The late Ritchie Yorke introduced Stevie Wonder to Australian audiences, was instrumental in John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 Bed-Ins and wrote the book on Led Zeppelin — literally.
Now, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) will dive into the life of the Brisbane music journalist, author and broadcaster to celebrate his contribution to the local and international music industry.
As a young radio DJ in Toowoomba in 1960, Yorke’s passion for emerging talent and sounds actually got him sacked.
Yorke had been campaigning to bring R’n’B to Australia and immediately “fell in love” with the work of a 12-year-old blind boy from America after receiving his album through the Motown mailing list.
“Stevie Wonder’s very first number one hit … Fingertips Part II,” Yorke’s widow Minnie said, as she recalled the song that had Yorke so excited.
“So on his Toowoomba radio show, he played that song, and in playing that song, Monday morning he was called down to their office and he was told never to play that N-word music again.
“For Ritchie, [that was a] red rag to a bull.
Speaking about the incident in an interview later in life, Yorke told the Canadian Museum of Recorded Music and Culture (CMRMC): “I felt it was time to draw a line.”
“That was when I realised, early in the piece, if I wanted to pursue rhythm and blues music by Afro-American artists, I was probably in the wrong country,” he said.
In 1966, Yorke moved to England where he worked for Island Records before relocating to Canada where he wrote and edited articles for Rolling Stone, Billboard and The Globe and Mail.
With an ear for talent, it wasn’t long before Yorke was working alongside industry giants like John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison and Aretha Franklin, many of whom became his close friends.
Yorke championed Led Zeppelin in the early days, at a time when the English rock band’s first album was not well received.
And he was in the studio when Aretha Franklin recorded Natural Woman in one take — a story Ms Yorke said always brought tears to his eyes when he retold it.
Yorke was also instrumental in bringing the world’s attention to Lennon and Ono’s famous Bed-Ins for Peace in Amsterdam and Montreal in 1969.
“I just thought it was amazing that John and Yoko were using their fame for something very positive, rather than just glorifying their own egos, which so many rock artists did in that day,” Yorke told CMRMC.
‘They’ve found an archeological dig’
Yorke didn’t throw out much, if anything, keeping almost every article, letter, press pass, photograph, vinyl record, concert ticket and item of clothing he’d collected throughout his career.
When he died in 2017, his wife Minnie had the colossal task of cataloguing and preserving those memories, and now the NFSA has stepped in to help, with Yorke’s possessions now in Canberra.
In a statement, the NFSA said Yorke was one of Australia’s most significant music critics.
“The NFSA is delighted to be working together with Minnie Yorke to help celebrate Ritchie’s life and career,” the NFSA said.
But the NFSA actually came across Yorke by chance when hosting a monthly event called the Vinyl Lounge in Canberra earlier this year, Ms Yorke said.
“The people who came along a month or so ago asked for the Beatles,” Ms Yorke said.
“They went looking through the archive, found a white label from a donation that was given to them from a radio station, a white label vinyl that had ‘John Lennon’ written on it.
“Then they researched the words that John was saying and discovered it was Ritchie talking to him.
“Then they wrote to me … so of course I was delighted to say, ‘Yes, I can tell you more about this and there’s lots more’.
Hendrix’s hat and Lennon’s jumpsuit
Among Yorke’s collection is a hat, gifted to him by Jimi Hendrix in May 1969, when the musician was at the height of his career.
“There’s a great story behind this hat,” Ms Yorke said.
“Jimi Hendrix was busted at Toronto airport for drugs, there was a very big sold-out show waiting to go ahead that night … but the court had to go ahead.
Other pieces from the time include a small black jumpsuit that belonged to John Lennon and was worn by Yorke as a uniform during the War Is Over campaign.
One of the countries Yorke and Canadian rocker Ronnie Hawkins travelled to to spread Lennon and Ono’s message was China, where they brandished cardboard handbills on the Lok Ma Chau border point.
“We managed to get through the borders, held up our posters towards China and got back in the van just as the soldiers came pouring out of their building,” Yorke said once.
It wasn’t the only item Lennon gifted Yorke. He also gave him the first acetate press of the Beatles song Let It Be.
The journalist, who later worked at the ABC and was chief music writer for Brisbane’s Sunday Mail for two decades, also wrote a number of books, including biographies on Led Zeppelin, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and on Van Morrison.
Many of the artists Yorke worked with remained loyal friends until they or he reached the end of their long and winding roads.
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