Bart Stokes is only 18 years old in this photo, but he’s in very good company. Stokes is on the left, looking like he’s deciding whether to play saxophone or clarinet. Beside him is Mavis Rivers, and on the far right is Wellington band leader and trombonist Fred Gore. It was taken in New Plymouth in 1950, at the annual Press Ball. Also on stage that night was another star: novelist Ronald Hugh Morrieson, playing guitar.
But to jazz musicians who came through the Auckland scene in the 1950s, it was Stokes who was the star: a saxophone prodigy and virtuoso with exacting standards. Wellington born, he was still a teenager when he began to get some of the best gigs in the city. He was only 20 when he led his own big band in a live broadcast on 2YA in 1952, with up-and-comers such as Jeff Mechaelis, Lawrie Lewis, Tony Noorts and Dorsey Cameron being joined by a veteran rhythm section: Bob Barcham, Slim Dorward and Harry Voice.
Later that year, Stokes began making forays to Auckland where he would soon settle, as well as his close friend from childhood, Bennie Gunn. He caught the tail end of the Dixieland revival, though as a cutting-edge jazz man it was a genre he would later regard with disdain. Again, the gigs were plentiful, with band leaders such as Jock Nisbett, Derek Heine, Len Hawkins. With the arrival of rock’n’roll he agreed to go on tour with a band that included his jazz peers Merv Thomas, Lawrie Lewis and Bernie Allen. But it was one for the money: rock’n’roll was even lower on the pecking order than Dixieland. He led groups such as Bart Stokes and his Music for Moderns and the Bart Stokes Quartet (with Gunn, Ray Edmondson and Galvin Edser) and Sextet.
By 1957, he was one of the regular band leaders in the weekly live radio band broadcasts, a coveted gig which seemed to some like a closed shop of elite players. His arrangements could be experimental, and that didn’t always gel with club managers who wanted a great crowd rather than great bop. He took his jazz seriously – it was art before it was entertainment – but still knew how to have fun. Merv Thomas told me that radio band sessions for 1YA could be uproarious. After the trombonists used their little spray bottles of water - with which they lubricated their slides – to squirt other players, things escalated until other musicians began packing water pistols. When Bart Stokes entered the radio studio with the fire extinguisher from the hallway, and let rip, they knew they had gone too far.
He was busy, teaching music and arranging by day. Lawrie Lewis recalled seeing Stokes write an overture on a plane, without consulting any instrument, when flying down to see Dizzy Gillespie play in Wellington. He handed the score with all the parts to the musicians who played a brief support slot. “That astounded me, that someone had the theoretical knowledge to do that,” said Lewis.
In early 1960, Stokes packed his sax and other instruments (trumpet, flute, bass and piano) in a suitcase and left for England, intending to remain “indefinitely”. He stayed away 21 years, though the sojourn didn’t begin well when his tenor sax and trumpet were stolen in about the third month. Two years later he was in Australia, playing bass for Winifred Atwell, and arranging for television, before returning to Europe. He shared bills with the likes of Johnny Dankworth, Humphrey Lyttelton, Nat King Cole and Shirley Bassey, among others, worked clubs, wrote ballets, led concert and variety orchestras and wrote arrangements and film scores.
He played all over Europe where he was impressed by the variety of work, the efficient and up-to-date orchestras, and the professional respect given to those with experience and maturity. “There’s a quality that sort of keeps you on your toes,” he told the Listener’s Marcia Russell when he returned in 1981. There was still arranging work on offer for Radio New Zealand.
His first love was jazz and tenor sax, he said to Russell, but over the years he kept adding more instruments to his CV; eventually the piccolo and clarinet joined the trumpet, flute, piano and tenor sax. “I discovered over the years that it’s no good trying to write for an instrument if you don’t play it. It just makes a nightmare for the poor devil at the end of it.”
Merv Thomas, Bennie Gunn and Bernie Allen were just three of many musicians who spoke of Stokes’s abilities with a respect that bordered on awe. So it is with great sadness that the jazz community of the 1950s now farewells their brother, who died in his sleep recently in Auckland, aged 82.
The top picture shows Bart Stokes, at left, with Mavis Rivers and, at right, Fred Gore (courtesy Grant Gillanders). The next pictures show Bernie Allen, at left, with Stokes – from the Gisborne Photo News, 1957 (its archive is on-line). Also from 1957 is a shot from the Auckland Town Hall with, from left, Lennie Hutchinson, Bernie Allen, Don Branch, Lyn Christie and Bart Stokes (courtesy Bernie Allen).
Lou Clauson’s death on 28 December 2013 received minimal coverage in the media, which shows how far New Zealand has moved on from the 1960s humour of Lou & Simon. But it should be acknowledged that for a few years, the duo was one of the biggest acts in New Zealand entertainment. Being just two men, with one acoustic guitar, they were portable, and affordable as a support act, so they performed with many of the leading visiting acts of the day. They were so popular they often played several gigs a night in Auckland clubs. The duo also played a lot of corporate parties, and one time they were hired to appear at a society party in Remuera – not to perform, just to mingle among the guests.
Clauson was born in 1928, and was already an accomplished entertainer with a blue two-tone Chevvy when he got on stage at the Māori Community Centre in Auckland one night in the late 1950s. He needed a backing musician, so a teenager called Simon Mehana stepped up to play double bass. He needed to stand on a stool, and of course started acting the goat. That moment a comedy act was born.
Before that, Clauson had run one of the first rock’n’roll dances in New Zealand. On Labour Day 1956 – 22 October – he performed his own song ‘Papakura Boogie’ in front of 600 dancers at the Karaka Hall, South Auckland. On December 1, he appeared at the hall again, backed by his band the Moonlets. Billy Orr was another of the music acts. In the very early 1950s, Clauson ran his own milkbar/restaurant in Papakura, the Rose Marie, which was quick to add rock’n’roll discs to its jukebox.
Clauson was a stalwart of the Variety Artists’ Club, whose obituary can be read here. The piece I wrote on Lou & Simon for AudioCulture gives some background to their act and recordings, and to the cultural context in which tunes such as ‘A Maori Car’ could be much loved. In my limited association with Lou through Blue Smoke, I found him to be affable and helpful man, and very generous to the other entertainers with whom he had worked.
Besides reflecting the zeitgeist with songs such as ‘A Maori Car’, it should be remembered that Lou & Simon also recorded straight versions of Māori pop favourites. (Clauson, a Pakeha, told me he identified as Ngāpuhi, while Mehana was Ngāti Kurī.) Their pronunciation of te reo is exquisite. Here is their medley of ‘E Rere Taku Poi’ and ‘Hoki Hoki Tonu Mai’ from 1965.
It was a night of “singing, screaming, stamping and sheer youthful joie de vive” declared the Upper Hutt Leader, whose alliteration was sharper than its je ne sais quois. The evening was a Talent Quest held in November 1964 at the Upper Hutt College Hall. Here, TV personality Pete Sinclair, who compered the show, presents Kevin Stent with his £25 first prize. Stent had beaten the second-place getters, local group Sinewaves, with his rendition of the haunting ballad ‘Streets of Laredo’, accompanying himself on guitar.
Sinewaves later evolved into the Fourmyula, its songwriters Wayne Mason and Ali Richardson came up with ‘Alice is There’ and ‘Come With Me’, Mason wrote ‘Nature’, and the rest is history. Their vocalist Frank Stevenson later became known as Frankie Stevens, and just last night stole the show at the annual Christmas in the Park in Auckland.
At the Upper Hutt College Hall, Sinclair and the various acts had trouble making themselves heard over the “screams and shrieks of the appreciative audience.” Sinewaves presented “a delightfully well-balanced version of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. This group proved to be the Heretaunga College band with the addition of a drummer from St Pat’s College. Members were Les Gruebner, Wayne Mason, Frank Stevenson (vocalist par excellence), Martin Hope and Chris Parry (St Pat’s). Third place went to Lawrence Wong, whose number ‘I Believe’ with guitar accompaniment induced rapt and almost silent attention from the audience.”
Other acts included a family group ‘Putting on the Style’, Trevor and Val Tapp performing magic with doves, the Sunrays with ‘Go Tell It To the Mountain’, and Joyce Gilliard whose version of ‘Summertime’ “sounded delightful in the odd moments her voice could be heard.”
The talent quest items were interspersed by songs performed by local stars Johnny England and Christine Barnett, the latter “a bubbling little bundle of pink shift dress and long-fringed hairdo who knew how to get her audience rotating” (she asked them to join in and make as much noise as they wished). Unfortunately, England – a pleasant, blonde-haired boy’ – couldn’t be heard above the “shattering volume of greatly amplified electric guitars and a dervish drummer who whacked away with a tremendous force.”
A “stimulating, if somewhat ear-splitting time was had by all”. It was the first time older members of the audience had witnessed “Beatle-type entertainment and its subsequent audience reaction.”
Found at the splendid searchable Upper Hutt Leader site, made available by the Upper Hutt City Library.
This year New Zealand lost two Blue Smoke identities, so it is great news that one was recently found. When researching early New Zealand country music, Johnny Granger “the Yodelling Drover” stood out for me. It was his life story – he was literally a dairy farmer, ie a cowboy, who left home and joined the circus – and it was his music. Recorded and released in the early 1950s by the fledgling Stebbing studios in Auckland, and produced by Julian Lee, Granger’s body of work stood up as sophisticated country pop.
I was disappointed not to find a photo of Granger suitable for use in the book, and ran out of time. But my friend Michael Colonna of the Variety Artists’ Club did some legwork and found that Granger was alive and well and still based just outside of Auckland. Recently David Steemson of Radio New Zealand made a Spectrum documentary, in which Granger describes his life working on the farm, driving into Auckland in a 1927 Rugby – with the great line, “most of my tom-cattin’ was kerosene driven” – joining Barton’s Follies, and his return to the farm. After 1953, and his stint with the army in Korea, he didn’t perform again professionally. These days, he says, he is better known as a whistler.
An interview with Mavis Rivers that I did in Wellington in 1990.
THE SAMOAN jazz singer has had a career most musicians only dream about. She has recorded duets with Frank Sinatra, had albums produced by legends such as Nelson Riddle and Alfred Newman, and sung with the bands of Benny Goodman and Red Norvo. The only problem she seems to have struck getting started in the States was learning how to deal with the noisy audiences.
“They have far too many drinks, and after a nice meal, you come on, and they’re going [Rivers switches to a loud, brash accent] … THEN I SAID TO SAM, FIFTY GRAND ISN’T ENOUGH!’ “
Red Norvo gave her the solution: all of a sudden go very quiet. “Just mouth your words, don’t sing any more.”
Rivers sings to illustrate. It’s a voice of exquisite purity and subtlety. “Sometimes I wonder why I spend … a lone-ly …”
‘Stardust’ drifts away, and the rabble begin to notice. “They stop dead and say, ‘What’s happening?’ It works.”
RIVERS GREW UP in Samoa, surrounded by music. Her father, an alto sax player, had a dance band with his brothers. “That’s how I got started, because I was always around wanting to sing,” she says. “My grandmother says she used to take me to her women’s club meetings when I was six or seven, and I always had a ukulele in tow. ‘Mavis, sing!’ I was singing before they asked.” During the war Rivers sang with her father’s band, entertaining American troops, and she worked as a disc jockey on Samoan radio.
In 1947 Rivers moved with her family (12 brothers and sisters) to Auckland. “My dad was a hip guy, but he wasn’t very much into jazz when we moved here. He’d say, ‘Mavis, the noise when they start blowing.’ I said, it’s just how you look at it. I wanted to be able to improvise like a horn player.”
Through the Auckland Musicians’ Club she met people like guitarist Tommy Yandall, pianist Crombie Murdoch and drummer Denny O’Brien. Soon she had plenty of singing work: at the Peter Pan club on Rutland Street during the ball season; at the civic, when the stage went up after the movie; radio shows on 1&A and 1YD; recordings for the fledgling Tanza label.
“I was a secretary. I’d sing at night and come home about two o’clock. Have a few hours’ sleep, then go to work and literally fall asleep on the typewriter.”
But she always had a plan: to get experience, then go to the States. When she moved there in 1953, the newspapers said she was destined for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But she became part of a jazz quartet, playing guitar in Vegas, Reno, LA. “All the time hoping I could get on with my singing. I had to find someone in jazz, who had done records. So I married the bass player!”
Rivers laughs. “… and then I stayed at home!” Five years of musical inactivity later, she thought it was now or never. “I had these wonderful friends who said to me, ‘when you are ready, we want to be your angels.’” They recorded some demonstration records and went looking for a label.
“This friend of mine got me a manager who worked for the Hughes organization, RKO. And I’m telling you, it happened like this, in two weeks …” The demos were sent to Capitol, whose talent scout later told her (though she doesn’t want to brag), “When they brought your records in, I thought, ‘Oh no, here’s another singer I’ll have to listen to.’ But after the first eight bars I said, ‘Let’s sign her.’”
Suddenly Rivers was on Capitol. “And I was just a greenhorn, so overwhelmed by this. And they asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I’d give my right arm to record with Nelson Riddle. ‘Let’s ask!’ they said.
So Rivers would go to the famous producer’s house to talk arrangements. “Nelson was a sweetheart, a dear dear man. I said I had some ideas about a tune, about some changes. ‘Let’s hear it!’ he said.
“The first time I walked into the studio at Capitol, they treated me like royalty.” And orchestra waited to accompany her on the album. “When you hear the lush strings of the symphony players, you die. When they started to play, I started to sing, and then just sat down and started crying. ‘What’s the matter?’ they asked. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I said, ‘you’ll have to give me time to recover myself.’ All of a sudden I was thinking of my dad. Look at me! I’m big time, recording with Nelson Riddle! We did one number and then the string players applauded with their bows. So I started crying again.”
A later album was produced by Alfred Newman, the legendary Hollywood composer who wrote the Twentieth Century Fox theme and countless classic movie scores. “It was the most wonderful experience. We recorded at a soundstage at MGM, with a huge orchestra, and the voices … oh, it was thrilling! And this five-foot-three-man standing on the podium bellowing at everybody: ‘That’s not a D flat!’”
The album was called Ports of Paradise. It wasn’t jazz, but a musical tour of the Pacific. “Hawaiian-type tunes, New Zealand, Tahiti, Australia – you could listen to it and imagine you were at these ports. Oh, wonderful. So when I’m blue and long for palm trees, I put it on.”
But after three albums and many singles with Capitol, but no hits, her contract was up. “If you don’t make trillions of dollars, you go. At the time Sinatra was thinking of forming a company, Reprise. This PR lady I knew said, ‘Let’s talk to Frank.’ He said, ‘Of course.’ At the very beginning I was the only girl. There was Sammy, Frank and me. I stayed with them until they merged with Warner in the late 1960s. Made a lot of singles.” She sighs. “What fun.”
Rivers worked with the orchestra of Red Norvo, Benny Goodman and Bob Crosby. “Frank’s place” – Sinatra’s hotel at Lake Tahoe – became a home away from home. But her ebullience makes it difficult to get the lowdown on the Ratpack. “Those were nice times,” she says.
Though plans to record a breakthrough hit with Sinatra fell through, she was a guest on a Christmas album of his. “But it was too late. We should have done it sooner. The Christmas album sold well – but you can only play them at Christmas.”
STREWN ON the coffee table of her Wellington hotel are some of her recent albums, and orchestral arrangements for her concerts. It’s difficult to get recording done now because her musical arranger – and son – saxophonist Matt Catingub is so busy. “’When am I going to get my album out?’ I ask. ‘Pretty soon, Mum.’”
She whispers that she’d like to do an album using … synthesisers. And some now tunes. “I’m not too hip on contemporary composers. I primarily do standards. Y’know, the old composers: George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer. I leave the other stuff to the younger people. The under-50s!” she laughs. “I don’t think there are many composers now who can rhyme spoon and moon. Not that that’s a putdown.
At the  International Festival of the Arts in Wellington, Rivers did two concerts, with a trio and a jazz orchestra. In the US, her concerts at jazz festivals and universities are mostly with a trio, though she has a 20-piece band in Los Angeles for work close to home. If possible, Catingub is there to play the piano and lead the band. “I’m comfortable with others, but we seem to be one. It sounds corny. But I can look at him and he knows what I’m thinking. I can change keys in the middle of something, or go out on a limb, and he’s right there.”
At the venues Rivers performs in now, the audiences listen. Even in Vegas. But there are still some unfulfilled ambitions in this dream career. She’d like to do something on television. “I had an opportunity – to act – but they wanted me to put on a pidgin accent. I said, ‘No, I’m sorry.’ I was very offended by that. I don’t talk like that, and I’m not about to.
“I could have done the Bloody Mary thing on the road, I had the chance. Maybe I should have, then I would have graduated to other things. I don’t have any dreams of becoming anything now, I’m just contented singing.”
She would, however, love to come back to New Zealand and record with the Symphony Orchestra. Some Broadway stuff, with the right arranger. That would be nifty.
First published in the Listener, 9 July 1990. The New Zealand Portrait Gallery site has an excellent portrait of Mavis by Jane Ussher, taken shortly after this interview (which was illustrated by a portrait by Guy Robinson). A fascinating c. 1963 shot of Mavis in an Auckland studio with Crombie Murdoch, Don Branch and Les Still is at the Manukau Library site (search on “Mavis Rivers”). My profile of Mavis for AudioCulture is here. In November, a compilation of recordings Mavis made in the 1950s for the Auckland labels Tanza and Stebbing, before she went to the US, will be released on Ode.
In the early 1950s, it was Hawaiian-styled pop that dominated the fledgling New Zealand record industry: players such as Bill Wolfgramm and Bill Sevesi, singers such as Daphne Walker and Pixie Williams. Crucial to the genre was the lap-steel guitar, which was on sale here from at least the mid-1920s. Without the contribution of musician and historian Mac McKenzie, I would have been floundering when writing about the Hawaiian genre for Blue Smoke. Mac had been involved in the scene since the late 1940s.
More recently he was the editor/writer of the New Zealand Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association Gazette, in which he detailed the history of the genre. He wrote of the days when steel-guitars were everywhere in New Zealand, and of its early virtuoso Mati Hita, born in Taranaki in 1914. Mac knew everybody on the scene, and the names of lost legends flowed from him, with anecdotes that captured their characters: besides Wolfgramm and Sevesi, there were Ray Walker (Tupu Waka), Gus Lindsay, Tony Lindsay, Doc Bettany, Lou Mati, Jim Carter … Often the Gazette featured an obituary of a player whose career would otherwise be lost, and Mac would always headline the piece “Sad News”.
I have just heard that Mac McKenzie passed away on 14 June 2013, from pneumonia. He was a wise, gentle man, with a long memory, a sense of history, and a love of Polynesian Auckland and its music. Looking at a map of Auckland, he rattled off the players and the venues where Hawaiian music could be heard: “There was the Maori Community Centre, the Manchester Unity Hall – we were playing there and got ousted by the Keil Isles, they offered a cheaper price – also clubs on Wellesley Street and Cook Street; the Catholic Social Centre on Pitt St; the Trades Hall on Hobson Street, then up on Newton Road was the Orange, and St Seps. Down Khyber was the Railway Hall, Newmarket – Bill Sevesi was there, and also in Te Papapa, at the football club there– then back to Merrilands where the Hulawaiians played the dance hall, then out to the Point Chev Sailing Club, and so many played out there.”
How did Mac get interested in the Hawaiian steel guitar? “I was born in 1931. Shortly after the war, my brother came back and he got me started on it. He used to buy records – Hawaiian records and cowboy records – that’s where the music started coming in, and then I got hooked on one particular song of Sol Hoopi’s, the ‘Twelfth Street Rag’. How does he do that? And my brother was in the territorial army with Ray Walker, so Ray Walker set us up and got me a steel guitar and a little amplifier, and got me a teacher, Doc Bettany. So it was all laid out for me and all I had to do was just follow.”
Pictured is Mac McKenzie in the 1950s playing, not a lap-steel guitar, but an Antoria f-hole semi-acoustic. Thanks to Michael Colonna for directing me towards Mac in 2006.