Backbeat, you can’t lose it
Tony Hopkins lived to drum. Up until very recently he was playing gigs in Auckland: jazz, funk, fusion, occasionally rock’n’roll. He was one of Johnny Devlin’s Devils, who barnstormed their way throughout New Zealand in late 1958. He is seen here backing Devlin at Western Springs, Auckland, c. 1959.
Hopkins died recently, after suffering from cancer. He was a man of deep passions, energy and enthusiasm: most of it he expended on music, mentoring others, playing with all ages and in all styles of music. In the 1960s he was a regular at the Lorne St jazz club the Montmartre; in the 1990s – after a stint in Australia – he was often at Cause Celebre and at Java Jive; more recently he could be seen at Deschlers on High Street. I interviewed Tony in 2001 for a Musical Chairs doco on RNZ National. Here are some excerpts about his early days with Devlin.
I started out as a rock’n’roll player. One of the things that really got me going was I went to see a film called The Blackboard Jungle in Auckland, with Bill Haley and the Comets . And it started off in the credits right at the beginning of the film: Di dum. 1 2 3 o’clock 4 o’clock rock … Ohh this is pretty wild! It was in the Century theatre in Queen Street, which is no longer there. The Comets were kinda like – they were out about the same time as Elvis, very early Elvis. I went off to the theatre on my own, and was knocked out by the band.
Did you study any rock’n’roll drummers, like Earl Palmer, who played on a lot of the early New Orleans R&B like Fats Domino?
No I never studied any of the drummers. The first drummer that really impressed me was [in 1960] when I was 20 years old in Hong Kong – I lived there about a year – it was a guy called Hal Blaine, who was playing for Bobby Rydell. He just played with a high hat and a snare drum. Blew me away. Wow – listen to that. It was the first American professional drummer that I’d actually seen close up.
You had already been a professional then for two or three years. What gig did you have before Devlin?
The first professional gig was quite close to where I’m living now, up in the Waitakeres here, a place called the Back of the Moon, west of Auckland. It was a night club and it would have been in 1956. It was a Scottish pianist, and a bass player whose name escapes me – it was just soft dinner music. I was 16. I started playing when I was 15, took a few lessons off a guy called Barry Simpson, who used to live in Parnell. He used to play in the 1ZB radio bands at that time, I took 10 lessons from him and then he said to me, “I think you better go out and teach yourself from here on in.” Why? “Because people are saying you’re beginning to sound like me. So I think you should go and develop your own style!” So I did. I never took any lessons again after that.
Barry would have played loosely a bit of be bop: big band bebop. We’re talking 1956 here. I used to go down to Durham Lane to listen to them recording sometimes in the Radio Theatre. It’s a shame they pulled that down.
I saw a drummer playing at St Sep’s one night [in Newton, Auckland], at a young people’s dance: Don Branch, who had just recently come back from the States. He would have been about 30 then, and I was 16. I was determined that I was going to be better than him one day. He was great but I’’m going to be better. Ha ha!
What launched you into full-time playing?
I hadn’t thought of being a drummer as a career at all, it kinda just happened with the Devlin show. We toured New Zealand three times. The first time we went through all the major centres, and the second time we did all the secondary centres if you like, and the third time we went and did everything. And at 18 years old, playing six nights a week over a period of six months, seven times a week – we used to do a Saturday afternoon matinee as well – that’s a helluva start for an 18 year old playing any instrument to get you into a fairly high degree of expertise, fairly quickly.
He struck me as being a good entertainer, and I used to enjoy him very much … He had a dynamic and an energy that was right for the time, like the Beatles and Elvis: right for the time. Ripe and right.
What tricks did he have?
All the stuff that Elvis was doing: burnt orange suits with leopard skin lapels, and the bodgie hair style, and lying on the piano, rolling over the stage, undoing buttons, taking his coat off and throwing it over the place and all that sort of stuff. Vibrating and gyrating, all that. All the tricks.
How crazy did the crowd get?
They wanted a reason, I think, it was happening overseas and they wanted to do it, and here was someone with the energy and the band used to. Devlin and the band were the catalyst for it. I used to stand on my stool and play drums, and the bass player used to put his double bass down on the floor and lie on top of the bass and play the bass, and Claude Papesch the sax player would straddle him, so he’s straddling the bass and sit on top of him and play. All the antics. And the crowd would go silly, there’d be all the screaming and everything: big crowds waiting for us when we finished, and big crowds in front of house, trying to catch a sight of him. I threw a guy offstage one night in Greymouth, I was playing behind the drums and suddenly this guy appears up over the footlight – it was a picture theatre – heading for Johnny, and I leapt up to grab him and push him off the stage. And as he went off the stage backwards into the front row, he grabbed my shirt front and ripped the whole front of my shirt out and left me with just the arms and back of my shirt. So it was all good fun.
Why did you leave Devlin?
I left him after we went to Australia. I was becoming sick of the music and I was getting interested in jazz. I was living in a flat in Kings Cross, a place called Waratah House which was up the top of King’s Cross. There was about five of us guys living there, one of them was Mike Nock. I’ve known Mike since I was 17, we used to share a flat in St Georges Bay Rd in Parnell when we were 17, we’re both the same age.
I started to get disenchanted with rock’n’roll in about 1959, when I was sharing this flat with Mike Nock in Kings Cross. Mike used to play for Devlin in the very early years, not much, he played just a few gigs with him and we used to play together from time to time at the Montmartre in Lorne St – the building’s still there by the library, behind the St James – anyway, in this flat in Kings Cross, the boys were all into bebop and modern jazz and I started listening to it, and started to play it. So I became a little sick of the simplicity of rock’n’roll. I like the freedom to create that’s in jazz that isn’t so much in rock’n’roll.
The photo at the top is borrowed it from Peter McLennan’s DubDotDash site, where I first read the news of Tony’s passing. He got it from John Dix’s Stranded in Paradise – John borrowed the photo of Devlin promoter Phil Warren.
This more recent photo is from Brian Smith’s site. It shows the “Montmartre Quartet” – four veterans of Auckland’s music scene, from left, Billy Kristian, Mike Walker, Tony Hopkins and Brian Smith. Thanks to DubDotDash, here is a link to many videos featuring Tony on drums, at a YouTube channel curated by Tony’s wife.