31 October 2009

Sir Howard Has Left the Building

It’s 1990. Howard Morrison has just been knighted. In South Auckland, Maori showband veteran Robbie Ratana is going through some new routines.
“Prince Tui Teka should have been a knight, too,” he says. “… Sir Cumference.”
Moving right along … “Have you seen my impersonation of Howard? Sir Howard?”
Ratana pulls out a cigarette lighter, ignites it with a flick, and grins.

Corny, cheeky, simultaneously sharp and silly, the distinctive humour of the Maori showbands was just one legacy of the Howard Morrison Quartet. They helped create New Zealand’s modern music industry, becoming an entertainment phenomenon by celebrating – and spoofing – their culture.
When the Quartet disbanded in January 1965 Morrison was the fortunate one who left as a household name. But it was 15 years before he found his other vocation: Howard Morrison, role model, motivator, campaigner, ambassador and bicultural conduit. It was a leadership position that offered respect, but demanded responsibility. Like a ceremonial cloak it acknowledged achievements but also carried expectations. Eventually his status as an entertainer evolved into true mana: he was a kaumatua with a title to match.

Morrison had the perfect background to lead the Quartet. His father Temuera had been a Maori All Black who played with George Nepia; his mother Kahu was a teenage member of the Rotorua Maori Choir that made historic recordings in 1930. With his powerful tenor, drive and good looks, Morrison was a natural front man. In the most famous line-up, Wi Wharekura sang alto, Noel Kingi the deep bass, and Gerry Merito was the lynchpin: a born comedian with a guitar style that launched countless singalongs. “Gerry was the driving force in harmonies,” said Morrison. “He could go anywhere, take any part; his pitch was absolutely marvellous.” He often said reunions were unthinkable without Merito, who died in January.
Like Elvis, Morrison could sing anything, and did. As a child, he sang hymns in Maori at church, then over Sunday lunch the extended family would continue with more popular fare. He never forgot the Italian songs learnt from returned soldiers of the Maori Battalion – ‘O Sole Mio,’ ‘Come Back to Sorrento’ – and he performed them with remarkable veracity. “I used to call myself Mario Maori Lanza,” he recalled. While milking the cows, he would accompany the wholesome pop songs on the Lifebuoy Hit Parade. “I would mimic whoever was singing, male or female. I knew all the hit parade songs by heart. It gave me a sort of subconscious knowledge of what people wanted to listen to. And what the majority of people still want to listen to is middle-of-the-road popular.”
The Quartet began by performing overseas hits and Maori popular favourites such as ‘Pokarekare Ana’ and ‘Haere Ra E Hine.’ Pop standards were intermingled with country and western, Italian-style pop, spirituals, light rhythm’n’blues, English and Irish traditionals, and coffee-house folk. There was even an album for mothers, called Always.
And always there was humour, at first as send-ups or impressions: ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ as sung by the Splatters; ‘Because of You’ with walk-on parts by Jimmy Cagney, James Stewart and Jerry Lewis. “You’ve heard of Johnny Ray? Here’s the Maori … Sting Ray.”
Their biggest hits were parodies, and they made the Quartet unique. “It wasn’t until we released ‘The Battle of Waikato’ and ‘My Old Man’s an All Black’ that we felt we were doing something of our own,” Morrison said in 1961. “The words, at least, were original.” The melodies came from hits by UK skiffle king Lonnie Donegan. After the idea was suggested to him by a teenage fan, Morrison wrote ‘Mori the Hori’ to ‘Ahab the Arab’ (the others were reluctant).

The Quartet (l-r): Howard Morrison, Wi Wharekura, Gerry Merito, Noel Kingi

These songs now seem like time capsules, curiosities from an era when Truth newspaper could run a page of Maori jokes beside a campaign against racial prejudice. ‘All Black’ was written by Merito, after a suggestion by their opportunistic manager Harry M Miller, eyeing the “No Maori, No Tour” controversy. Any political intent to the clever chorus line – “fee fee fi fi, fo fo fum, there’s no Horis in that scrum” – was probably lost in the laughter.
‘Hoki Mai’ remains evergreen, an easily strummed and infectious party favourite. It was also contentious. At Apirana Ngata’s request, Henare Waitoa had written the lyrics as a welcome home to Ruatoria’s men in the Maori Battalion. The melody was from ‘There’s a Goldmine in the Sky,’ a country and western hit for Gene Autry; Waitoa’s song ‘Tomo Mai’ was solemn, almost a dirge. Sped up and re-titled ‘Hoki Mai’ the song was already catching on at singalongs before the Quartet’s recording, so for the group it was an immediate, breakthrough hit. But some on the East Coast were upset that the Quartet was oblivious to the song’s significance. “At that time I was rather ignorant about the sanctity of the words,” recalled Morrison. Once alerted, he always explained the song’s provenance.
In 1981, at a Royal Command variety show, Morrison performed ‘Whakaaria Mai’ and revived his career. The Maori lyrics to ‘How Great Thou Art’ were written by Canon Wi Huata and Reverend Sam Rangiihu, Morrison’s musical mentors at Te Aute College. US evangelist Billy Graham had suggested the idea to the pair in 1959, but with his passionate rendition Morrison took ownership of the epic.

Morrison was a man of contradictions. His courtesy could swiftly turn brusque. A self-confessed show-off, he also admitted feeling uncertain of his place as he moved between two cultures. As an advocate for Maori – beaten in the Ruatahuna playground for not speaking te reo – he didn’t hold back, whether championing or criticising his people. He could be blunt with his opinions, and dismissive of any competition. His comments were often looking for a reaction, and also a macho challenge: prove yourself. He had, and he wore his knighthood with great pride.
The day after Morrison’s death, the NZ Herald cartoonist captured his impact on a certain generation of New Zealanders. In Rod Emmerson’s strip a mature Pakeha couple sits in their lounge. Dad asks Mum to dance. While singing ‘Pokarekare Ana’ in Maori, they waltz together on the carpet. After a final twirl, Dad bows, saying, “Vale Howard Morrison.”
Among contemporary Maori musicians, his influence is ongoing, and sometimes tangential. Fifty years ago, sitting on the bank at the Bowl of Brooklands for each Showtime Spectacular concert was the Prime family from Hawera. Their young son, already a good singer but with ambitions to become an entertainer, keenly watched the acts, especially the top of the bill. “The Howard Morrison Quartet, they were incredible entertainers,” Dalvanius Maui Prime recalled in 2000. “Maori had their mega heroes. But the thing about the Quartet was there were all these Pakeha people getting into it as well.” He realised it could be done: Maori, singing in Maori, to a huge mainstream audience.
Last year a TV series described 100 significant moments of New Zealand music. In the penultimate item, a line-up of young Maori musicians – hip hop and te reo performers and songwriters – testified to the impact that Dalvanius and the Patea Maori Club’s ‘Poi E’ had on them as children. It had been an arduous journey from ‘Mori the Hori,’ but the baton had passed through 50 years: the microphone as mere.

(First published in the NZ Listener)