Page 1: Biography
Morrison, Howard Leslie
Te Arawa; singer, entertainer, community leader
This biography, written by Chris Bourke, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.
Howard Morrison was one of the most beloved New Zealand entertainers of the second half of the twentieth century. A household name from the 1960s, both as a member of the Howard Morrison Quartet and as a solo performer, he helped bring Māori culture to the mainstream of New Zealand society.
Childhood and education
Howard Leslie Morrison was born on 18 August 1935 in Rotorua. He was the second of seven children of Temuera Morrison, of Te Arawa and Scottish descent, and Gertrude Harete ‘Kahu’ Morrison (née Davidson), of Tainui and Irish descent. Temuera was a field officer with the Department of Native Affairs and had played for the New Zealand Māoris rugby team. Kahu sung with the Rotorua Māori Choir in its pioneering mobile recordings of 1930.
Morrison spent his childhood in Rotorua and Ruatāhuna, a settlement in Te Urewera. Aged 10 when the family moved to Ruatāhuna, Morrison attended Huiarau Native School, where most other pupils spoke te reo Māori as their first language.
Morrison’s introduction to music included listening to veterans of 28 (Māori) Battalion sing Neapolitan songs at parties, Sunday hymns at church, and the weekly Lifebuoy Hit Parade radio programme. He enjoyed mimicking the songs and learning to sing harmonies.
Morrison attended secondary school at Te Aute College in Hawke’s Bay then Rotorua Boys’ High School. While boarding at Te Aute he had two musical mentors, Canon Wi Te Tau Huata and Reverend Sam Rangiihu. As well as musical craft, they emphasised the importance of entertaining audiences by using humour and timing.
Morrison left high school at 16, and found employment at the Whakatū freezing works in Hastings where he began singing to entertain other workers. He was invited to join the Kahupatiki church choir in Hastings, and became friends with the sisters Isobel and Virginia Whatarau. With Kahu Pineaha they formed the Clive Trio, a singing group which had recorded for Tanza, New Zealand’s first record label. Morrison and the Whatarau sisters joined Te Awapuni Concert Party for a tour of the South Island in 1954. These shows mixed traditional and contemporary music; the concert party performed in piupiu in the first half of each show, while the Clive Trio was one of the modern, popular-music acts in the second half.
Morrison replaced Pineaha when he left the Clive Trio for a solo career. Morrison learnt how to lead a song, sing in harmony, and work out arrangements in a variety of styles. He listened keenly to vocal groups such as The Mills Brothers, The Ink Spots and The Four Aces. Mario Lanza was at the height of his popularity; with his love of Neapolitan singing, Morrison emulated him and called himself ‘the Mario Māori Lanza’.
In 1954 Morrison returned to Rotorua to live, playing rugby and performing at club socials. While working on a surveying chain in 1955, he formed a vocal sextet which won a talent quest at the Rotorua soundshell; the group included two future members of the Howard Morrison Quartet. In 1956, Morrison toured Australia with the Aotearoa Māori Concert Party, an important step up in his transition to professional entertainer.
Shortly after his return from Australia, Morrison formed a vocal quartet which included his brother Laurie and cousin John Morrison. He had seen guitarist Gerry Merito win a Rotorua talent quest, and approached him about joining the group. Morrison’s mother Kahu, who had sung professionally from the age of 16, was a mentor in this early period. She encouraged their pop ambitions, smartened up their presentation, and ensured they remembered the Māori music of their childhoods.
The quartet was performing in Bay of Plenty and Waikato when promoter Benny Levin saw them at Rotorua’s Ritz Hall in 1956 and invited them to join a variety show at the Auckland Town Hall. Levin introduced them to recording studio and label owner Eldred Stebbing, who took a portable tape recorder to Rotorua and recorded several songs performed by the group. Among these songs was ‘Hoki Mai’, written by Henare Waitoa as ‘Tomo Mai’ (using the melody of ‘There’s a gold mine in the sky’, a hit for US country singer Gene Autry), and part of Te Awapuni Concert Party’s repertoire. For the quartet, who sang it as a spirited party song rather than a slow ballad, it became an immediate, breakthrough hit on Stebbing’s Zodiac label. The group was looking for a name, and Stebbing suggested ‘The Howard Morrison Quartet’.
While living in Rotorua, Morrison started dating Rangiwhata Ann (Kuia) Manahi. Kuia and Morrison’s fathers had been close friends and both families hoped they would marry. They did so on 11 May 1957, at St Faith’s Anglican Church in Ōhinemutu. They had three children: Donna Mariana, Howard Hiwaroa and Richard Te Tau.
The Howard Morrison Quartet
When the original quartet was turning professional, John, a teacher, and Laurie, a civil engineer, decided to remain in steady jobs. Temporary replacements included Tai Eru, Howard’s cousin Terry Morrison and Eddie Howell. The Quartet’s best known line-up was Morrison, Merito, Wi Wharekura and Noel Kingi. Wharekura had been in the 1955 sextet; Kingi was a young bass singer Morrison heard in Rotorua. Morrison saw the diversity of the group’s material as one of its major assets: they sang standards, Māori favourites, country, pop and Italian songs. Comedy was always central to their act. Morrison mostly sang the lead, Wharekura alto and Kingi the deep bass parts, while Merito covered harmonies, played rhythm guitar and acted as a comic foil.
In 1960 a song called ‘Battle of the Waikato’ – a parody of Johnny Horton’s ‘The battle of New Orleans’, with lyrics about the New Zealand Wars – took them to another level. Recorded in concert at the Auckland Town Hall, it was an instant hit, selling over 25,000 copies. Another parody in 1960, ‘My old man’s an All Black!’ sold 60,000 copies. Based on Lonnie Donegan’s ‘My old man’s a dustman’, it light-heartedly commented on the ‘No Māori – No Tour’ campaign, protesting against the all-Pākehā All Black team then touring apartheid-era South Africa. These parodies captured the group’s humour and crossover appeal.
Managed by entrepreneur Harry M. Miller, the Quartet was the entertainment phenomenon of New Zealand in the early 1960s. Its concerts sold out nationwide, hit record followed hit record, its promotional films screened in cinemas, and it performed in the first public television broadcast in 1960. The four years following their breakthrough were a relentless mix of touring, performing and recording. Between 1960 and 1962 they released 28 singles, eight EPs and eight albums on Miller’s La Gloria label.
By 1964 Morrison felt the Quartet was running out of challenges. He decided to disband the Quartet and, after a final national tour, the group parted ways in January 1965. It had pioneered many areas of the music industry: the coordination of record releases and tours, the use of media for promotion, the widespread acceptance of Māori culture as entertainment for a Pākehā audience. Some East Coast Māori criticised the Quartet for turning culture into entertainment, such as converting the sombre ‘Tomo mai’ into the party song ‘Hoki mai’. Māori singer Dalvanius Maui Prime, however, viewed the Quartet as ‘incredible entertainers. Māori had their mega heroes. But the thing about the quartet was there were all these Pākehā people getting into it as well. Here were Māori, singing in Māori, to a huge mainstream audience.’1
After the Quartet disbanded, Morrison became a solo performer, touring alone or as part of promoter Joe Brown’s Miss New Zealand shows and other package tours, and recording for Brown’s label. He acted as a shearer in the Australian film Funny things happen down under (1965), and invested in and took a lead role in Don’t let it get you (1966). Directed by John O’Shea, this comedy set in Rotorua was New Zealand’s first feature-length musical. The film was commercially unsuccessful, but Morrison won the 1966 New Zealand Entertainer of the Year award.
As well as performing in New Zealand cabarets, Morrison spent the period 1968 to 1976 entertaining on the Asia–Pacific hotel circuit. While in these regions he was often commissioned to perform by the New Zealand government, promoting exports and tourism. This work contributed to him being made an OBE in 1976.
In 1978 Morrison took a break from show business to become consultant and later national youth development director at the Department of Māori Affairs. He wanted to help young Māori at risk and encourage them to value education; to do this he helped establish the Tu Tangata (Stand Tall) school programme, which he hoped would resurrect ‘latent talent that’s languishing in institutions’.2 He felt fulfilled and invigorated by this work, and was deeply disappointed when it came to an end in 1991. He championed other charitable ventures, including the Fight for the Future health scheme, the establishment of the Sir Howard Morrison Education Foundation (funded by John and Susan Amos), an education scholarship fund for Te Arawa students entering university, and worked as trustee, patron and board member of many service organisations and charities.
But entertainment kept calling him. The Quartet reunited in 1975 for two concerts, in 1979 to launch the Tu Tangata programme, and in 1992 for a farewell national tour. Morrison’s solo career received fresh impetus in 1981 after a Royal Variety Performance in Auckland before Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. He sang a bilingual version of ‘Whakaaria mai’/‘How great Thou art’ (the Māori lyrics having been written in 1959 by his mentors Wi Te Tau Huata and Sam Rangiihu). This performance led to a television special filmed in Hamilton, and ‘Whakaaria mai’ became a number one single, remaining in the New Zealand charts for 19 weeks.
From 1982 to 1985 Morrison was a board member of the Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand, a role in which he was frustrated by what he saw as cumbersome bureaucracy and a lack of support for New Zealand entertainers and Māori music and programming.
In September 1989 the high-rating television programme This is your life celebrated his career. This led to a nationwide tour with his 18-strong extended family billed as The Howard Morrison Family Variety Spectacular.
Morrison opened the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland with the song ‘Tukua ahau’, which had long been popular among Māori performers. In the same year he was knighted for services to entertainment; the investiture took place on his home marae at Ōhinemutu. He occasionally felt ‘under-utilised’ in New Zealand; he wanted to use his high profile for the benefit of disadvantaged Māori, especially the young.3 He saw how the knighthood could boost a cause when, in September 1990, he rode on horseback throughout the country, raising $1.2 million for the Life Education Trust.
Howard Morrison died at home in Rotorua on 24 September 2009, aged 74. The country mourned a popular entertainer who had become so much more: a charismatic leader who navigated two cultures for the benefit of both. He was buried at the Kauae Cemetery in Ngongotahā, near Rotorua.