Apia, Auckland, Las Vegas
An interview with Mavis Rivers that I did in Wellington in 1990.
THE SAMOAN jazz singer has had a career most musicians only dream about. She has recorded duets with Frank Sinatra, had albums produced by legends such as Nelson Riddle and Alfred Newman, and sung with the bands of Benny Goodman and Red Norvo. The only problem she seems to have struck getting started in the States was learning how to deal with the noisy audiences.
“They have far too many drinks, and after a nice meal, you come on, and they’re going [Rivers switches to a loud, brash accent] … THEN I SAID TO SAM, FIFTY GRAND ISN’T ENOUGH!’ “
Red Norvo gave her the solution: all of a sudden go very quiet. “Just mouth your words, don’t sing any more.”
Rivers sings to illustrate. It’s a voice of exquisite purity and subtlety. “Sometimes I wonder why I spend … a lone-ly …”
‘Stardust’ drifts away, and the rabble begin to notice. “They stop dead and say, ‘What’s happening?’ It works.”
RIVERS GREW UP in Samoa, surrounded by music. Her father, an alto sax player, had a dance band with his brothers. “That’s how I got started, because I was always around wanting to sing,” she says. “My grandmother says she used to take me to her women’s club meetings when I was six or seven, and I always had a ukulele in tow. ‘Mavis, sing!’ I was singing before they asked.” During the war Rivers sang with her father’s band, entertaining American troops, and she worked as a disc jockey on Samoan radio.
In 1947 Rivers moved with her family (12 brothers and sisters) to Auckland. “My dad was a hip guy, but he wasn’t very much into jazz when we moved here. He’d say, ‘Mavis, the noise when they start blowing.’ I said, it’s just how you look at it. I wanted to be able to improvise like a horn player.”
Through the Auckland Musicians’ Club she met people like guitarist Tommy Yandall, pianist Crombie Murdoch and drummer Denny O’Brien. Soon she had plenty of singing work: at the Peter Pan club on Rutland Street during the ball season; at the civic, when the stage went up after the movie; radio shows on 1&A and 1YD; recordings for the fledgling Tanza label.
“I was a secretary. I’d sing at night and come home about two o’clock. Have a few hours’ sleep, then go to work and literally fall asleep on the typewriter.”
But she always had a plan: to get experience, then go to the States. When she moved there in 1953, the newspapers said she was destined for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But she became part of a jazz quartet, playing guitar in Vegas, Reno, LA. “All the time hoping I could get on with my singing. I had to find someone in jazz, who had done records. So I married the bass player!”
Rivers laughs. “… and then I stayed at home!” Five years of musical inactivity later, she thought it was now or never. “I had these wonderful friends who said to me, ‘when you are ready, we want to be your angels.’” They recorded some demonstration records and went looking for a label.
“This friend of mine got me a manager who worked for the Hughes organization, RKO. And I’m telling you, it happened like this, in two weeks …” The demos were sent to Capitol, whose talent scout later told her (though she doesn’t want to brag), “When they brought your records in, I thought, ‘Oh no, here’s another singer I’ll have to listen to.’ But after the first eight bars I said, ‘Let’s sign her.’”
Suddenly Rivers was on Capitol. “And I was just a greenhorn, so overwhelmed by this. And they asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I’d give my right arm to record with Nelson Riddle. ‘Let’s ask!’ they said.
So Rivers would go to the famous producer’s house to talk arrangements. “Nelson was a sweetheart, a dear dear man. I said I had some ideas about a tune, about some changes. ‘Let’s hear it!’ he said.
“The first time I walked into the studio at Capitol, they treated me like royalty.” And orchestra waited to accompany her on the album. “When you hear the lush strings of the symphony players, you die. When they started to play, I started to sing, and then just sat down and started crying. ‘What’s the matter?’ they asked. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I said, ‘you’ll have to give me time to recover myself.’ All of a sudden I was thinking of my dad. Look at me! I’m big time, recording with Nelson Riddle! We did one number and then the string players applauded with their bows. So I started crying again.”
A later album was produced by Alfred Newman, the legendary Hollywood composer who wrote the Twentieth Century Fox theme and countless classic movie scores. “It was the most wonderful experience. We recorded at a soundstage at MGM, with a huge orchestra, and the voices … oh, it was thrilling! And this five-foot-three-man standing on the podium bellowing at everybody: ‘That’s not a D flat!’”
The album was called Ports of Paradise. It wasn’t jazz, but a musical tour of the Pacific. “Hawaiian-type tunes, New Zealand, Tahiti, Australia – you could listen to it and imagine you were at these ports. Oh, wonderful. So when I’m blue and long for palm trees, I put it on.”
But after three albums and many singles with Capitol, but no hits, her contract was up. “If you don’t make trillions of dollars, you go. At the time Sinatra was thinking of forming a company, Reprise. This PR lady I knew said, ‘Let’s talk to Frank.’ He said, ‘Of course.’ At the very beginning I was the only girl. There was Sammy, Frank and me. I stayed with them until they merged with Warner in the late 1960s. Made a lot of singles.” She sighs. “What fun.”
Rivers worked with the orchestra of Red Norvo, Benny Goodman and Bob Crosby. “Frank’s place” – Sinatra’s hotel at Lake Tahoe – became a home away from home. But her ebullience makes it difficult to get the lowdown on the Ratpack. “Those were nice times,” she says.
Though plans to record a breakthrough hit with Sinatra fell through, she was a guest on a Christmas album of his. “But it was too late. We should have done it sooner. The Christmas album sold well – but you can only play them at Christmas.”
STREWN ON the coffee table of her Wellington hotel are some of her recent albums, and orchestral arrangements for her concerts. It’s difficult to get recording done now because her musical arranger – and son – saxophonist Matt Catingub is so busy. “’When am I going to get my album out?’ I ask. ‘Pretty soon, Mum.’”
She whispers that she’d like to do an album using … synthesisers. And some now tunes. “I’m not too hip on contemporary composers. I primarily do standards. Y’know, the old composers: George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer. I leave the other stuff to the younger people. The under-50s!” she laughs. “I don’t think there are many composers now who can rhyme spoon and moon. Not that that’s a putdown.
At the  International Festival of the Arts in Wellington, Rivers did two concerts, with a trio and a jazz orchestra. In the US, her concerts at jazz festivals and universities are mostly with a trio, though she has a 20-piece band in Los Angeles for work close to home. If possible, Catingub is there to play the piano and lead the band. “I’m comfortable with others, but we seem to be one. It sounds corny. But I can look at him and he knows what I’m thinking. I can change keys in the middle of something, or go out on a limb, and he’s right there.”
At the venues Rivers performs in now, the audiences listen. Even in Vegas. But there are still some unfulfilled ambitions in this dream career. She’d like to do something on television. “I had an opportunity – to act – but they wanted me to put on a pidgin accent. I said, ‘No, I’m sorry.’ I was very offended by that. I don’t talk like that, and I’m not about to.
“I could have done the Bloody Mary thing on the road, I had the chance. Maybe I should have, then I would have graduated to other things. I don’t have any dreams of becoming anything now, I’m just contented singing.”
She would, however, love to come back to New Zealand and record with the Symphony Orchestra. Some Broadway stuff, with the right arranger. That would be nifty.
First published in the Listener, 9 July 1990. The New Zealand Portrait Gallery site has an excellent portrait of Mavis by Jane Ussher, taken shortly after this interview (which was illustrated by a portrait by Guy Robinson). A fascinating c. 1963 shot of Mavis in an Auckland studio with Crombie Murdoch, Don Branch and Les Still is at the Manukau Library site (search on “Mavis Rivers”). My profile of Mavis for AudioCulture is here. In November, a compilation of recordings Mavis made in the 1950s for the Auckland labels Tanza and Stebbing, before she went to the US, will be released on Ode.