Rock ’n’ roll, which emerged in New Zealand in the mid-1950s, was seen as music for teenagers, and – in the wake of the 1954 Mazengarb report on New Zealand juvenile delinquency – a bad influence. Radio programmers, used to playing it safe with bland pop, were disdainful of what they saw as a short-lived fad for a niche audience. But many New Zealand teenagers responded immediately to rock ’n’ roll, taking their lead from film soundtracks, jukeboxes and entertainment magazines rather than radio.
‘Rock around the clock’
In mid-1955 HMV’s New Zealand branch realised it had made a mistake turning down a hit song from the US, Bill Haley and the Comets’ ‘Rock around the clock’. They recruited Māori country singer Johnny Cooper to record a local version with a group of Wellington jazz players, which was released in September 1955.
When Haley’s recording appeared on the soundtrack of youth film Blackboard jungle, it accelerated interest in the controversial genre. The song received another boost in September 1956 when the film Rock around the clock reached New Zealand cinemas.
The following month, a group of Auckland jazz musicians led by drummer Frank Gibson began playing regular rock ’n’ roll dances at the Trades Hall, soon to be renamed the Jive Centre. Rock ’n’ roll bands were also appearing elsewhere in New Zealand, in places such as Papakura, New Plymouth and Wellington.
Johnny Cooper’s foray into rock ’n’ roll was brief. After recording a colloquial original, ‘Pie cart rock ’n’ roll’, he moved on to running his own talent quests. He inspired a young Whanganui country singer, Johnny Devlin, to take up the genre.
In early 1958 Devlin moved to Auckland and began a residency at the Jive Centre. Other prominent rock ’n’ roll bands already in the city included the Keil Isles and Red Hewitt’s Buccaneers. When Devlin recorded a version of the Lloyd Price song ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’, it became a massive success.
During Johnny Devlin’s national tour of 1958–59, promoter Graham Dent unpicked the threads of Devlin’s shirt sleeves so they could be more readily torn off by excited fans.
From late 1958 Devlin and his band the Devils toured the length of New Zealand for six months, with a rock ’n’ roll variety show that attracted headlines, full houses and occasional riots. In just over a year, he had become New Zealand’s answer to Elvis Presley, and was on a boat to try his luck in Australia.
Howard Morrison Quartet
Another entertainment phenomenon that began in 1958 reached a much wider cross-section of New Zealanders. The Howard Morrison Quartet was a music and comedy act from Rotorua, capable of polished vocal versions of pop standards and originals, song parodies and humorous patter.
Morrison, the leader, had grown up listening to sweet vocal harmony groups such as the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots. His love of Neapolitan music was nurtured by veterans of the Māori Battalion’s campaign in Italy – he described himself as ‘Mario Māori Lanza’.
The group’s first hit was ‘Hoki mai’, a spirited version of Hēnare Waitoa’s sombre ‘Tomo mai’ that became a favourite at sing-alongs. But their biggest successes came from parodies, written to the melodies of overseas hits. ‘The battle of Waikato’ was a satire of the New Zealand wars. ‘My old man’s an All Black’ commented on the 1960 ‘No Maoris, no tour’ campaign, which opposed the exclusion of Māori players from a planned All Black rugby tour of South Africa.
Besides Morrison’s personality, central to the Quartet’s success was the humour and musicianship of guitarist/singer Gerry Merito. His acoustic guitar strum, which evolved from pre-war Māori concert groups, was emulated by amateur players nationwide.
The success of the Quartet encouraged New Zealand record companies to release many novelty and comedy records, many celebrating Kiwiana or gently mocking Māori culture. While the sentiments would later be considered anachronistic, the musicianship was often very accomplished. Rim D. Paul’s ‘Poi poi twist’ was one of many to take advantage of the Twist fad, framing a generic rock ’n’ roll song with the traditional Māori stick game ‘E papa’.