Boogie woogie and rockabilly pianist Ezra Lee is a regular at Preston’s piano-centric community bar, the Ragtime Tavern.
Ezra Lee grew up in Tamworth, the son of pedal steel and guitar player Eddy Matzenik. His dad co-founded the Sydney surf rock outfit, The Atlantics, in the early 1960s and worked as a session player in London later in the decade.
“He taught me how to play the piano when I was really young,” says Lee. “I just grew up around musicians and that whole world. So, you know, the instrument’s really fun and I want to be a singer, but I just want that life.”
At the age of 14, Lee joined his father in Johnny Green’s Blues Cowboys, touring with the group for the next six years.
“They taught me everything, how to play with a band,” he says. “So from that point on it was easy to jump into my own thing. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
Lee’s first love was country music. Then, once he discovered Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Fats Domino, rock’n’roll became his passion. His deep affection for the genre continues to inform his boogie-woogie and rockabilly piano style. The country music influence has never gone away either, with the low down blues of Nashville demi-god Hank Williams being another foundational influence.
Lee’s made good on his desire to have that life. He performs several nights a week at venues big and small. Career highlights include multiple Bluesfest appearances, a support tour with rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson and collaborations with local stalwarts such as Jeff Lang, James Blundell and Dave Larkin.
“Around 2009 I went to go play in Spain at the Screamin’ Rockabilly Festival,” says Lee of another milestone. “I got to meet Bill Haley’s original Comets. I’d loved them since I was a kid. So all of a sudden I was playing these nostalgia rockabilly festivals all around the world and the headliners are always originals.”
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In 2011, Lee made a trip to Las Vegas to perform at the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend, an event headlined by his hero, Jerry Lee Lewis. More recently, he’s struck up a creative partnership with Jerry’s sister, Linda Gail Lewis.
“I’ve just made a record with her. That’s thanks to Creative Victoria, who funded the project,” he says.
Lee has also released numerous albums of original material, either as a solo artist or with backing from The Havoc Band and The Round Up Boys. He currently spends most of his time fronting the Ezra Lee Revue. However, he gets to try something a little different during his regular appearances at the Ragtime Tavern.
“I’m not used to really playing solo, so I’ve joined with Damon Smith who’s a great piano player, kind of in the same boogie woogie style,” he says. “I really respect the Ragtime. It’s just a fun gig. We can do whatever we want. We just yell songs at each and see what we can do.”
This is in keeping with the laidback, anything goes spirit of the Ragtime. Venue owner Andrew Bianco designed the Tavern as a throwback to prohibition-era speakeasies and New Orleans jazz bars. The piano – a grand, no less – is literally built into the bar.
“The bar juts out about two metres or so. Inside that, [the piano’s] on a spinning plate so it spins around as you play. It means you can look at a few different people. People really get a kick out of watching that happen.”
Is there a limit to how fast it spins?
“One night we tried it out and it’s pretty wild. You’re hanging on,” laughs Lee.
The intimate nature of the setup removes any punter-performer divide.
“We try to get them to sing-along, to get people to be part of it as much as we can,” Lee says. “That’s what rock’n’roll is all about, especially this gig because people are literally two feet away from you. Everyone’s yelling out songs or singing along. It’s a big party in there.”
Find Ragtime Tavern at 206 Tyler St, Preston. For more information, visit the venue’s website.