Story: Popular music

Page 6. New recordings and genres, early 1950s

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Record labels and artists

TANZA and the Auckland-based Stebbing and Zodiac labels – both owned by Eldred and Phil Stebbing – led the first wave of New Zealand pop recordings in the 1950s.

Among the early releases were:

  • female singers Esme Stephens, Mavis Rivers and Pat McMinn
  • male soloists Buster Keene and Fraser Daly
  • vocal groups the Knaves and the Duplicats
  • country artists the Tumbleweeds, Jack Christie and Johnny Granger
  • jazz recordings by Julian Lee, Crombie Murdoch and the Astor Dixie Boys.

Silver lining

A man of diverse musical talents, Julian Lee didn’t let blindness get in the way of a long career. Born in 1923, Lee played for the Jubilee Institute for the Blind’s brass band as a child and was a regular player in the dance music scenes of the 1940s and 1950s. He moved to Australia in 1956, where he was shoulder-tapped by the visiting star Frank Sinatra, who encouraged him to move to the US. Lee saw his blindness as an advantage, and believed he wouldn’t have received so much musical training if he had been able to see.

HMV soon responded with recordings of its own, beginning with acts such as the popular pianists John Parkin and Jack Thompson, Dunedin country singer Les Wilson and Wally Ransom’s Rhumba Band. Variety was the guiding principle: there were many local acts in genres that had never been recorded and the fledgling industry tried all styles.

As well as the expected pop acts, the early 1950s also saw recordings of Māori choirs, brass bands, light-classical songs featuring Īnia Te Wīata, and novelty recordings created by Julian Lee.

US influences

Besides vocal pop, two other styles imported from the United States dominated the recording scene: Hawaiian-style pop, and country and western. The vogue for Hawaiian music had been building since the beginning of the century, thanks to visiting acts and romantic films about the South Pacific.

Stage fright

Daphne Walker recorded prolifically, but her confidence in the studio didn’t extend to the stage. She ‘couldn’t face singing in public … I’ve always been like that – I just freeze’.1

Two Tongan-born lap-steel guitar players, Bill Sevesi and Bill Wolfgramm, were stalwarts of the local Hawaiian sound for 40 years. The leading singer in the genre was Daphne Walker, who appeared on the first local album, South sea rhythm, recorded with Wolfgramm in 1955. Two songs she recorded became the best-known New Zealand originals in the Hawaiian style, Sam Freedman’s ‘Haere mai (everything is kapai)’ and ‘When my wahine does the poi’.


While songwriting had been a popular activity since colonial times, New Zealand’s lack of a recording and music publishing industry meant that few approached it professionally until after ‘Blue smoke’.

With the surge in recording from the early 1950s, songwriters emerged who specialised in the sentimental (Sam Freedman) or the satirical (Ken Avery and Rod Derrett). In the early 1960s Peter Cape’s social satires were both astutely observed and popular (‘Down the hall on Saturday night’, ‘Taumarunui’, 'She’ll be right’).

  1. Quoted in Chris Bourke, Blue smoke: the lost dawn of New Zealand popular music 1918–1964. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2010, p. 223. Back
How to cite this page:

Chris Bourke, 'Popular music - New recordings and genres, early 1950s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Chris Bourke, published 22 Oct 2014