opening bars of ‘Living In A House Full Of Love’ – with its thumping bass drum and dirty guitar and then that big, resonant voice – without wondering how he didn’t.
The Chicks provided vocal backing on Ken Lemon’s debut LP, This Hombre Called Lemon.
Ken Lemon appeared on Maria Dallas’s 1967 live album The Maria Dallas Country Show alongside Max McCauley, Leo Clarke, Tony And The Initials, George Tumahai and the writer of Dallas’s biggest hit, ‘Tumblin’ Down’, Jay Epae.