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You Hum It, I’ll Play It

March 20, 2014

Oriental ballroom bandleadersIt’s been a great pleasure over the past year to write several pieces for AudioCulture, the on-line encyclopaedia of New Zealand music that was launched in June 2013. I have been able to expand on many of the entries of musicians featured in Blue Smoke, and write for the first time on several that were left out. Often there is new material or fresh images that have become available since the book was published.

AudioCulture was created by Simon Grigg – the maestro behind Propeller Records and the international success of Pauly Fuemana – and Murray Cammick, the co-founder of Rip It Up. Simon puts extraordinary effort into finding archive images and links to audio and video clips.

Here is a selection of the pieces I’ve written, with the introduction. The full profile can be reached through the link in bold.

  • You hum it, Jack Thompson could play it. He wore his experience on his face, which had seen countless late nights. Thompson, a show-tune pianist who tickled the ivories in dance halls, leading cabaret bands, and department store windows, was one of the biggest-selling recording artists in New Zealand and Australia.
  • For over half a century Bernie Allen’s name has been hidden in the credits of many recordings, films and TV shows that involve New Zealand music. While jazz is his first love, and the saxophone his preferred instrument, Allen is a multi-instrumentalist and arranger whose work ranges from early Johnny Devlin sessions to soundtracks of TV shows such as Under the Mountain.
  • Bass Player Needed: who you gonna call? For over 50 years the answer has simply been “Billy”. Billy Kristian’s long and varied career has taken him from a marae near Christchurch, to nightclubs in Auckland and King’s Cross, to playing jazz-rock in Europe, recording in Hollywood – and back to New Zealand to produce contemporary Māori music.
  • “Politics is show-business in drag.” It’s an oldie but a goodie, the kind of joke that cabaret queen Diamond Lil (Marcus Craig) might have used to warm up the crowd at one of Phil Warren’s Auckland clubs in the 1970s.
  • Hollywood’s singing cowboys such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers inspired fans around the world to dress up and dream. Many local country and western performers, such as Johnny Cooper and Rex Franklin, watched the romantic, stylish actors in “horse operas” (westerns) and wanted to emulate the films’ stars. But New Zealand had the real thing: Johnny Granger, “the Yodelling Drover”.
  • It took some balls to up-stage Prime Minister Robert Muldoon when he was at his most formidable, but that’s exactly what Noel McKay achieved at the Variety Artists’ Club awards night in 1977. Called up to the Shoreline Cabaret stage in Auckland to receive a parchment scroll in recognition of his contribution to New Zealand show business, at first McKay refused to get out of his chair.
  • When a local version of Elvis was needed, Johnny Devlin stepped forward; when the fashion shifted to teen idols, someone a little less confronting was needed. In 1960, the chosen one was Ronnie Sundin, a 16-year-old from Auckland.
  • In the 1960s a song about loveless chickens seemed to cluck out of the radio every morning. Garner Wayne’s ‘Love In A Fowlhouse’ was utterly original, and with its “bwuck bwuck bwuck” chorus, unforgettable.
  • Looking back on his career in 1999, Bill Sevesi tapped his lap steel guitar and said, “I’ve seen a lot, I’ve done a lot. If I had my life over, I’ll do it all over again.”

Pictured are four Auckland bandleaders ready for their residencies at the Oriental Ballroom, Symonds Street, early 1960s. From left: Bernie Allen, Bill Sevesi, Merv Thomas and Al Patchett.

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