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The Camel’s Back

April 3, 2014

Camels coverKen Avery’s memoir Where Are the Camels? is now available as a PDF that can be downloaded for free. It’s a fascinating memoir, the best available by a New Zealand musician of the 1940s to 1960s, full of wonderful stories and insights. Avery is now best known for writing ‘Tea at Te Kuiti’ and other novelty songs that evoke New Zealand’s suburban 1950s as effectively as a Neville Lodge cartoon. He wrote a swag of tunes, including ‘Paekakariki’ and ‘The Gumboot Tango’, but he was also a dedicated member of Wellington’s jazz fraternity, playing saxophone and clarinet in dance and jazz bands, organising Clare and Kencountless gigs and playing countless balls. He also performed on New Zealand’s first rock’n’roll record, the unfairly maligned version of ‘Rock Around the Clock’ recorded by Johnny Cooper.

Avery’s book Where Are the Camels? – A New Zealand Dance Band Diary is a local equivalent of George Melly’s classic muso-memoir, Owning Up. He wrote it in the early 1980s, just before his untimely death in 1983. For years photo-copies of Avery’s manuscript have been passed around local musicians, like a zamizdat novel in an oppressed society. In 2011 his daughter Clare turned the manuscript into a handsome book, that is full of terrific anecdotes, photos and memorabilia. (Clare is pictured at right with her father.)

In it are stories of gigs that went wrong, bad pianos, dodgy club owners, unreliable musicians – and magic nights when the music flowed like mercury. Avery describes his encounters with visiting musicians such as Dave Brubeck, Buddy De Franco, Ralph Pena and Pete Jolly, as well as locals including Bill Hoffmeister, Terry Crayford, Jack Claridge and the notorious Bill Crowe. When the Beatles came to Wellington, Ken Avery songbookAvery secured the loan of an acoustic guitar for Paul McCartney, but his NZBC manager stonewalled his chance of delivering it in person.

All this and more – including his thoughts on bad pianos, dodgy reeds and the effect of the Beatles on songwriting – is featured in Where Are the Camels? PDF copies of this 146 page book can be downloaded free at the website Clare has set up. Most generously, the website also features a downloadable PDF of The Ken Avery Songbook, which includes the sheet music of many songs, observations about their writing, and fascinating memorabilia. On the cover is a picture of Avery with one of his heroes, Spike Milligan.

Call the noise police

March 24, 2014

Frank Gibson Sr ACHere are a few more introductions to profiles I’ve written for the AudioCulture on-line encyclopaedia (or “noisy library”) of New Zealand music. For the complete profile, click on the names in bold, red type.

  • If anyone deserves the saying “Give the drummer some” it was Frank Gibson Sr (left). He was surely the most influential drummer in Auckland after the Second World War. In the 1940s he played for the city’s top big bands; in 1956 he formed the country’s first professional rock and roll band; and in 1978 he opened the specialist instrument store Drum City in Balmoral, which quickly became a Mecca for anyone intent on keeping the beat.

The phenomenal success of the Howard Morrison Quartet would have been unthinkable without the contribution of Gerry Merito. He was a natural showman, with a sharp ear for the perfect harmony, a guitar strum that was their only accompaniment in their early days, was quick-witted with original jokes, and had an easy style that made everyone comfortable.

  • In the recording scene of the early 1960s, copying overseas hits was often encouraged at the expense of originality. Many local singles were like audition tapes for Stars in Their Eyes. While Toni Williams did emulate the swinging croon of Sam Cooke with aplomb, there is far more to the Rarotongan-born singer than being a covers artist.
  • When she was just 19, Auckland singer Esme Stephens performed in her home town with one of the greatest bands of the jazz era. In 1943, as part of the “American invasion” of US troops on their way to fight in the Pacific, swing star Artie Shaw visited in New Zealand with his US Navy band.
  • Versatility was Kahu Pineaha’s calling card. In the late 1950s, when Auckland’s cabaret scene began to hum, he was constantly in demand for solo shows, which soon revealed him to be as multi-talented as Sammy Davis Jr. A comedian as well as an accomplished singer and instrumentalist, in 1960 Pineaha recorded his only album – I Hear Music – then left for Las Vegas, by way of Australia.
  • Like the Keil Isles, Red Hewitt and his Buccaneers were playing rock and roll in Auckland clubs and dance halls in the mid-1950s, before Johnny Devlin arrived in town. But their status as pioneers has been eclipsed. Perhaps it is because Devlin recorded ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ a year before Hewitt made his vinyl debut, or that it was two months after Devlin’s barnstorming 1959 tour that he was first seen nationwide, as the support act for Johnny O’Keefe, the Australian Elvis.
  • Most New Zealand musicians can only dream about having a career like Mavis Rivers, whose extraordinary jazz voice took her from Western Samoa – via the nightclubs of late-1940s Auckland – to Hollywood and Las Vegas.
  • Julian Lee was nicknamed "Golden Ears" for good reason. Blind since birth, he had acute listening skills that helped him become an internationally acclaimed multi-instrumentalist, producer and arranger. His ears didn’t just help him spot a flat note coming from the back row of the brass section, they also helped him recognise people saying hello in the street, decades after they had last met.
  • New Zealand’s first rock and roll guitar hero began as a Hawaiian-style steel guitarist. Bob Paris was just 11 years old when he started learning the steel guitar while growing up in the New Lynn area of West Auckland.
  • Bill and Boyd were a teenage duo from Naenae who modelled themselves on the Everly Brothers. Bill Boyd Robertson and Bill Cate met at Naenae College in 1957, when the district was experiencing a “ukulele wave”. They began singing together, obsessively practising their harmonies until the early hours of the morning.
  • The Tumbleweeds were hugely influential on country music in New Zealand, yet the group rarely ventured beyond its home base, Dunedin. Their 1949 debut on Tanza, ‘Maple on the Hill’ – originally a “hillbilly” hit for USA act Zeke and Wade – became a standard for country performers, especially in the South Island. For decades, at amateur concerts and talent shows, it was almost compulsory for young artists to perform a rendition of the song.
  • An evening with a Māori showband was a mix of musical comedy and cabaret, tourist variety act, vaudeville show and rock and roll dance. The showbands could perform soulful ballads then a satiric skit, make fun of their Māori culture while also educating the audience, while always displaying dazzling virtuosity yet looking spontaneous. The Maori Hi-Five is considered the first true Māori showband: the group exemplified the genre.
  • The person who would achieve the greatest success from the early Maori showbands was the vocalist Rim D. Paul, who grew up in Ohinemutu, on the lakefront near Rotorua. Blessed with a big, velvety, soulful voice, Rimini Dennis Paul was the son of Tai Paul, the legendary leader of 1950s Rotorua dance band Tai Paul and the Pohutu Boys.
  • Ricky May was a vocal virtuoso, a jazz-pop singer who electrified Auckland nightclub audiences while still in his teens, and became a star in Australia almost immediately after moving there in 1962. He was born in Auckland in 1943 and was destined to be a musician. His Māori mother was a pianist, who died when he was just eleven. His father Keith “Kotcy” May was a saxophonist and the leader of his own dance band, the Rhythm Rascals.

You Hum It, I’ll Play It

March 20, 2014

Oriental ballroom bandleadersIt’s been a great pleasure over the past year to write several pieces for AudioCulture, the on-line encyclopaedia of New Zealand music that was launched in June 2013. I have been able to expand on many of the entries of musicians featured in Blue Smoke, and write for the first time on several that were left out. Often there is new material or fresh images that have become available since the book was published.

AudioCulture was created by Simon Grigg – the maestro behind Propeller Records and the international success of Pauly Fuemana – and Murray Cammick, the co-founder of Rip It Up. Simon puts extraordinary effort into finding archive images and links to audio and video clips.

Here is a selection of the pieces I’ve written, with the introduction. The full profile can be reached through the link in bold.

  • You hum it, Jack Thompson could play it. He wore his experience on his face, which had seen countless late nights. Thompson, a show-tune pianist who tickled the ivories in dance halls, leading cabaret bands, and department store windows, was one of the biggest-selling recording artists in New Zealand and Australia.
  • For over half a century Bernie Allen’s name has been hidden in the credits of many recordings, films and TV shows that involve New Zealand music. While jazz is his first love, and the saxophone his preferred instrument, Allen is a multi-instrumentalist and arranger whose work ranges from early Johnny Devlin sessions to soundtracks of TV shows such as Under the Mountain.
  • Bass Player Needed: who you gonna call? For over 50 years the answer has simply been “Billy”. Billy Kristian’s long and varied career has taken him from a marae near Christchurch, to nightclubs in Auckland and King’s Cross, to playing jazz-rock in Europe, recording in Hollywood – and back to New Zealand to produce contemporary Māori music.
  • “Politics is show-business in drag.” It’s an oldie but a goodie, the kind of joke that cabaret queen Diamond Lil (Marcus Craig) might have used to warm up the crowd at one of Phil Warren’s Auckland clubs in the 1970s.
  • Hollywood’s singing cowboys such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers inspired fans around the world to dress up and dream. Many local country and western performers, such as Johnny Cooper and Rex Franklin, watched the romantic, stylish actors in “horse operas” (westerns) and wanted to emulate the films’ stars. But New Zealand had the real thing: Johnny Granger, “the Yodelling Drover”.
  • It took some balls to up-stage Prime Minister Robert Muldoon when he was at his most formidable, but that’s exactly what Noel McKay achieved at the Variety Artists’ Club awards night in 1977. Called up to the Shoreline Cabaret stage in Auckland to receive a parchment scroll in recognition of his contribution to New Zealand show business, at first McKay refused to get out of his chair.
  • When a local version of Elvis was needed, Johnny Devlin stepped forward; when the fashion shifted to teen idols, someone a little less confronting was needed. In 1960, the chosen one was Ronnie Sundin, a 16-year-old from Auckland.
  • In the 1960s a song about loveless chickens seemed to cluck out of the radio every morning. Garner Wayne’s ‘Love In A Fowlhouse’ was utterly original, and with its “bwuck bwuck bwuck” chorus, unforgettable.
  • Looking back on his career in 1999, Bill Sevesi tapped his lap steel guitar and said, “I’ve seen a lot, I’ve done a lot. If I had my life over, I’ll do it all over again.”

Pictured are four Auckland bandleaders ready for their residencies at the Oriental Ballroom, Symonds Street, early 1960s. From left: Bernie Allen, Bill Sevesi, Merv Thomas and Al Patchett.

One-man orchestra

January 28, 2014

Mavis in New Plymouth 1950Bart 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. Bart and Bernie, 1957With 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.

Auckland town hall with Len HutchinsonIn 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).


January 20, 2014

Lou and Simon hat 2013002Lou 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.

Lou young 2013003Before 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.

Valley of Dreams

December 15, 2013

UH 1

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.”

UH 3From left, Lawrence Wong (third prize), and the Sinewaves (second prize): Frank Stevenson, Les Gruebner, Chris Parry, Wayne Mason and Martin Hope. Photo: Revelle Jackson.

Found at the splendid searchable Upper Hutt Leader site, made available by the Upper Hutt City Library.

Lost and Found

December 10, 2013

Johnny Granger RNZ 1This 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 Johnny Granger 1950 RNZ 2Michael 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 Johnny Granger 2013 David Steemsonon 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.

More about Granger – with musical links – at the earlier posts The Yodelling Drover and Cowboys’ Heaven. Meanwhile, here is the documentary that David Steemson made.


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