Wednesday, September 03, 2014

RIP Johnny Cooper, the Maori Cowboy

Johnny Cooper – the Maori Cowboy. Ref: NatLib PAColl-10069-18-08

John Dix‎ posted on FB NZ's Music Scene, Bands and Nite-clubs 1960s and 1970s this evening [September 3]: "Have just heard from Lower Hutt - NZ rock'n'roll pioneer JOHNNY COOPER passed this afternoon..." He was 86.

NZ Musician reports that "Since retiring in the 1990s he lived a reclusive life. Despite the early stages of Alzheimer's, he remained independent, living alone in Lower Hutt until his death."

Johnny (Tahu) Cooper was famously nicknamed The Maori Cowboy as his first love was country, and he recorded NZ's first rock n roll record, a cover of Rock Around The Clock, in 1955.

From National Library:  "... Back in 1955, HMV’s New Zealand office erred on the side of caution, deciding not to release the USA’s hottest tune of the season. They quickly realised their mistake, and in August compromised by recruiting local artists, including Johnny Cooper, accompanied by Ken Avery and other jazz and dance musicians, to record the song "Rock Around the Clock", B-sided by “Blackberry Boogie”.

Despite the historic significance of Cooper’s recording it’s not actually clear whether the record sold well or not. Either way the recording was eclipsed by Bill Haley and His Comets’ version when finally released a year later.

Cooper went on to record his own rock and roll song, a little number he hoped would entitle him to ‘free feeds’ from a pie cart in Whanganui: “Pie Cart Rock and Roll”.

The Māori Cowboy
Although often regarded as New Zealand’s first rock and roller, Cooper’s real passion was always country music. Growing up he had immersed himself in the songs and films of the singing cowboy Gene Autry. After attending Te Aute College he headed for Wellington, swapped his ukulele for a guitar, bought himself a pair cowboy boots and came to be known as the Māori Cowboy...

... Cooper proved himself with 1955’s was “One by One”, a cover of a duet by Red Foley and Kitty Wells. On the reverse side was Cooper’s own “Look What You’ve Done (Lonely Blues)”, a song HMV was reluctant to record due to its simple and repetitive lyrics; the record became a double-sided hit. This proved popularity made Cooper HMV’s first choice to record the new dance/music craze that was rock and roll.

“Look What You’ve Done” went on to become a standard party sing-along tune (as portrayed in Once Were Warriors ) and cover versions were recorded by Wilf Carter, Slim Dusty, and others. Johnny Devlin also recorded the song, perhaps out of respect for Cooper’s mentoring – or maybe just because it was a great tune."

from "Johnny Cooper grew up on a farm in Wairoa where he played guitar to the shearing gangs. He became known as ‘the Maori Cowboy’, crooning country ballads with his band, the Range Riders, which was formed in 1952.

... It was Cooper's third rock ’n’ roll recording – ‘Pie cart rock’n’roll’ (1957) – that took him into local music history. Cooper often had a meal at the Whanganui pie cart late at night after a talent quest or dance. The menu was basic: pea, pie and pud, with a choice of takeaway or dining in by perching on the narrow seats in the hot and stuffy carts. 

It was there one night that Cooper told the pie cart proprietors, Arthur and Geraldine Dalley, that he’d write a song about their cart. ‘Pie cart rock’n’roll’ was born and, with it, New Zealand's first home-grown rock 'n' roll song [tho it appears to have been beaten to being released by a few weeks by this song].

There’s a story that Cooper traded the song for free meals at the cart. Asked about the episode in 2007, Geraldine (who still lives in Whanganui although she has long given up the pie cart) has a different version. ‘Oh, no,’ she says, ‘it was only the police who got free feeds.’

Johnny Cooper, Wellington Town Hall, December 1956

I saw this photo featured as part of an exhibition in Wellington in early 2013 organised by author Chris Bourke at the NZ Portrait Gallery, based around images from his book Blue Smoke.

In the book accompanying the exhibition, Bourke recalls that Cooper was reluctant to cover Rock Around The Clock, saying - "I sang love songs. It was foreign. I said ' Look, we'll never be able to record that because I don't know what I'm singing about'."

HMV's A&R man Dave van Weekes insisted Cooper record it, and as he was under contract, he did as he was told. The above photo is Cooper and band performing at one of the regular Jazz Festival concerts at the Wellington Town Hall.
Bourke writes that at the concert " ... the big band jazz musicians sat back while a small combo accompanied Cooper as he jived and sang. "One two three o'clock four o'clock rock..."  saxophonist Lawrie Lewis recalled "That's all we heard. The crowd went mad, they absolutely shrieked ... From then on, for the rest of the concert, the crowd just didn't want to know about anything else." At half-time the jazz musicians conferred among themselves, saying, "My god, we're finished: what happens now?"

Pie Cart Rock N Roll was the title of a great compilation of NZ rock n roll put together by archivist John Baker, and released on CD in 2003. It contained 28 songs covering 1957-1962. That release notes that jazz musician Mike Nock played piano on Cooper's pie cart ode, alongside a handful of other jazz musos from the capital city, as Cooper's regular backing band, the Range Riders, weren't interested.

READ: Chris Bourke's post at Audioculture on Johnny Cooper.

ADDED: From Gisborne Photo News, August 20, 1959: "We took a camera along to one of the semi-final nights of the Johnny Cooper Show [Cooper ran and hosted talent shows in the 60s and 70s], which has been filling the Opera House to capacity every Thursday night for some time, featuring local contestants for a £100 prize. We expected to be assailed, even overwhelmed, by rock'n'roll noises such as we have to turn off so frequently on our radio. Instead we found real musical talent showing through ..."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sad to hear Johnny Cooper passed away, great memories of Johnny on the drums and vocals(he was a fantastic drummer)and me on the piano upstairs in the Pioneer, Masterton on Friday and Saturday nights in the 1970s.

Frances von Sturmer