Spectrum 785. A rock pioneer
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In 1955, country singer Johnny Cooper made the first rock'n'roll recording in New Zealand with a version of Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock". Johnny recalls those pioneering days of New Zealand's music industry in conversation with Jerome Cvitanovich.
Programme introduction includes Johnny introducing his band The Range Riders (Dougie Garfield, Ronald James and Will Jones) before an opening song. Johnny Tahu Cooper first recorded at Island Bay Recording Studios, Wellington in the early 1950s, by the mid ‘50s he had a string of hits.
Born in Wairua in 1929, Johnny left Hawkes Bay after two years at secondary school running away to Wellington. He settled in Karori and found work as a grave digger in a nearby cemetery. Johnny says he grew up with a wind-up gramophone playing cowboy 78s like Gene Autry and Tex Morton. He learned how to play the ukulele in primary school and transferred those skills when he bought a cheap guitar in Wellington in the late 1940s.
Performing just for fun on Sunday nights at weekly charity concerts held at the St James, Embassy and Paramount Theatres he teamed up with a young female singer and her brother forming The Range Riders. They began recording their songs onto acetate disc at Island Bay Recording Studios, a make shift studio at the back of an electrical shop.
Johnny remembers in those days there was only one chance at a take, and whilst recording ‘Chew Tobacco Rag’ he could feel his laughter building up and tried so hard not to completely crack and mess up the recording [this can be heard in the excerpt played]. Johnny retells how with help from his girlfriend who assisted with voting papers they slyly won a big talent quest held in the Paramount Theatre which gave a cash prize and audition with HMV Records.
Johnny explains that after they recorded The Range Riders HMV had said, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” however they heard no news for a year so he did call back, a call which prompted further recordings, releases and hits with covers like ‘Convict in the Rose’. At this time, he started hearing the band over the radio and getting paid a little though kept his grave digging job. Johnny laughs as he describes how he would regularly practice his songs from inside these deep, resonant holes.
In the mid-1950s Bill Haley and the Comets brought out ‘Rock Around the Clock’ in the US and he was asked to do a rendition. He didn’t like the song, didn’t ‘feel’ it as rock ’n’ roll hadn’t yet been established in New Zealand and it was totally different to his original music style. Due to his contract with HMV however he was required to record the song and did so with the best jazz musicians gathered in Wellington.
The band was recorded from inside a passageway and Johnny’s vocals were recorded from a toilet to achieve the desired and popular echo effect trending at that time. Later as rock’ n ’roll became established and he began to feel the beat Johnny wrote other rock ‘n’ roll songs. After asking a Wanganui pie cart-man, “If I write a song about your pie cart and get it on record can we get free feeds?” who agreed, he wrote and released what became the highly successful ‘Pie cart rock ’n’ roll’ (1957).
As Johnny performed less on stage himself, he got more involved with Sunday night charity concerts before running the touring ‘Give It A Go Johnny Cooper Talent Contest’ in exchange for expenses and a koha. Johnny saw many musicians emerge including Johnny Devlin (who went on to become New Zealand’s rock ‘n’ roller), Maria Dallas and John Rowles.
Johnny agrees rock ‘n’ roll served to break up the conservative New Zealand scene of the 1950s but says it is tame really when compared with what’s on now. Johnny Cooper now lives in Naenae, Wellington and for the most part stays out of the limelight. In 1992 he was presented with a ‘Living Legend Award’ by his fans and peers.
Reference number 15038
Media type AUDIO
Collection Sound Collection
Cooper, Johnny, 1929-2014, Interviewee
Cvitanovich, Jerome, Interviewer
Date 04 Apr 1993