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.