First recorded sounds
New Zealanders had an early fascination with listening to sound that had been recorded and replayed. The first phonograph, an early form of record player that played wax cylinders, was demonstrated in New Zealand in 1879, just two years after its invention in the US by Thomas Edison. Two thousand Canterbury settlers travelled to Lyttelton to hear ‘Edison’s wonderful phonograph speak, sing, laugh, whistle and play Levy’s cornet solos’.1 The sound quality was very poor, and the phonograph remained a novelty for some years.
A rare recording
Bernard Holton, a founder of the Talkeries chain of record shops, recalled in 1904 that ‘we received a visit to our Wellington establishment from the daughter of a noted chief who greatly wanted a recording of her voice. After recovering a little from natural nervousness she sang with verve a song in the Maori language and was … delighted with the subsequent reproduction’.2
In 1901 a chain of shops called the Talkeries sold gramophones, an improved form of phonograph that played disc-shaped records rather than cylinders. The records were known as ‘78s’, a reference to the speed they were played at – 78 rpm (revolutions per minute). The Talkeries also sold these records, including blank ones that customers could record their own sounds directly onto.
Concerts of recorded music were held, to allow people who did not own gramophones or records to hear the world’s greatest musicians.
Hitting the road
Recording music outside a studio using portable equipment began in New Zealand in 1919, at a hui marking the return from England of the Māori Pioneer Battalion. The recording team consisted of Elsdon Best and James McDonald from the Dominion Museum. From 1919 to 1923 they made four expeditions to Gisborne, Rotorua, the Whanganui River and the East Coast, recording waiata and chants on Edison Dictaphone wax cylinders. At times the recording team included Peter Buck and Āpirana Ngata.
Earliest commercial recording
The first New Zealander to make a commercial recording is said to have been Wellington-born baritone John Prouse. He recorded 12 songs while in Britain in 1905. Six were released by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company. Soon other New Zealanders also recorded overseas, such as the singer Frances Alda who recorded with the famous tenor Enrico Caruso in the US in 1910.
Rise of the record player
By the mid-1920s the quality of recorded music had greatly improved and most New Zealand homes owned a record player. They played heavy and brittle 78-rpm records imported from overseas companies such as His Master’s Voice (HMV) in Britain. A New Zealand branch of HMV, called Gramophonium, was first established in Wellington by E. J. Hyams in 1913.
First local recordings
Australasia’s first recording studio opened in Homebush, Sydney, in 1926 and recorded many New Zealand as well as Australian performers. Dunedin tenor Ernest McKinlay recorded ballads and Māori songs that sold well in New Zealand.
In 1927 Australian recording engineers from HMV used portable equipment at Tunohopu meeting house at Ōhinemutu, Rotorua. They recorded well-known Māori songs such as ‘Pōkarekare ana’ and ‘Hine e hine’, which were sung by Ana Hato, her cousin Deane Waretini and other local musicians. These became the first commercial recordings made in New Zealand.
Many more recordings of Māori performers followed, and sold well in New Zealand and overseas. ‘Po atarau’ (‘Now is the Hour’) eventually proved a hit for Britain’s Gracie Fields, US singers Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and many others.
One of the first local recording stars was Nelson-born country singer Tex Morton, who recorded almost 100 songs in Sydney between 1936 and 1943.
New Zealand was very slow to develop a homegrown recording industry. The sound quality of gramophone music was still poorer than that of radio broadcasts and movies, so records struggled to compete. As well, HMV had a virtual monopoly on records sold in New Zealand, and had no interest in recording local artists.
Until 1935 the only local sound recording facilities were in radio stations or in small studios making radio commercials and contracted to the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (NZBS). In 1948 a local radio and gramophone manufacturer, the Radio Corporation of New Zealand, built a new recording studio at 262 Wakefield St, Wellington. It also established the country’s first record label, TANZA (To Assist New Zealand Artists), a name invented by Radio Corporation employee Bart Fortune.
Over seven days in October 1948 Stan Dallas, a technician on loan to TANZA from the NZBS, recorded the song ‘Blue smoke’, written by Ruru Karaitiana and sung by Pixie Williams. The record sold over 20,000 copies and was New Zealand’s first all-local hit.