The Howard Morrison Quartet
Think of any shearing shed or freezing-works in New Zealand. A young Maori begins to strum a ukelele during “smoko” and sings a popular song.
“Isn't he beaut,” say his work-mates. “He ought to be on the stage. He could really go places.”
Could he? It's possible. But the truth is that it takes a lot more than the Maori's natural sense of harmony and rhythm to achieve fame, or even moderate success, in show business.
It takes concentration, self-discipline, will to work hard—and long, wearying hours of practice.
And it is against that background that the Howard Morrison Quartet from Rotorua has become one of the leading show business acts in Australia or New Zealand.
Their successes have included frequent television appearances in Sydney and Melbourne and in plush Australian night-clubs, a guest spot (on film) in the Dinah Shore TV show on the American NBC network, and tours with Lonnie Donegan, the Kingston Trio and the Everly brothers.
Because New Zealanders take Maoris' natural musical talent for granted, the Morrisons' astonishing progress in two or three years is inclined to be under-rated. Indeed, it is doubly to the credit of Howard Morrison, Gerry Merito, Wi Wharekura and Noel King that their precise stage movement and tight vocal harmony give an impression of being unrehearsed.
Howard Morrison is the group's leader in the fullest sense of the word. Quite often young singers get together for a talent quest or concert performance and then, after brief success, go their separate ways. It is Howard's personality and leadership that have held the quartet together as a closely-knit, happy unit since it won a Christmas carnival competition in Rotorua five years ago.
Howard, who was educated at Te Aute College, is proud of the Arawa blood in his veins and takes a keen interest in hakas and action songs. The group's recordings of Maori songs have always been in good taste, and on stage they avoid the pitfall of attempting to “Maori-ize” their act.
Before the lure of music drew him into show business, Howard was a lands officer in the Maori Affairs Department at Rotorua. He was also a keen Rugby player, following in the tradition of his late father, Tom Morrison, a former Maori All Black.
Despite the heavy demands on his time today—recording sessions, tours, rehearsals—Howard is still athletically minded, keeps fit with a strict schedule of exercises and never misses even a fleeting opportunity to visit his home town of Rotorua and to march off into the bush to stalk deer or hunt pigs.
Gerry Merito, whom American satirist Stan Freberg rated the best acoustic guitarist in New Zealand, learned his music in tragic circumstances. As a small boy, he contracted a bone disease in one leg and spent more than 10 long years confined to a hospital bed.
With time lying heavily upon him, Gerry quickly became an expert guitarist and spent hours entertaining his fellow-patients, accompanying himself in Maori and “pop” songs.
On his discharge from hospital, completely recovered except for a slight limp, Gerry joined the lands staff of the Maori Affairs Department and it was there that he became an inseparable companion (and musical partner) of Howard.
Apart from his vital guitar backing, Gerry is invaluable in the quartet as a comic lyricist. When it comes to a parody or a new twist to the words of an old song, Gerry has the answers.
Wi Wharekura is the only man who has joined the quartet twice. He was a foundation member, but left when the group made its first visit to Australia, to take up a teaching career.
At Auckland Teachers' Training College he studied art, but still found time for singing, and to become a champion hurdler. When the quartet returned from Australia, Wi rejoined and decided on entertainment as his life's work.
The “baby” of the group is Noel King. But though he is small of stature, he has a big bass voice which has been an important asset to the quartet. He says his hobbies are boxing and wrestling (‘but purely as a spectator’).
One of the most astonishing things about the
Their first big break came with an offer to tour New Zealand with Stan Freberg. Their second was a meeting with promoter Harry M. Miller over coffee in Auckland's plush Colony Club. Their chat led to a contract with La Gloria Records.
In Miller's first ‘Showtime Spectacular’ concert in Western Springs Stadium, the quartet sang to 20,000—the biggest show business crowd ever in New Zealand.
‘It was frightening,’ recalls Howard. ‘A huge sea of faces.’
Recording successes (among them phenomenal sales of the parody ‘My Old Man's An All Black’) and the first live telecast of a group in New Zealand followed.
They set out in 1960 on a ‘Show-time Spectacular’ tour of New Zealand that was cheduled to run five weeks and instead went a full 21 weeks, with packed houses all the way. No New Zealand group in history had displayed such song box office appeal.
In Australia, as a top-billing act with the Tivoli show ‘Nat's In The Belfry’, the Morrisons continued to win friends.
But perhaps the quartet's greatest triumph has been the fact that they have not allowed themselves to be carried away by success. During their long stay in Australia they wedged in every spare hour—and they had an extremely busy schedule—for rehearsal and study. All four studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Howard took lessons in voice production.
Because of this solid background of study and practice, the Howard Morrison Quartet is no ‘overnight sensation’ which is likely to fade suddenly from the entertainment scene. It is a polished professional act which will do credit to New Zealand, and to the Maori race, wherever it performs.
We regret the mis-spelling of a contributor's name in three of our past issues. The articles concerned were ‘Still Popular After Thirty Years’, the story of the Rotorua Maori Concert Party in our issue no. 36, ‘The Battle That Received a Name’, a short story in no. 33, and ‘An Appreciation of Maori’ in no. 26. All these contributions were written by Alan Armstrong, of Auckland, who is the co-author of the recently published book ‘Maori Action Songs’. Captain Armstrong has just returned from two years in Malaya, and is Adjutant of the Second Battalion of the New Zealand Regiment now stationed at Burnham. While in Malaya he was also director of the Battalion's very succesful Maori Concert Party.
This group was very popular in Malaya and Singapore, where it performed frequently on the stage, screen and radio.
Mr E. G. Schwimmer has now left the editorship of Te Ao Hou. He has edited this issue jointly with the new editor, who is Miss Margaret Orbell.
Miss Orbell, who comes from Auckland, has an M.A. degree from Auckland University. She has recently been teaching at Ngata Memorial College, Ruatoria.
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Three Maori university rugby players are travelling with the New Zealand University Rugby team to California shortly. They are Mr Mervyn Taiaroa, M.A., from Otago; Mr Quentin Tapsell, who is studying for his M.Sc., and is from Rotorua; and Mr Albert Orme, who was selected for the New Zealand Maori Team to play France.