45s, LPs and rock ’n’ roll
In the 1950s technical developments such as recording to tape rather than disc, and 45-rpm singles and 33⅓-rpm long-playing records (LPs) greatly widened the market for recorded music. The music business itself was shaken to the core by the raw new sound of rock ’n’ roll.
The TANZA label followed up its first hit, ‘Blue smoke’, with ‘Maple on the hill’ by the Otago country and western quartet, the Tumbleweeds. Noel Peach’s Astor Studio in Auckland’s Shortland Street also began to record artists for TANZA, including Pat McMinn, whose ‘Opo the crazy dolphin’ was the hit of 1955. However, in 1956 TANZA’s parent company, the Radio Corporation of New Zealand, gained the rights to distribute recordings from the US-based company RCA in New Zealand, and after that it reduced its interest in local artists.
First local rock ’n’ roll record
The New Zealand branch of the label His Master’s Voice (HMV) relied on small independent studios for its local recordings. At Alan Dunnage’s Island Bay Studio in Wellington, country and western entertainer Johnny Cooper recorded a version of ‘Rock around the clock’ for HMV in August 1955. This was possibly the first rock ’n’ roll recording made outside the US.
Another local record label was formed by Aucklander Eldred Stebbing who, since 1945, had been recording weddings, parties and other events direct to disc. In 1951 he formed the Zodiac label, which had the slogan, ‘Follow the stars on Zodiac’. The label went on to release over 400 records. In 1965 Zodiac had a number-one hit in New Zealand and Australia with Ray Columbus and the Invaders’ ‘She’s a mod’. Stebbing eventually opened a four-studio, all-digital complex in Auckland’s Ponsonby.
Among the staff working at a recording studio are: the A&R (artists and repertoire) manager, who selects the material to be recorded; the producer, who makes overall decisions and aims to capture the best possible performance from the artists; the musical director, who arranges the backing musicians and often conducts them as well; and the recording engineer, who operates the equipment.
Robbins Recordings Studio
The leading recording facility in the South Island was run by Keith Robbins, who took over the Christchurch Recording Studio in Springfield Road in 1958. Over the next 15 years his label issued some 150 records, covering local artists from country singers to brass bands, local rockers and Celtic folk clubs. Robbins stopped releasing records in the late 1970s but his son-in-law, sound engineer John Phair, opened Tandem Studios and launched a record label of the same name.
Rock ’n’ roll fever
In the late 1950s a new wave of New Zealand independent labels appeared, driven by the craze for rock ’n’ roll. Phil Warren was only 17 when he formed Prestige Records in 1956. The following year he signed young rock ’n’ roll sensation Johnny Devlin, and recorded his debut single ‘Lawdy Miss Claudy’ live in May 1958. Prestige issued New Zealand’s first rock ’n’ roll album, simply titled Johnny, in 1959.
Another entrepreneur, Harry M. Miller, founded the La Gloria label and had national success with the Howard Morrison Quartet. Their hit ‘My old man’s an All Black’ was recorded at the Pukekohe Town Hall in 1960.
In 1957 veteran local publishers A. H. and A. W. Reed launched the Kiwi Records label (later Kiwi Pacific Records), focusing on Māori music and the educational market. Kiwi’s manager, Tony Vercoe, had early success with original songs by folk singer Peter Cape, such as ‘Down the hall on Saturday night’. Poet James K. Baxter and composer Douglas Lilburn were other early Kiwi Records artists.
In 1964 Kiwi signed the young Kiri Te Kanawa, and later Malvina Major and Īnia Te Wīata. The bird noises played daily on Radio New Zealand came from Kiwi's catalogue. In 2012 Kiwi Pacific reissued the legendary 1920s recordings by Ana Hato and Deane Waretini.
A difficult phase
An effect used on many HMV recordings around 1967–68, such as 'Spinning, spinning, spinning’ by Simple Image and 'St Paul' by Shane, was the swishing sound known as phasing. Frank Douglas, a recording engineer at Wellington’s HMV studio, used a primitive but ingenious method to create the effect: he recorded on two tape recorders and varied the speed of one very slowly, putting it slightly out of phase with the other. ‘To get it to happen in the right place was very hit and miss.’1
The 1960s were something of a golden age for the New Zealand record industry. Each year local labels released 70–80 singles and the occasional album. With generous radio and television exposure, they sold in impressive numbers. Most were recorded by HMV (later EMI), which bought the Radio Corporation of New Zealand studio in Wellington in 1962.
Murdoch Riley, a former employee of both the New Zealand Broadcasting Service and TANZA, formed Viking Records in 1957 with Jim Staples and Ron Dalton. In the 1960s Viking had a series of massive hits by local artists such as Peter Posa, Maria Dallas, the Chicks and Dinah Lee. In 2013 its large back catalogue, especially of country, Pacific Islands and Māori music, still sold strongly.
One of the longest surviving early independents was Ode Records, formed in Auckland in the late 1960s by Terence O’Neill-Joyce. Ode developed an extensive catalogue of New Zealand, Pacific, world, classical and jazz recordings by local artists. In 2013 Ode was also the appointed distributor for more than 50 other independent music labels from New Zealand and overseas.