It gives me no pleasure to note the coincidence, but earlier this week I started watching the three-part doco Once in a Lifetime, a Maori Television two-hour interview with the late Sir Howard Morrison (and family, friends and fellow performers) which has just come out on Rajon DVD.
I was, and probably still am, going to write about it for the Cultural Elsewhere pages on my website.
Among my notes on the first chapter where he speaks with self-deprecating humour about schoolboy crushes, of being strapped at school and how the Quartet lost their first talent quest to an old woman on crutches who sang the Lord’s Prayer I have simply scribbled “honest”, “funny” “ego” and such.
But I also wrote the following: “When Sir Howard, now [?], passes on we will perhaps realise who and what has gone . . . a great NZ story . . . important . . .”
I wrote that on Tuesday.
The tributes have already started but last night I was at a function and when I mentioned Sir Howard a gentleman made a disparaging comment and then guffawed, “there’s no Hori’s in that scrum”. I believe he thought he was being witty and recalling that time when Maori were often called -- sometimes affectionately, perhaps rather too often dismissively -- “Horis”.
Well, we needn’t go into all the story behind My Old Man’s An All Black again, but that line was politically pointed and although it raised a laugh it also articulated what many Maori were probably thinking when South Africa accepted an All Black team as long as there were no Maori in it. Strange times.
I only spoke with Sir Howard twice, once in a phone interview and then later at a function: the first time he was exactly as people warned me he would be; imperious, slightly condescending, a little pompous and quick witted. At the function he was charming, cheeky (a word often applied to him, and I can vouch for its veracity) and not quite as full of himself as I had previously thought.
I often reminded myself when I interviewed someone like Sir Peter Blake (who literally and metaphorically looked down his nose at me) or Sir Howard just how often they had been subjected to the same questions from someone like me, a journalist. And I would sometimes ask myself later just to get some perspective, “Yes, but what do they think of you?”
The answer was obvious: they didn’t. No slight intended though.
I’m hoping that the Sir Howard tributes don’t simply come down to My Old Man’s An All Black/How Great Thou Art and some passing mention of his work with young Maori. That seemed to be television’s default position last night.
He was a much more complex character than that, and much more interesting -- as the doco shows. Sometimes you laugh out loud at what he says (he's genuinely funny), other times you might smile with recognition or nod with understanding, and occasionally you'll just go, 'nah, that's bullshit'.
Without overtly doing it, he is telling you about a New Zealand that was out there once. May still be.
For the past few years I have been picking up old records at various fairs and the like, and have gravitated to New Zealand music of the 50s and early 60s. I have some nice 10 inch albums, silly stuff like EPs by John Daley (“New Zealand’s Funniest Comedian . . . For adults only”) and William Clauson singing The Bishop and the Tohunga and so on.
Not many of my friends want to hear The Little Folksingers of Mt Roskill Primary and Intermediate Schools going through Run Little Donkey -- but I sometimes inflict these things on listeners to my radio programme Sidestreets on Kiwi FM. (Sundays at 1pm, repeated Thursday at 2pm, that’s a plug).
Kiwi allows me to play whatever I like and it is sort of off-beat stuff like early Maori pop music, comedy records, spoken word, bad rock and minor league stuff -- and that’s why I scout the record shops and cardboard boxes in secondhand stores and record fairs.
Last year I was turning up 45s and EPs by the Howard Morrison Quartet from the late 50s and early 60s -- and what has struck me is just how often they would put out traditional songs in te reo.
I had no idea of this side of their output -- and on the various compilation CDs that have come out these songs (and George, the Wilder New Zealand Boy I think it was called, about the repeat-escape prisoner George Wilder) rarely appear on them.
I am guessing that such songs were played infrequently, if at all, on radio stations like 1ZB at the time. Their versions of Where Have All the Flowers Gone? and Michael Row the Boat Ashore certainly, but Haere Ra E Hine and Marama Pai?
It became quite common in Pakeha New Zealand to dismiss Sir Howard as “Uncle Howie” (sometimes affectionately, and he kinda liked it I am told) but here was a man singing in te reo at a time when very, very few other mainstream Maori artists were.
Certainly there were concert party albums and 10 inch albums (the Wai Patu Concert Party, Hymns in Maori by the Putiki Youth Choir and the Aotearoa Maori Entertainers album of 1956) -- but these were not by musicians who were appealing to middle New Zealand (Maori and Pakeha) like Howard and his quartet.
I think that small part of his career is deserving of great respect. I have no idea whether they had to battle Zodiac or La Gloria to get these songs released, maybe they had so much clout they could do what they wanted. But they were singing in te reo long before it was common. And it isn’t even that common now.
If it was a battle then they fought it and won, if it wasn’t then they did it because they wanted to and could. Good on them either way.
Oh, and Howard, Jerry Merito, Wi Wharekura and Noel King also made people laugh -- which I think is a great gift.
Okay, maybe today we might be uncomfortable with Mori the Hori (their adaption of Ahab the Arab) but I still like Rioting in Wellington (“the MPs are slandering each other again”) as do the audience on the live album of 1962.
Maybe it’s just me, but we seemed better at laughing at ourselves and each other then?
I remember Dalvanius telling me how he and Patea Maori had come up against resistance at radio when Poi E was released because it was in te reo, and that was in the early 80s.
About 25 years before that The Howard Morrison Quartet had just gone out and done it.
Remarkable when you think about it. And worth remembering at this time.
And: Many thanks to those who supported my book launch on Tuesday night (Russell of this parish, Quentin, the sponsors, and of course David Haywood without whom “but who can’t be here with us tonight”). It went very well, books were sold, praise was heaped upon me by those who have already read The Idiot Boy Who Flew (and they weren’t relatives) and a splendid time was had by all.
Later today I am speaking about the book on Maggie Barry’s show on Radio Live (4.10pm).
My second child is taking tentative but increasingly confident steps into a cruel and indifferent world.