Page 1: Biography
Pearce, Arthur Fairchild
Clerk, jazz specialist, broadcaster, pianist
This biography, written by Chris Bourke, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000.
Arthur Fairchild Pearce was born in Thorndon, Wellington, on 18 December 1903, the only child of Charles Pearce and his wife, Nina Jane Fairchild. Charles was a clerk for the large Wellington importer Levin and Company, in which his father, Colonel Edward Pearce, was a partner.
Arthur grew up in a well-to-do household. Although phonographs were still rare, he received his first record when he was six. He attended Wellington College, taking piano lessons in his spare time. At 14 a Junior National Scholarship gave him £5 per annum for three years; much of this he spent on records and sheet music. In 1921 he joined Levin and Company, where he worked as a clerk; his after-hours interests were sport and music. At a dancing class in his mid 20s, Pearce heard a recording with a rhythm different from the era’s usual strict tempos. The new music was called jazz.
Pearce began to collect jazz with a fervour, ordering 78s from the United States. In the 1920s jazz was regarded by the establishment as music played by and for people of dubious character. But Pearce was determined to have jazz regarded with respect, and quickly became renowned in Wellington music circles as an expert on the subject. Very little jazz was heard on radio so Pearce began to give private, informal talks on the subject.
On 22 May 1934, in Sydney, he married an Australian, Elizabeth Shirley Hume Kenyon. The following year Pearce was asked to present a talk about jazz on a Wellington radio station. The subject he chose was Duke Ellington and his music; the programme caused a small furore, but proved that an audience for jazz existed. During the 1930s the number of radio receivers in New Zealand multiplied rapidly. The musical fare was typically staid light orchestras, dance bands and vocalists.
On 2 July 1937 Pearce began presenting the Friday night dance band programme on 2YA; his music selections emphasised American swing bands. He soon adopted the pseudonym ‘Turntable’ to maintain his anonymity. From early 1938 he added a theme tune, ‘Woman on my weary mind’, recorded by Bob Crosby.
Pearce had a distinctive on-air style. In a light voice, with an upper-middle-class New Zealand accent, he would introduce each item with facts about its recording and the musicians. He avoided expressing his opinion, preferring listeners to make up their own minds about the music. With 2YA’s powerful transmitter, Pearce quickly attracted fans throughout the country, and even across the Tasman.
In 1938 Arthur and Elizabeth Pearce left for Sydney. He mixed in local jazz circles, worked as a pianist in dance bands, and even recorded three songs with a group of Australian musicians. But his marriage broke up, and in 1939 he returned to Wellington, Levin and Company, and his 2YA programme. ‘Rhythm on Record’ became its title, and the content was all jazz of Pearce’s choice. He was divorced on 28 January 1942 and on 7 March that year at Wellington he married Oenone Margaret (Peggy) Marshall, a bank clerk and neighbour, with whom he had three children.
Pearce’s eclectic tastes and passion for the innovative and authentic, combined with his encyclopaedic knowledge and access to rare recordings, made ‘Rhythm on Record’ essential listening. From 1 April 1948 he began presenting ‘Western Song Parade’ on the Wellington station 2YD. This programme (called ‘Big Beat Ball’ from 1959) covered country music and rhythm and blues, and Pearce used informal, pun-filled scripts and a different pseudonym: ‘Cotton-Eyed Joe’. Also broadcast on shortwave, ‘Big Beat Ball’ followed the evolution of rock and roll. Simultaneously, developments in jazz kept ‘Rhythm on Record’ at the cutting edge; from 1951 he opened with ‘Hello, this is Turntable calling. Any rags, any jazz, any boppers today?’
Pearce often surprised visiting musicians with his knowledge. He became especially close to the singer Gene Pitney, who called him ‘the oldest teenager in the world’, and to Duke Ellington, who published a set of lyrics Pearce wrote to his tune ‘Black butterfly’. Pearce retired from Levin and Company in 1962. He presented ‘Big Beat Ball’ until 1975, when management decided it was ‘out of character’ with the station’s format; ‘Rhythm on Record’ continued until 4 July 1977.
With a modest, fastidious style, Pearce was crucial to the spread of jazz and popular music in New Zealand. To his listeners he was a cult figure and an inspiration. Outwardly conservative, his musical tastes were often radical and prescient; even as a 75-year-old, he acclaimed the first LP by the American punk band the Ramones. He retained his passion for music until his death, at Titahi Bay, on 6 March 1990. He was survived by Peggy, two sons and a daughter.