Give it a go!

Interest is high up and down the country. Nervous tension between contestants is mounting, supporters are ready to cheer for their favourite act, and judges are set to pass comments – some encouraging and others damning. It’s 50 years before The X Factor hits our screens.

The Alexander Turnbull Library has recently acquired the collection of a prominent New Zealand musician, including papers and photographs of last century’s version of New Zealand’s Got Talent– talent quests, as they were known.

Entrepreneur Johnny Cooper entices contestants and budding artist to his talent quest [1958?] Entrepreneur Johnny Cooper entices contestants and budding artist to his talent quest [1958?]. Ref: PAColl-10069-2-52

Singer Johnny (Tahu) Cooper, who with his band got his own big break at a talent quest in the early 1950s, went on to organise and promote many contests and shows in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Cooper went on to (literally) set the stage for some of the major figures in New Zealand music, including coaching and encouraging a young Johnny Devlin, who won his first talent quest in 1957 and went on to become New Zealand’s Elvis.

"Johnny Devlin (Mr. Presley) Rocking the Cats". Dannevirke, February 1957. Ref: PAColl-10069-2-09

“One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock!”

Cooper knew what he was talking about when passing on advice to Johnny Devlin. Cooper himself holds a place in New Zealand history as having been the first to record a rock and roll song in the country, and some claim the first to record rock and roll outside of the United States.

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.

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

Singing Sunday nights in charity events and talent shows he teamed up with others of similar musical tastes to form Johnny Cooper and His Range Riders. Wearing fringed shirts they’d made themselves, matching hats and neckerchiefs they became regulars in talent quests and concerts in the lower North Island, as well as entertaining at Linton and Waiouru army camps and appearing on live radio broadcasts.

Getting signed

Not satisfied with just performing live, Cooper was keen to get a recording contract. When an opportunity to audition for HMV came along he wasn’t going to be turned away easily.

One talent quest awarded Johnny Cooper and His Ranger Riders an audition with HMV. Although the audition was unsuccessful Cooper persisted and in 1954 HMV released his band’s first disc. Several other recordings of the group were released at the beginning of 1955 and eventually HMV offered Cooper a two-year contract in 1956.

Johnny Cooper and His Ranger Riders didn’t land a contract off that audition, but Cooper persisted and in 1954 HMV released the band’s first disc. HMV released several other recordings of the group at the beginning of 1955, and eventually offered Cooper a two-year contract in 1956.

Cover letter for Johnny Cooper’s much sought-after recording contract. ATL Ref: MS-Papers-11447-02 Cover letter for Johnny Cooper’s much sought-after recording contract. Ref: MS-Papers-11447-02

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.

Tours at home and abroad

Johnny Cooper’s singing talents were also in demand elsewhere. In June 1954 he headed overseas for two months as part of a New Zealand Concert Party to entertain the troops.

Johnny Cooper’s paybook for his first New Zealand Concert Party Tour, 1954. Ref: MS-Papers-11447-32 Johnny Cooper’s paybook for his first New Zealand Concert Party Tour, 1954. Ref: MS-Papers-11447-32

Just over a year later he was requested to lead a concert party to Korea and Japan, leaving Wellington the afternoon the band finished recording “Rock Around the Clock” and “Blackberry Boogie”. He returned for a third tour in 1956.

“Just a pose beside the beautiful native trees of Tokyo, Japan. 1956 tour.” Members of the New Zealand Concert Party Tour (l to r) Johnny Cooper, Jean Kirk-Burnnand, Stewart Gordon, Pat McMinn and John Reidy. ATL Ref: PAColl-10069-2-06“Just a pose beside the beautiful native trees of Tokyo, Japan. 1956 tour.” Members of the New Zealand Concert Party Tour (l to r) Johnny Cooper, Jean Kirk-Burnnand, Stewart Gordon, Pat McMinn and John Reidy. Ref: PAColl-10069-2-06

Although he continued to record, Cooper began to venture more into the roles of band manager and concert promoter, starting with several Christmas concerts around the Bay of Plenty.

At the end of 1966 Cooper organized a touring country music show called the Gold Disc Award Country Style Stage Show , featuring Maria Dallas, Jay Epae, Ken Lemon, Jim Coyle, Garner Wayne, Allan and Jazzbo and The Blue Bayous.

The Library has received considerable material relating to this tour, including correspondence, contracts, receipts, telegrams as well as six discs of the radio advertisements for the show that were sent to various radio stations.

Johnny’s got a talent

Cooper was keen to give new talent a chance to shine. Looking back at his own past, he organised talent quests like Give It a Go!, Lucky Strike Talent Quest, Johnny Cooper’s £100 Talent Quest, The Mammoth £200 Cashway to the Stars Talent Show, and Battle of the Sounds.

Like The X Factor, the competitions travelled around several town centres for the heats. The £100 Talent Quest heats were held in the lower North Island towns of Putaruru, Tokoroa, Taupo, Foxton, Levin and Otaki.

List of some of the finalists for the £100 Talent Quest, 1965. ATL Ref: MS-Papers-11447-21 List of some of the finalists for the £100 Talent Quest, 1965. Ref: MS-Papers-11447-21

In 1967 the Battle of the Sounds went national. According to the judging sheets now in the Library, first prize was given to Wellington band The Fourmyula, who two years later would write what APRA declared to be New Zealand’s top song: Nature.

One of four judges’ voting sheets with “Winning group 1967” written in Cooper’s hand. Ref: MS-Papers-11447-26 One of four judges’ voting sheets with “Winning group 1967” written in Cooper’s hand. Ref: MS-Papers-11447-26

The Johnny Cooper papers and recordings collection

As you might expect of a singer, the Johnny Cooper collection includes a lot of recorded material. In total there were 30 78 rpm discs and 20 open reel tapes, but with surprisingly little crossover with commercially released tracks.

The discs include private recordings, either recorded off radio or in person, and of songs that appear to have been supplied by HMV for Cooper to learn and record cover versions of.

Other recordings include tapes of later songs like “Break the World in Two” and “Cold, Cold Heart” – Cooper’s last commercially released recording. One tape is accompanied by a rejection letter from Festival Records, despite Cooper’s popularity of a decade earlier. Another copy includes the note “…sent to TV, Wellington ‘New Faces’” – talent quests had moved from the stage to screen.

Rejection letter from Festival Records, addressed to Ty Dallas who acted on Johnny Cooper’s behalf to find a distributor for his 1968 recording. ATL Ref: MS-Papers-11447-33Rejection letter from Festival Records, addressed to Ty Dallas who acted on Johnny Cooper’s behalf to find a distributor for his 1968 recording. Ref: MS-Papers-11447-33

While this collection of papers, photographs and recordings (MS-Group-2156) is an invaluable resource for general research into New Zealand’s popular music scene of the 1950s and 1960s, its particular strength is the insight it provides into the talent quests of this period. A large number the photographs are of contestants, and the manuscripts include correspondence relating to the competitions, lists and placings of entrants, and judges’ voting forms.

Efforts from people such as Cooper have paved the way for what music in this country is now, from the distinctive New Zealand sound to the talent quests New Zealand Idol, New Zealand’s Got Talent and The X Factor today.

Johnny Cooper introduces the next contestant hopeful. ATL Ref: PAColl-10069-11-18Johnny Cooper introduces the next contestant hopeful. Ref: PAColl-10069-11-18

By Keith McEwing

Keith McEwing is the Assistant Music Curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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cheryl August 11th at 3:18PM

Oh I remember his concerts - in fact the Guy who took his bike on stage was nicknamed "Dingaling" because all he did was ring his bike bell and he was from Tauranga. My Dad often played guitar to back him and my sister and I often did his B.V.s. My mom kept photos of all those events and I still have them.

Dave Hurley September 4th at 1:53PM

Priceless material... Our band in Palmerston North appeared several iMessage on his shows around the manawatu area.... RIP Johnny... A tru New Zealand icon.