KEVIN WATSON

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First published in March 2012, last updated April 2012

Kevin can be contacted at taketwo@paradise.net.nz

Kevin's videos on YouTube
"Watching the Ghouls Go By" (1966)
"Beehive" (1965)
"Rat Chaser Blues" (2012)
"Space Jam" (2012)

The Story of a Session Musician in the 1960’s

I had an idyllic childhood. When I was born we lived at a place everyone called “The Government Farm”. It was actually the Te Kauwhata Horticultural Research Station, and the horticulture was solely about grapes.

Our house was set in the middle of a small park, with gardens all around. You can still see the site, on the right as you come down the hill towards the railway line. It looked pretty scruffy last time I saw it, and our house was demolished long ago – but when we lived there it was beautiful – we were surrounded by lawns with stately trees like Norfolk Pines and Monkey Puzzles, and lots of flowers. Albert Henry, who later became prime minister of the Cook Islands, was one of the people who worked under my father, and my brother and sister played with his kids.

When you get to the railway line, you go on a big u-shaped trip to the right and back again. That’s because there used to be a railway station - in fact the railway was the main reason for the town being there.

Fifty years after I lived there, not a single new building has appeared in the main street. Most of the original ones are still there, but some have gone, including the town hall where my father used to moonlight as a projectionist – so we always got into the movies free. (We saw a lot of movies).

In 1947 when I was three, we moved to Roto Street which was the site of six acres of land originally owned by my father’s father. My father and my uncle got three acres each. It was a nice section, sloping down to a creek on one side and lots of flat land on the other side.

It was also very close to the lake (Waikare). Around that end of the lake was a big swamp (or wetland as it's now called). To most adults, it was just “the swamp” – useless mosquito- breeding land that was a waste of space. To me, and to lots of other kids in the town, it was paradise.

Although the water in the lake always looked dirty (erosion from the intensive farming all around), the water in the wetland was always clear. There were trees and plants, eels, carp, catfish, and insects like water-boatmen and backswimmers. We spent hours playing and exploring, sometimes in small boats made from a sheet of corrugated iron and a couple of bits of wood. There were intriguing places like The Landing (with an old abandoned dugout canoe), and Waugh’s Island, and Maori Bay.

Now there’s pine trees and a sewage treatment plant, and the lake is described as putrid. And the only people who remember, and actually care, are those of us who used to play there 60 or so years ago. How many other rapes of the environment are forgotten, unlamented, and never even pass into history, because nobody cared?

I was an obsessively curious kid. As I grew up my curiosity led me to confront many mysteries, and cause my parents to wonder what they had created.
The first time I was about seven. My brother was given an encyclopaedia, and in it I saw a picture of a dinosaur. It’s hard to describe the feeling of, for the very first time, being confronted with the immensity of time – of seeing mysterious alien creatures that really existed millions of years ago. And when did time start, and when will it end?

Because we lived in the country without street lights, the night sky could be dramatic. The sizes and colours of the stars were plain to see, and had already aroused my curiosity. In town there was a general store called Pulham & Begbie. [One memory that always sticks is of slim old Maori ladies, with head scarves, cardys and moko, sitting on the footpath outside the store smoking pipes.] In the shop one day I saw a book called Stars and Planets. I opened it and saw pictures of Jupiter and Saturn, and the same eerie feeling came over me that my known universe had suddenly expanded. I became aware of the mystery of space. How big is it? Does it have and end, and what’s past the end?

I became fanatical about astronomy and my parents became concerned at my odd behaviour, slipping out to study the sky at all hours of the night. I had been given a book of sky maps by a kind neighbor, and was able to identify all the southern constellations, stars, and planets. I observed eclipses, saw the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, the first Sputnik, and the burnup of one of the larger Russian satellites (at 3am).

Then I discovered chemistry, and found there was another mysterious dimension to the universe – that of the microscopic and sub-microscopic. My parents showed admirable tolerance in buying me a chemistry set for Christmas, which they may well have regretted as I promptly set up the wash-house as my laboratory. One shelf with a window looking out the back of the house, test tubes, a meths burner, and chemicals in little bottles and jars. I made hydrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide and ammonia gas, the last two in particular prompting jokes about weird smells and strange potions. I think they became more amused than concerned. But then they didn’t know my dark secret.

My Uncle Allan lived just down the road, where he and my father were partners in a sawmill on our property. There were lots of explosives on hand for splitting logs – mostly blasting powder (a form of pelletised gunpowder). On Guy Fawkes nights we had a huge bonfire. My mother used to make a Guy with old clothes stuffed with straw, which would be incinerated sitting atop the fire to the cheers of the crowd.

Uncle Allan used to make fireworks, and he showed me how to make them. All basically gunpowder, with iron filings for sparks, copper sulphate for a blue flame, salt for yellow, and something for red which I forget. Make a tube of newspaper like a big cigarette and light one end.

I didn’t have any gunpowder, so I looked it up in the dictionary. It said it was a mixture of potassium nitrate, sulphur, and charcoal, and even gave the proportions. We had large vegetable gardens so sulphur was always available, as was charcoal. I knew from my chemistry that potassium nitrate was also called saltpetre, which was available from the aforementioned Pulham & Begbie’s, being used (although not in our house) for curing bacon.

It was fairly easy to con Mum into buying me small amounts for my chemistry set. However I became frustrated at such trifling portions and one day asked her to include a Pound of Saltpetre in the weekly grocery order. She wasn’t too happy at first, but I persisted and she gave in. My pound duly arrived in a brown paper bag.

At the first opportunity I mixed the whole lot up in a big old Milo tin. The temptation to try it out was strong, so I took the tin out by the roadside away from the house, and put a small pile down on the ground. I lit a match and dropped it in the little pile of powder, which flared up in fine fashion. (Gunpowder does not explode unless it’s confined). Unfortunately, the Milo tin had not retired to a safe distance. A spark went in, there was a huge flash, and a massive mushroom cloud ascended above the scene. Devastated at this turn of events, and terrified at the thought of discovery, I abandoned the blackened and smoking tin and hid under the large hedge at the front of our property. Amazingly, nobody noticed. I came out after the smoke had dispersed, my career as a teenage bomber curtailed.

Then there was Electricity: How can so much invisible power travel along a wire at the speed of light? In the Encyclopaedia there was an item on making an electric motor. It consisted of a knitting needle, two corks, some wire and some copper strips. My father and my brother and I put it together on the kitchen table, applied the power from a car battery. It worked! I eventually chose a career as a radio technician, partly based on my early interest in things electrical, and because I couldn’t think of anything else.

When I was eleven, I fell in love with a girl. Her name was Barbara. She was blonde but not beautiful, older than me, taller than me, and in a higher class. We never spoke and she probably didn’t know I existed. Not a very successful introduction to the world of romance. However the feeling was very powerful and lasted for quite some time. Until the next one. And the next.

Once again another aspect of existence had revealed its mysterious presence. Depths of feeling I didn’t know I had. Then when my dog died a year or so later, my first experience of grief was shattering.

And then there was music.

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Jo Stafford, Nat King Cole, were some of the early voices I heard, and it was pretty much background. The first song that touched me was “The Little White Cloud That Cried” by Johnny Ray. I was in that place again where deep feelings were aroused and a new world was opening.

My mother had been a pianist, and I often used to sit on the floor beside her while she played. Sometimes I would put my ear against the sound board and hear the massive waves of the music wash over me. When I was twelve, my mother thought I should take piano lessons. My teacher was John Ferega, a short portly man with a heavy accent and a reputed fondness for garlic (according to my sister who worked with him in the Post Office). My appointments were at 7.45 am weekly. I am not a morning person, even less so then, and I only lasted one term. However he did teach me to read music, and it gave me enough of a start to be able to work things out on my own from then on. I know I didn’t practise much. My mother said I just wanted to make up my own tunes.

The world as we knew it changed in 1956. The first Rock’n’Roll hit in NZ was ‘Rock Around The Clock’ by Bill Haley and the Comets. The rhythm was something I had not heard before, and I remember again that feeling of discovering something exciting and new. So another obsession was born, one which remains as strong as it was then.

My mother had a guitar, which was very unusual for pakeha households in those days. It was kept in a case lined with green felt, and usually lived in a cupboard. She almost never played it. From when I was quite young I used to get it out and play with it or just look at it. It was a Hawaiian steel guitar - just like a small acoustic guitar with high string action, and tuned to an A chord. From my piano knowledge I figured out where the notes were and used to pick out tunes. When Mum bought me a guitar tutor, I was initially displeased that guitars were not actually tuned to an A chord, and had to relearn where the notes were.

There were Maori kids at school who played guitars, and I learnt what they did. They were derisive of my early efforts, but that made me more determined to show them.

The headmaster’s name was Aubrey Scoble. Grim-faced by default, he ruled the school with an iron fist – you could sense even in his most amiable moments, the rage waiting just under the surface, ready to pounce on any wrongdoers. Well, Aubrey decided he didn’t like guitars at school. Couldn’t stand the noise of kids enjoying themselves making music. In those days such philistine attitudes were so common as to be normal, and nobody even thought to question it.

The one saving grace musically at school was a young teacher called Roy Clements, who introduced music as a subject. We did Gilbert & Sullivan operas, and had interesting music classes where we listened to all types of music and discussed them. One day he played a record called “What is Jazz” by Leonard Bernstein. It explained so many things about music that I had experienced but didn’t know about - rhythm and syncopation and blues and improvisation. I had pretty much worked out that the pentatonic scale was the ground floor of improvising – when I added the blue notes, I had whole lot more to play with. In fact that composite scale became the basis of my playing for many years after that.

I realise now, as I write this, that I approached music just as I did chemistry or electronics - I had discovered a mysterious system full of mathematical patterns and relationships. But music had one more - the abstract and powerful world of emotions. The mystery of the theory is soon solved, but the answers to why and how music affects us, is perhaps something we will never understand. We are probably not meant to. Too much analysis destroys the feeling.

My major influence in 1957-58 was Elvis’s guitar player on his earliest records – Scotty Moore. His solos in Hound Dog are definitive of early rock’n’roll playing – a kind of twangy country sound with a lot more blues mixed in. And energy, and excitement. That’s what really got me going – all those raunchy double stops with a bit of nasty tone and lots of attitude. Not too many bends, but they were subtle. I was hooked at that point – I was in love with the guitar, and I knew I always would be.

I used to listen to the Hit Parades on the radio, even wrote them down and kept statistics. Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ricky Nelson; and then black artists started getting played – Fats Domino, Frankie Lyman, Sam Cooke, Johnny Mathis. Fats Domino had a big hit with “Ain’t That a Shame”, which he actually recorded years before in 1948. Rock’n’roll (Rhythm & Blues) was played by black artists for years before Elvis and others formed a bridge to the white people. In fact a lot of early opposition to Rock’n’Roll was overtly racist.

At the age of almost 17 I moved to Wellington and trained and worked as a radio technician. I lived in the Orient Boy’s Hostel, Oriental Bay. It’s probably now the most valuable real estate in NZ, but then it was a big old building housing about 80 boys under 21. A lot of young guys didn’t like it because of rules like no grog, no women, no radios after 10. Didn't worry me at all – there was no cooking, no cleaning, and I could spend all my spare time practising. And I did – for the 3½ years I lived there.

After a couple of years I worked with a guy called Alan Montgomery – he had been a drummer in a Titahi Bay band called the Supersonics. He was the truck driver at work and I went out on his run a couple of times. Of course we talked about music, particularly jazz, and he told me about people like Barney Kessel and lent me some records. I really liked the unpredictability of the music – and the complexity (another mystery to solve?). Improvisation was, and still is, the whole point of music to me. I became an avid jazz fan, and bought lots of jazz records – Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, Jim Hall, Dave Brubeck.

All this time I had been sitting in my room playing – apart from occasional forays into bad bands. All they ever seemed to want to do was play like the Shadows – note for note – exactly. I thought that attitude was pathetic – it went against everything I felt about music. Getting inspiration from other musicians is great - copying them note for note is not for me – I don’t see the point.

The guitar heroes in Wellington at the time were Rod Stone (The Librettos) and Neil Harrap (The Premiers) – both Hank Marvin clones. Neil Harrap was doing quite a lot of recording at the time, and Rod Stone also recorded some singles with Garth Young, who was the top arranger on the recording scene.

At the time (1964) the Wellington Musician’s Club had their meetings on Sunday afternoons at the Wellington Art Club rooms in Willis Street. I got on a bus with my guitar and amplifier (we did that then) and went. There were probably 10 – 15 musicians there and people just formed groups and jammed – it was all jazz, and I felt completely at home. There was a piano player there called Neville Porteous (he later became better known as a potter). He liked my playing and asked me to play at a gig with his trio.

It was at the Seatoun Surf Club building which is still there right on the edge of the water. That night was a milestone for me – to play with a (to my ears anyway) highly competent jazz group and know that I met the standard. Very flattering things were said and I knew my life was on the right path.

Neville had a cousin called Vern Clare, who ran the Empress Ballroom, and also played trumpet in the band. He said Vern was keen to add guitar to the band, and that he had recommended me. After a couple of weeks procrastination, I went to the ballroom on Saturday April 3, straight after seeing Thelonius Monk at the Wellington Town Hall. I remember feeling a bit daunted by the band and the size of the crowd, but the guys were friendly and I was asked to come in and play on Friday night. Bill Hoffmeister was the bandleader and piano player, he gave me the guitar ‘pack’, with all the guitar parts. We played Friday, Saturday and for a time Wednesdays. It was all ballroom dancing, and there were written arrangements for all the numbers.

Bruno Lawrence was the drummer, and Bruno did recording sessions with Garth Young. As well as being the top arranger in Wellington at the time Garth was a top-selling recording artist on piano. Bruno asked me if I’d like to do recording, and said he would recommend me to Garth. Bill Hoffmeister had also recorded with Garth and put in a word. After a week or two, Garth Young phoned me and asked me to come to the studio to play on a session. On the assigned night I drove to the old HMV Studio (by now I had a car) which was in Victoria Street. The session was for Rochelle Vinsen who had had a couple of hit records and was quite well known. She wasn’t there though, we were just doing backing tracks. I found it pretty easy, just playing rhythm guitar on stuff that seemed simple after the jazz I had been studying and practicing. From that night on I became the guitarist of choice for most of the recording sessions in Wellington. I’m sure the Rod Stones and Neil Harraps wondered who the hell this nobody was who was suddenly doing all the recording work, but I had put a lot of work in over the previous five years, I was interested in all styles of music, and I could read.

The studio equipment consisted of two Ampex tape recorders, each single track, so you could overdub by playing one while recording on the other. They were huge, the size of a half-sized fridge. The engineer was the legendary Frank Douglas. He was a great engineer and a fine man. He had a speech impediment from a cleft palate and musicians, being what they were, used to take the piss out of him behind his back (I’m sure he knew they did it too) but everyone respected Frank. He remained at EMI (HMV) studios for many years, until their last premises in Lower Hutt in the 1980s.

Soon after I was asked to play on a session with a Maori choir, for Salem Records, which was owned by Peter Caithness. The session was pretty straightforward, just me on acoustic guitar and the choir. I still remember a young Don Selwyn impressing with a beautiful tenor voice. He become well known as an actor, but I always remembered him as a singer. Peter Caithness asked me if I would like to record some guitar music, and it was arranged with Frank that I would come in on Tuesday nights and put tracks down.

I completed an album of 10 tracks, with mostly just myself and a drummer. We would record either rhythm or lead guitar with drums, and then overdub the other tracks on the gigantic machines. Sometimes we would use an effect I had heard Les Paul use years before – record on a tape moving at half speed (playing at half speed too) so that the result was a part an octave higher. It was all pretty light stuff, mostly pop standards and a couple of originals. I was quite proud of the record, and we had high hopes, but the time was not right. The Beatles were at the top of their popularity and the days of instrumental music were over.

The Beatles revolutionised music in more ways than one. A major effect was the shift from a singer with a band (for example Cliff Richard and the Shadows) to a whole band that sang and played. This opened up a huge wave of creativity, particularly in the 70s.

Viking Records at that time was run by Ron Dalton, who had previously done his recording in Auckland. He was business-like, and knew exactly what he wanted – I remember he liked the Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” way of recording. Ron was a small guy, with the smallest nose I have ever seen. It was like it had been flattened with a mallet, just leaving a small knob on the bottom end. There was talk that Ron was behind the Grapefruit Diet scam, which was advertised extensively in the newspapers. One posted $2 to Ron and received a photocopied piece of paper telling one to eat grapefruit.

Why did he come to Wellington instead of doing it in Auckland as he had done for years? The answer is almost certainly Garth Young – he could deliver on any kind of musical style, and he had the musicians, particularly from the NZSO which was based in Wellington. Some of them played on a lot of sessions.

In 1965 he came to Wellington to record Sue and Judy Donaldson, “The Chicks”. – two little schoolgirls in hot-pants. Sue was 14, Judy 16. I remember how impressed we were with Sue’s voice on “River Deep, Mountain High”, Ron saying she sounded “like a black chick”. Sue is still working as a professional singer on shows like “Stars in Their Eyes”.

Ron later brought Peter Posa, with whom we did two albums. One of them was an Island album. Peter had spent some time in Fiji and made numerous lurid references to his leisure activities there. However he was a very friendly guy, a good guitar player and we had a lot of fun during the sessions.

The most extensive recording we did with one artist was with Maria Dallas. Another Ron Dalton discovery, her real name was Marina Devcich, and she came from a small place in the Waikato, as had I. Maria was great to work with and the sessions were fun. Maria had never been in a recording studio before. One song had a fade ending – that means you keep on playing and they turn you down on the panel. Maria thought that meant you sing softer, and her voice disappeared into inaudibility while we all ploughed on. Well, we all have to learn stuff one way or another I guess.

Her big hit track was “Tumbling Down”. The way it came about was a bit like the movies. The song writer, Jay Epae, came into the studio and sang the song unaccompanied. We sat around and listened and worked out the chords and a rough arrangement, and then just did it. It was obvious it was a hit song, and Ron was quick to get tapes to the radio stations. It went to number one immediately and stayed there for some time.

He then put Maria on the road, with a country-wide tour. I was asked to go on the tour, but when I told the promoter (Johnny Cooper) that I would need £25 per week to make it worth my while. I was turned down. However the day before the start of the tour, an agitated Ron Dalton phoned me and asked to come to rehearsal straight away – their guitar player wasn’t cutting it. At that time my wife had just gone into hospital and I couldn’t leave home. When I told him he was obviously upset, but that’s show business. Anyway the tour was apparently a success. Maria went on to record in Nashville and worked with Chet Atkins. They re-recorded Tumbling Down, adding lots of vocal and orchestral backing. I liked ours better. It was just a simple country song.

Some time later that year, Howard Morrison featured in a movie called “Don’t Let it Get You”. A whole album of songs was recorded for the soundtrack, all of them written and arranged by Patrick Flynn. Patrick was an eccentric Englishman, with an interesting method of writing songs. Every song on the album used the chord structure of a different Beatles song – the title song was based on “A Hard Days Night”. Neither the movie or the album had much impact, and a few months later Patrick was telling people he had given up music and was selling encyclopaedias. However I found out recently that he became a highly respected conductor based in California, until his death in 2008. His biography states “British conductor Patrick Flynn is noted for his vast repertoire and enthusiastic responses from audiences around the world. He has been described by critic Jean Pierre Barricelli as "the complete conductor, the podium equivalent of a polymath." After his Covent Garden debut the London Daily Telegraph wrote: "Here is a conductor to treasure." His career has encompassed the entire spectrum of musical production including symphony, opera, theatre and film.” I guess selling encyclopaedias didn’t work out for Patrick, but he sure made it in the end.

Another of Patrick’s projects was a singer named Mr Lee Grant (real name Bogdan Kominowski). The Mr was added because there was already a female actress and singer in NZ called Lee Grant. He had a very enthusiastic manager called Diane Cadwallader, and recorded a song called “Sounds of the Big Town”. Patrick was the musical director, Garth, Dave Fraser and I played on the backing, along with many others. Recording sessions in those days used a lot of musicians at times – now you can get big orchestral sounds out of a keyboard, but then they had to use real orchestral players, and the NZSO was, as now, based in Wellington. The vocal track made us gasp, and not for good reasons. It was not good. It was dreadful. However, within a few days I was astounded to read in the “Truth” (!), that the record was superb, and Mr Lee was bound for greatness. The article was written by Paddy O’Donnell, who was a well known radio jock at the time. When we did some more tracks for Mr Lee shortly afterwards, we were paid by cheque at the end of the session. The man writing the cheques was Paddy O’Donnell. Hmmm, I thought. However, Bogdan Kominowski eventually found his niche and became a very successful stage show performer – so I guess the people who believed in him were right after all.

There were three arrangers doing most of the recording work – Garth Young, Brian Hands, and Don Richardson. Garth was probably doing 80% of it – an amazing arranger who could sit up all night writing charts, including full orchestral arrangements, then record it all the next day, with hardly ever a correction.

The musicians were Garth on keyboards, Slim Dorward on bass, Dave Fraser on drums and myself on guitar. This changed in a rather sad way.

Mr Lee Grant made another album. The musical director was Jimmy Sloggett from Auckland, but the sessions took place in Wellington. I don’t know what the record company politics were behind that, but Jimmy was unhappy about not recording in Auckland. Slim Dorward was a funny, eccentric and likeable man, and a good double bass player. But like many bass players of that era who crossed over to electric bass, his guitar technique was not very good. Bass guitar is a primarily a guitar, and the technique is very different from string bass. Slim had played at virtually every session I had done for the last 2 or 3 years.  At the Jimmy Sloggett session, Slim was presented with some pretty difficult charts – bass players those days were not used to reading upper leger lines. Slim really struggled, and Jimmy kept at him, breathing down his neck. The Title track of the Album, “Thanks to You” was Slim’s final battleground. He got the track down, and 45 years later it still sounds good. The song was a huge hit, and won the “Loxene Golden Disc” that year.

But for Slim it was only bad news. A few days later, Howard Gable phoned me at work. Howard had been a young singer at “The Pines”, with Garth Young. He got into record production and became very good at it, and eventually married Alison Durbin. Howard was producing Mr Lee’s album. He asked me if I would be willing to play bass as well as guitar on sessions in future. I said I didn’t feel good about pushing Slim aside, and would rather not. He said if they didn’t replace Slim with someone who could handle the increasing role of bass guitar in recording, then the sessions would go to Auckland. I obviously had no choice.

He died a few years later, but I can still picture Slim as a lonely figure walking up Cuba Street with a big overcoat and his funny Russian fur hat. I think of him with sadness, and wonder how he felt in his last years.

In 1969 Kiri Te Kanawa had recently won the Mobil Song Contest, and recorded an album. The arranging was spread between different towns, and Wellington’s share was handled by Don Richardson. Don was bandleader at the Majestic Cabaret, and was a very good sax player and arranger. Don mentored me a lot, and taught me about arranging string sections. I still have the notes I made in a very old notebook.  We did about eight songs, all light semi-classical things – the 60s equivalent of popera I suppose. Kiri was tall with long black hair. She was very natural, like anybody’s sister, and quite beautiful. The range of her voice was such that she could sing some songs in any key.

Don used to do a lot of radio work, and for several years we did a jazz orchestral programme. I noticed that we were doing some of the same tunes every year. Naturally being a nosey bugger I asked Don why they didn’t just play the same tape next year. It turned out that the Musician’s Union had an agreement with the NZBC to record so many hours of music each year. The agreement didn’t say they couldn’t use the same tunes.

Don was also the arranger on Shane’s album “Rainy Day Man”, which was critically acclaimed and a very good album musically. John Dix says some rather harsh things about Shane in “Strangers in Paradise”. I wonder if he heard the album. He also writes that Martin Winch played in Midge Marsden’s “Country Flyers”. He didn’t.

When I was a kid, and all we heard was the radio, the world famous Irish Tenor of the time was Patrick O’Hagan. The man was a superstar. Imagine my excitement (if you can) when I was asked to play on an album with him in Wellington. I remember a shortish, roundish typical Irishman, totally humble and friendly, and a pleasure to work with. We did lots of treasured Irish favourites such as ‘Paddy McGinty’s Goat’ and ‘How Are Things in Gloccamora’.

The other top arranger and musical director of the time was Brian Hands. Brian was a great big guy with Buddy Holly glasses, was (generally affectionately) known as Jumbo. Or sometimes “Jum” for short. Brian was the king of the commercials, and churned them out like sausages. He actually was very good at it and had some notable successes. Brian too was a bit of an eccentric, and could be excitable at times, but he was always very good to me. Brian was the arranger for a Howard Morrison album which we made in 1969. He also did the arrangements for the “Studio One” talent series, which I played on for several years. In 1968 I entered a song in the competition, “Midnight Visitation”, (which came second in the final), played backings and also entered as a contestant, playing the Beatles “Michelle”. The show was judged solely by public vote. It was just my luck to have a choir of about 20 school kids against me – all those parents and relations voting against me. That’s my excuse any way, and I can’t think of a better one.

Another great musician of the time was David (Bruno) Lawrence. Bruno was reputed to have drunk a whole bottle of Vodka in one go, and lived (although apparently falling instantly unconscious and remaining so for some time.) But he was a very good drummer at any style, particularly jazz. In 1969, as in a couple of previous years, the NZBC as it was, hosted the “Golden Disc Award” to honour the top pop artists of the year. The show was quite bizarre, as it was filmed live to air, all the acts were mimed, and even all the musicians had to pretend to play. This did not sit well with Bruno. Well, actually he was very pissed off. He was drumming with the Quincy Conserve, and Bruno did not follow the script – tore it up more like. He was leaving all his cymbal and hi-hat shots about six inches short in mid-air, and then there was a great flourish on the cymbals at the end of the song – which wasn’t on the recording.

After the show, which was in the Wellington Opera House, there was a cocktail party on the first floor foyer, to which performers and various industry people were invited. Everyone was in dinner suits and evening clothes, and the occasion was quite posh. I was standing in about the middle of the foyer when to my left, towards the head of the stairs, I sensed some disturbance. Bruno was in earnest discussion with some of the producers of the event. I heard him say “You don’t know anything about music, you f…………. c…….s.” He then angrily made his way to the stairs (he was on crutches at the time) and promptly fell arse-over-kite to the first landing. Meanwhile, I was now standing looking down the stairs, breathlessly watching the events unfolding before me. Amazingly, Bruno got straight up, and picking up his crutch, waved it menacingly at the watching crowd, before shuffling down the rest of the stairs. A few minutes later, out the window, I could see Bruno on the footpath being supported and consoled by Dave Fraser, who was one of his close friends. Bruno was banned from Broadcasting forever, which turned out to be about three years.

Dave Fraser was the consummate musician – a superb drummer, pianist and arranger. For many years Dave was the musical director for Roger Whittaker, touring with him, leading his band and doing all his arranging. He also did lots of film and TV work.

Funny thing, but many of the greatest characters in the music scene are drummers. Billy Brown (the elder – there was another drummer called Bill Brown), was a good friend of mine and we played together on many memorable gigs. Billy was originally English, and came to NZ in his twenties. He was kind, generous, funny, and a very good jazz drummer – the kind that know how to play quietly. He had a huge collection of vinyl albums, and I was always welcomed into his house after a gig to listen to music, and drink bourbon. Billy was quite eccentric – he never learnt to drive, which for a drummer is a bit of a handicap. Hiring him for a gig was usually dependent on picking up him and his drums, and taking him home, but I never minded. He worked for the Wellington City Council for years as a draughtsman, and lived in a council house in Brooklyn. Around the year 2000 he lost his job with the council. Eventually, he couldn’t pay his rent, and had to sell his record collection. He died, and one of his friends told me he literally drank himself to death.

One of the great things about the Wellington scene was the Musician’s Club. It was open Saturday nights till the early morning, upstairs in an old building in Wigan Street. It was a scene of jamming, partying, and some great music. It was old, and it was real. Dudley Moore played there, and I met Charlie Byrd there. I said he could borrow my guitar, but he only played nylon strings.

Recording continued fairly solidly through the 60’s but the writing was on the wall for arrangers. The Beatles changed everything – the age of rock groups had arrived. And to really put in the last nail, the Labour Government in 1973 put a 40% sales tax on recorded music – ALL recorded music, including local. It’s hard to imagine a more stupid decision made by a government, although I’m sure there have been some.

All through these years I had been working at the Empress Ballroom, but that was also on the wane. The previous government had introduced 10 o’clock closing at the pubs. Instead of getting tanked at the pub, getting a feed then going to the dance with your hip flask at 8 o’clock, now you could just stay at the pub, and maybe go to the dance if
You weren’t too drunk
You hadn’t already picked up a chick in the pub
You hadn’t spent all your money

Unfortunately, all the dance halls closed with a few years of this new regime. The Empress had been operating since the 1940s. It was originally owned by Harold Docherty (spelling uncertain). An oldish and grumpy man, Harold was making heaps of money through the war. The Empress was patronised by hundreds of servicemen of many different origins, and what was of most interest to Harold, many different currencies. This of course was the age of cash only, and fairly informal accounting methods. So if you could get away with it, why would you declare it?

Harold at some stage had to go to hospital for an operation. Fortunately it was for a minor condition, so he didn’t feel the need to organise his unlikely demise. Unfortunately he died on the operating table, taking all his secrets with him. For many years afterwards, there were rumours about Harold stashing away vast amounts of cash somewhere on the premises.

When he was alive, Harold lived in a flat above the dance floor. Legend has it that if the band was too loud, he would come out and stand on his balcony overlooking the dance floor, shaking his fist. Legend also has it that, at times after his death, the Ghost of Harold could be seen up on the balcony. Being personally familiar with the amount of insobriety prevalent at such places, evidence on this phenomenon may be unreliable.

I left in 1972, and the Empress closed a couple of years later. It was demolished not long after that, but not before at least one person had been around opening up walls with a chainsaw, with no profitable result. After the building was demolished however, a concreted area at the back of the building was broken up, and revealed big old bicuit tins full of money, much of it English pounds and US Dollars. I was told that the IRD got 30,000 dollars of it, after the demolition workers had literally filled their boots, their pockets and any other suitable places of concealment.

The end of my stint at the Empress came in 1972. I was bored with the sameness, and I had spent most of my 20s there. Terry Crayford offered me the job with his trio playing bass, and guitar (we swapped bass). Terry’s brother Ross had left the band. I was there for a year, Fridays & Saturdays, until they closed the restaurant. Peter Caulton sang a set with us each night. Peter is now a very successful entertainer in Europe. I sometimes used to play with him on bass at other gigs. (he played guitar, sang, and told jokes). One night we played at the back bar at the Cambridge. The atmosphere was absent, the crowd about a third full and a bit surly-looking. I was thinking “Bloody hell, this is going to be a drag.” Peter started, and for the first few songs, there was no reaction. Pete, however, was not one to give up on an audience. He hammered them with jokes and songs and within a hour he had them laughing and clapping. I was amazed, and it gave me a valuable lesson (which I have applied all too little in my life), that if you really want something, don’t quit till you get it.

I understand totally why he made it. He wouldn’t accept anything else.

A month or two after the Royal Oak finished, I got a call from Richard Nicholson about joining a band with Midge Marsden, and Andy Shackleton on drums. I was very happy to do so – I had played in dance halls and cabaret-type places for years and really wanted to play in a rock band, in a pub. The Country Flyers was more of a country-rock band, but that was ok. We had a gig at the Royal Tiger near the top of Tory Street (long ago demolished), on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. We didn’t rehearse at the start, we just sort of put stuff together on stage, till we had a repertoire. Midge at the beginning wasn’t the best singer on the planet, and we got off to an unremarkable start. After a month or two, things started coming together, and we became a good little country rock band. Midge’s vocals got better and better, and the Tiger became the place to go for lots of Varsity students, stoners and various others. We did lots of jamming, and Midge played great harmonica. People told me we played “real music”. One night the place was so packed, they put security guards on the doors – to keep people out. After a year and many changes in the band, Midge was talking about going on the road. That didn’t suit me as I had a young family and my wife was just starting a nursing career, so I reluctantly left.

I quite often used to play the Country Calendar theme at the pub, as the TV programme had started around that time. For many years afterwards, people thought I had written it – even when I moved to Hawkes Bay 20 years later. Although I was not unhappy with the rumour, it’s not true. There has been, and still is, speculation about the origin of the piece. At the time, Midge was working for Broadcasting (at radio 2ZM) and also looked after the music library (which may or may not explain the size of his record collection at the time, of 4000 albums). I remember quite clearly Midge telling me that it was he who supplied the theme to TV from the library – that it was a copyright–free track, and it was played by a French country band. Believe it or not.

Midge has come a long way – I saw him at Church Road jazz in about 2003 with Rodger Fox’s band, and he was stunning – as a showman, singer and harmonica player.

In 1974/75 I went on tour with the NZSO, for the summer Prom Concerts. The first was with Stanley Black, the second with Ron Goodwin. Touring with the orchestra was interesting – lots of time on buses. There were some funny incidents. We played in Invercargill in a fairly modest venue, and at the side of the stage was a telephone. During a quiet passage in the music, the telephone rang. When we played at Brookland's Bowl in New Plymouth, it was a breezy night, and after one particularly strong gust all the players’ music was blown off, and we had to start the piece again. The same night, again during a quiet passage, there were loud noises coming from the corrugated iron roof over the stage, caused by possums running around and fighting.

The end of the Empress coincided with the end of my busy recording career, although I carried on through into the ‘90s doing sessions with lots of people, many of whom I can’t remember, but some I do remember are Malcolm McNeill, (with whom I am still working now), Denise Harris, Alan Slater, Ann Pacy, the impeccable rhythm section of Paul Dyne and Roger Sellers, and Martin Winch.

I was really shocked to hear of Martin’s death.

In 1980 I approached Dick Le Forte with the idea of doing a programme of original music for two guitars, which he supported. I then went to Martin’s house in Johnsonville. (I had never met him before.) We played a bit together and he listened to some of my tunes. He seemed to like what he heard, and agreed to do the programme, which we did, and in fact continued for four years. Martin told me that of his own music, he was most proud of what we did on those programmes.

Nearly 50 years later I’m still playing, and enjoying it more than ever. Many people can’t seem to deal with musicians unless they can put them in a box labelled Jazz, Rock, Country, or any of the other sillier labels recently invented by music “critics” to describe genres that sound pretty much the same to me. I have always resisted that – I really don’t have a favourite style of music. It’s probably the academic side of me, but music has always been something I’ve studied, and the different music genres to me are just like different languages – they all have their vocabularies, their accents, their attitudes.

Put me in a box when I die.

Until then, I’ll just keep on playing.

Kevin Watson
February 2012


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