Esme Stephens got her first big break as a 21-year-old in 1943, when she was asked to sing with the Artie Shaw Navy Band when it was visiting Auckland. She performed ‘White Christmas’, which was preserved on a glass acetate by Eldred Stebbing, an artefact now at the Alexander Turnbull Library. Unfortunately Shaw himself was sitting out on that song. Later in the war, Stephens sang often at the Civic Wintergarden, in the bands of Chips Healy and Fred Gore.
But it was in the early 1950s that she really hit her stride. For the fledgling Stebbing and Zodiac labels, she recorded many sides, most of them produced by Julian Lee. Now, 25 of these recordings have been re-issued as volume five of the Stebbing-Zodiac Archive Series: Esme Stephens and Friends. Among them are her biggest hits, ‘Between Two Trees’, ‘Mixed Emotions’ and ‘Mockin’ Bird Hill’ (the latter with the Duplicats vocal group).
While many of her recordings are lush pop, and a little on the dull side from this distance, she also tried Latin music with the Rhumba Band of Santos Romero (aka Wally Ransom), and big band jazz and pop with her husband, trombonist Dale Alderton. In the 1948 picture above, she is standing beside Ransom, who was MC for many radio band broadcasts, as well as a drummer. Alderton is standing, holding his trombone. In these re-releases, his combo provides smooth backing to ‘It’s No Sin’, and they manage to give ‘Castle Rock’ a big American swing sound. On YouTube is a clip of her giving ‘In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening’ some swing with the Lynn Christie Trio in 1951. A better quality version of this is one of the tracks available as a digital download: at the Amplifer site. Esme Stephens and Friends can be sampled, purchased in its entirety or as individual tracks. This by no means covers her complete oeuvre – there is more to come in later releases in the series. Esme Stephens died in 1992, aged 68.