A Crazy Beat
Instead of exhorting his fans to to the Frug, the Jerk or the Funky Chicken, Jay Epae encouraged them to do ‘The Creep’. His dance groove was recorded not in Memphis, but in Wellington’s HMV studios in 1966, produced by Ron Dalton of Viking Records. It was then released in Europe by several labels. Some of the picture sleeves featured a photo sequence of Epae showing how to do the Creep. (This black-and-white one comes from its release in the Netherlands; the colour sleeve below comes from France.)
Born in Taranaki circa 1933, Nicholas Jay Epae spent the late 1950s in the United States. There, he recorded ‘Putti Putti’ as the B-side to ‘Hawaiian Melody’. The single was released in 1960 on Mercury, in the US, Australia and Britain. A hit in Scandinavia, the charm of ‘Putti Putti’ were described by Nick Bollinger as “Setting Maori rhymes against a distinctly New Orleans beat”. He compares its novelty appeal to the New Orleans classic ‘Iko Iko’, which was based on a Mardi Gras chant. The background of ‘Putti Putti’ is not dissimilar: it was apparently written by Ngati Porou songwriter and shearer Tuini Ngawai in the early 1940s as ‘Putiputi Kanehana E’ (a wartime serenade of it to the Maori Battalion can be sampled here). In 1963, three years after Epae’s hit, the Maori Hi-Five recorded the song for their Hi-Five Tamoure EP, calling it ‘Putti Putti’. A contemporary review in the magazine Te Ao Hou by Alan Armstrong was scathing, but missed the point that it had been written as a pop song, and recorded as such by the Hi-Five (of which Jay’s brother Wes Epae was a member):
I am not a purist but this is the most tasteless travesty of Maori music which I have heard for a long while. I leave it to the reader’s imagination to imagine ‘Po Atarau’ to Tamoure rhythm! Another gem is ‘Putiputi Kanehana’ (billed on the cover as ‘Putti Putti’) with the lyrics in Maori and English. Sample of the English—‘Pretty pretty creamy sugar pie, I wanna make love to you’. With its muddy-coloured cover and its grossly misspelt Maori titles this is a disc which one can only hope is not accepted by overseas visitors as typical of the indigenous music of this country.
Epae recorded five more singles in the States, for Mercury and Capitol, before returning to New Zealand briefly to record his album Hold On Tight! While here, at the request of Ron Dalton, he came up with ‘Tumblin’ Down’ for Maria Dallas. Twenty years after it won the Loxene Gold Disc for her, the recording was used by Saatchi and Saatchi for a Telecom advertisement (from memory, their prices were allegedly tumblin’ down, though we had to wait a while for this to become a reality).
Karl du Fresne’s obituary of Epae sketches out his story from there (Evening Post, 4 August 1994). In mid-60s Wellington Epae was known as a “classy singer and dancer who was much influenced by the black artists he had seen in the United States.” There, he modelled his stage act on Trini Lopez. Wellington music historian Roger Watkins recalled that locally he was promoted as ‘The Little Mover’ – his stage moves were as good as the Creep’s dance groove.
Epae later lived in Sydney, where he developed a drinking problem. He lost contact with his Taranaki family until they tracked him down in Brisbane and brought him home. He was a regular visitor to the Wellington City Mission on Taranaki Street – just up the road from where he’d recorded ‘The Creep’ – and was often hospitalised. “A City Mission worker who knew him described him as a gentle soul who had simply lost control of his life.”
It was in Wellington Hospital that Epae died, aged 61, on 25 July 1994. For several years he had been living rough, often on the streets. His biggest local hit, ‘Tumblin’ Down’, had struck gold for another singer; his international hit ‘Putti Putti’ was almost never heard back home. To R&B fans, it is ‘The Creep’ that will be Epae’s lasting legacy, and it can be bought – along with his version of ‘Tumblin’ Down’ – on the download-only reissue of Hold On Tight! Recently, paying tribute to Epae in anticipation of this reissue, Peter McLennan linked to several Epae songs from his Dub Dot Dash blog, including his favourite, a 1962 B-side called ‘Jungle Speaks’. In another post, he also reprints the Dominion obituary by Warren Barton in full; it was later republished in Social End Product, the magazine Andrew Schmidt produced with John Baker. Peter has written to tell me proudly that he sent an image of Epae doing the dance steps to Radio New Zealand, where “some clever sausage turned it into an animated gif” – see above. In 1966 the Wellington pop magazine Teen Beat published the dance-step images as a double-page spread.