Sunday, 1 October 2017

The idle teenager

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Before television was introduced to this country in the early 1960’s, music held sway.

Drugs were unheard of, beer taps were turned off sharp at six, and in the evening radio was king. Apart from the “pictures” the only other form of entertainment, for the non-betrothed anyway, was dancing.

In the mid-fifties a new form of dance swept the world and in 1957 some friends and I formed a rock’n’roll band called The Drifters which saw us gainfully employed most Friday and Saturday nights in various dance halls around the Wairarapa.

In the South Island an entrepreneur named Joe Brown was making his fame and fortune with a dance every Saturday night in Dunedin’s vast Town Hall. Two halls actually, one for traditional dancing and one for rock’n’roll. Being New Zealand’s main university town at the time, these dances were packed with our brightest and whitest.

Joe Brown had another string to his bow. Every year he would travel up and down the country staging talent quests in the cities and major towns. “Joe Brown’s Search for Stars” was the proprietary name and the winners of each contest were invited to Dunedin for the annual grand final in the Town Hall, and then taken on tour. In 1960 Joe Brown’s Search for Stars came to Masterton.

The Drifters opted to compete; and in not just one item. We entered in the instrumental section as well as the vocal section and I was the band’s vocalist. We had an occasional female singer with a glorious voice named Lois Hatfield and we agreed to back her as well. Also local chemist Wayne Snowsill and I fancied ourselves as Everley Brothers imitators and so we proffered a separate entry. The winner was chosen by audience vote and they wisely selected local boy soprano Joseph Anderson for his splendid rendition of Sixteen Candles. Our items came second, third, fourth and fifth.

Joseph Anderson performed with great credit in Dunedin, but the grand final was won by a young Maori man from Palmerston North named Joe Nathan who received a standing ovation, I gather, with a stirring rendition of Old Man River.

The bean counters in Joe Brown’s back rooms in Dunedin, however, must have misread the Masterton results and saw my name featuring regularly, concluding I was a jack of all trades but, fortunately for me, not bothering to complete the proverb. I was offered the tour of New Zealand as a rock’n’roll singer and in doing so became part of the exceptionally talented Dunedin rock group, The Golden Aces.

I was flown to Dunedin in a creaky old DC3 one mid-winter’s Saturday morning where I was to join the troupers and rehearse for a few days before we took the show on the road. That afternoon I met the band and that night I sang at the Town Hall dance which was broadcast live to a New Zealand-wide audience on the YA network. There were lots of telegrams from friends and family back home saying that I came across well, but I knew the static from Wellington to Wairarapa was endemic and that I would have sounded less appealing to anyone with a half-decent reception.

On Sunday we met the rest of our fellow travellers and were shown the printed programmes. I nearly flipped. Beneath my photo I was described as New Zealand’s number One Teenage Idol. The band members were more circumspect. Having heard me the night before they decided a more appropriate title was New Zealand’s number one idle teenager.

This was a variety show typical of the era. Besides Joe Nathan, The Golden Aces and the idle teenager we had another Maori tenor from Christchurch named Charles Hikana, a ventriloquist from Wellington, Ray Anderson with his doll Benny P. Baker, Gary Chadwick, an harmonica player from New Plymouth, and last but certainly not least, New Zealand’s foremost pianist at the time, the irrepressible Jack Thompson from Invercargill.

Manager and compere was tall, charming, ex-Dunedin policeman, Ian Dawson. Dawson had an unusual impediment; he stuttered badly off stage, but in front of a microphone and an audience, his speech was unhindered.

We spent three days rehearsing the show in Dunedin and then took off for our opening night in the Palmerston North Opera House. We arrived with a blaze of publicity given that this was Joe Nathan’s home town and the city was particularly proud of him.

At around seven o’clock in the evening we made our way to the venue where Jack Thompson insisted that he had a dressing room to himself. There were only two dressing rooms in the complex so the rest of us had to share the one other. It was interesting to note that those of us of European descent put make-up on our faces to make ourselves browner under the spotlights, while those with the Maori ancestry put powder on to make themselves whiter. There’s a message here somewhere, but I’m not quite sure what it is.

A sell-out crowd greeted us warmly. Earlier we had sussed out the nearest coffee lounge to the theatre - it was to here that we intended to casually saunter after the show in order to accept the adulation of the crowds, imagining, particularly, a generous number of nubile young women craving autographs.

We made one major mistake in Dunedin. We had omitted to time the show. At intermission, which came earlier than we expected, we had pretty well run out of items. Such was the panic that Ian Dawson was now stuttering both on stage and off and Charles Hikana agreed to take over the role of compere. We sat down backstage and wondered what we would do for the remainder of the evening.

The final item on the programme was listed as The Sensational Trio - this was Joe Nathan, Charles and me. We harmonised such songs as ‘Heart of my Heart’ and ‘It’s a Sin to tell a Lie’ backed by Jack Thompson on the grand piano and The Golden Aces. Prior to that, Joe Nathan sang ‘Old Man River.’ These items were the only ones we so far hadn’t performed.

The 15 minute intermission stretched to 30 minutes as we agonised over how we would produce a creditable second half. I agreed to sing some songs the band and I had never rehearsed together, Ray Anderson said he would create further humorous patter between himself and Benny P. Baker and Gary Chadwick allowed he knew one or two other tunes he could belt out on his mouth organ. Golden Aces drummer Johnny Berryman, who also had a speech defect, caused I think by a cleft palate, said he could sing ‘Susannah’s a Funicle Man’ and when he did, the audience, assuming he was feigning the funny voice, demanded an encore.

So we managed a second half of sorts until it was time for the grand finale - Old Man River followed by The Sensational Trio. It was here we discovered why Jack Thompson wanted his own dressing room. It seemed he enjoyed a whisky during the show; on this occasion, a whole bottle of it.

Halfway though ‘Old Man River’ he got up from the piano stool, resplendent in white bow tie and tails, and whispered in Joe’s ear. The band stopped and Joe had to tell the audience that Jack wanted them to know that he had accompanied him when he won the final in Dunedin. The audience, as embarrassed as we were, clapped politely; the song restarted and was eventually well received.

It was now time for Charles and me to come on from different sides of the stage and burst into ‘Heart of my Heart’ in harmony with Joe. About half way through the song the entire audience broke up and started to laugh uproariously. Some were bent over double. We wondered: “What on earth have we done?”

I remember thinking perhaps my fly was unzipped but a quick glance ascertained that it wasn’t. I turned round and found the source of the uproar. Jack had fallen backwards off the piano stool and was lying on the stage his legs still on the seat and was grinning at Joe, Charles and me with the smile of someone well into his cups.

At this stage the trio looked anything but sensational and Ian Dawson, the poor man, was now stuttering incessantly and hastily lowered the curtain.

We gave the coffee lounge visit a miss. We could hear the crowds still laughing as they walked home past the stage doors and we waited until the coast was clear and then crept back to our hotel and ashamedly crawled into our beds.

The paper the next morning said it all. “Smoke concert air about Joe Brown’s Search for Stars” screamed the headline and started out: “The term ‘star’ is a much overworked word in the theatre, and certainly none of those on stage at the Opera House last night could lay claim to it.” Further on it stated: “Ricky Long from Masterton, described as New Zealand’s number one teenage idol, was unimpressive in an over-amplified performance” and went on, “What he and his band lacked in talent they made up for in volume.” This latter remark was a tad unfair; the band was not “mine” and was made up of exceptional musicians, except perhaps for their rhythm guitarist, me.

The critic managed to find fault with most of the items but saved the greatest vitriol for the unfortunate Jack Thompson. Surprisingly Palmerston North’s afternoon paper was kinder - their reviewer said the show was entertaining and merely complained of a few first night jitters. The morning paper however was more accurate.

In fact the show did improve; it could only get better and at the end of the six week tour it was being well received.


After the tour I convinced the superb Golden Aces saxophonist Barry Gray that he ought to leave Dunedin and come and play for the Drifters. I was best man at his wedding when he married our female vocalist Lois Hatfield. Fifty years on Barry and I found ourselves playing in a band called The Golden Oldies who performed regularly for old time dancers at Masterton’s Cosmopolitan Club. Barry has since passed on; so too has the Cossie Club and we now play for the same audience at the aptly named Old Folks Hall in Cole Street. Amazingly, after the tour Ian Dawson also came to Masterton. He promoted a Joe Brown style Saturday night dance in the Masterton Town Hall. The Drifters were his resident band. Joe Brown gave up the Search for Stars talent quests and took on The Miss New Zealand shows; Ian Dawson held the franchise for Miss Wairarapa. Later he moved to Wellington to take up ownership of the Sorrento Coffee Bar in Ghuznee Street and was to become the manager of the much celebrated Wellington pop group, The Librettos.

Midway through the tour, in August 1960, I had lost my teenage status; I turned twenty and the prospect of being an idle adult didn’t appeal. Except for my place in The Drifters I sensibly abandoned show business for more certain employment in the meat trade.

Which just goes to prove the universal adage: “Old rockers never die, they simply resort to selling sausages and writing tripe.”

(First published in January 2004)

"Tis strange - but true; for truth is always strange; stranger than fiction." - Lord Byron


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