New Zealand television had music from its first day in June 1960, with Howard Morrison among those who performed, but it took a while before the influence of the small screen was powerful enough to break a pop star on its own. Our list begins with a pop star whose career developed alongside her regular TV appearances, which continued well into the 1980s.
Dinah Lee’s first television appearance was on Time Out For Talent in 1961 (Ray Columbus appeared during the same year). Television was still regional across the four centres at that time, so it was only shown in Christchurch and it would be Lee’s hard work on the live circuit, along with radio play, that would really break her career and this led to her having her own TV special in 1965. The key to Lee’s success was her striking onscreen charisma – always smiling, always moving to the beat – and her sharp mod look. This led her to becoming a regular on Australian show Sing Sing Sing and a guest slot on US show, Shindig, as well as a long career back home. Her career might not have been made by television, but there’s no question that she was a television star.
Mr Lee Grant
Kominowski’s decision to change his name to “Mr Lee Grant” was the first step in a complete makeover (partly driven by manager Dianne Cadwallader). His clothes were supplied by Wellington designer Gerry Broughan, who had just returned from London. He decked Grant out in the latest fashions: shiny suits, distinctive neckties, a long fur coat and sharply pointed shoes. Female audience members adored Grant from the moment he first stepped on stage in 1965, but his debut single was a flop. It was only after appearing on the pilot of C’mon in 1966 and becoming a resident act in the following year that his career took off. C’mon may have helped the careers of many acts, but Grant seems the most emblematic, given how brief his moment on the local scene was (he moved to London in 1968 and eventually became a musical theatre actor). More than any other musical performer, Mr Lee Grant is the person that is easiest to picture on the C’mon stage, grinning his way through another psychedelic pop song and dressed, as always, impeccably.
After C’mon ended, producer Kevan Moore decided to move more in the direction of light entertainment with Happen Inn. When Peter Dawkins from HMV saw Christchurch band Revival at a Battle of the Bands in 1969, he said he would release them if they recorded something in the pop vein. They had a No.14 hit with Eddy Grant's ‘Viva Bobby Joe’. But the band’s singer Craig Scott was the only one in the group who was excited by the new direction, so he went solo and was spotted by Moore, who made him a resident artist on Happen Inn, hoping he could create another Mr Lee Grant or Shane. With his long flowing hair and sweet voice for ballads, Scott became a star overnight. At the same time, alcohol laws had changed so that clubs which served food could get cabaret licences and stay open much later than regular bars, creating the circuit for light entertainers like Scott. Unlike Mr Lee Grant, Scott stayed with the programme that made him famous until the very end, but the musical currents that saw the show’s demise in 1975 also ended his career. But let’s rewind to 1971 and the title track off his second album: ‘Smiley’. The video looks like a proto-music video, even if it’s mostly just a close-up of his face in black and white. Scott’s promo clips had the added bonus that they were often played as fillers when shows on television ran short of time, programming schedules being a bit looser in those days.
David Curtis was just 13 when his parents arranged a recording of him singing and playing guitar, mostly to play to relatives. The demo reached Bruce Ward at EMI, who promptly put him into the studio with one of their in-house producers, Alan Galbraith. The resulting single, ‘Wheel of Fortune’, made the charts in Wellington and led to Curtis’s first television appearance on New Faces, as he later recounted in an interview with RNZ (listen below). “I was plucked off the playground at Wellington College (where I’d just started) by a TVNZ film crew ... before I knew it, I was in the television studios in Wellington miming ‘Wheel of Fortune’. I think I was even in my school uniform!” Curtis ended up being the youngest person to have a single in the Top 20 (reaching No.5 and selling platinum) and his career produced two successful albums. Television helped create the second big break of his career as well: he entered the songwriting competition that was part of the long-running show Studio One. ‘Take Your Leave’ was written around a melody by Curtis, with lyrics by his mother. The song was the joint winner, providing enough airplay to boost it to No.3 on the charts. It then represented New Zealand at the Yamaha World Popular Song Contest in Tokyo, where Curtis was up against a newly formed ABBA and Neil Sedaka. It didn’t win, but local audiences liked it enough that Curtis recorded a version in Japanese. Curtis didn’t release a third album: his voice broke and he eventually re-emerged as a cabaret singer and performer in musical theatre.
There wasn’t much chance of getting on television in the 1970s if you played new styles of music like heavy rock, prog, and glam – at least until 1975 and the arrival of the short-lived late night show, Grunt Machine, which devoted whole episodes to Split Enz and Ragnarok. Before this, a group playing one of these styles of music had its best chance of television coverage by entering the talent contest New Faces, a segment on Studio One that ran alongside the songwriting competition won by David Curtis. Alastair Riddell had formed Space Waltz after losing interest in his prog act, Orb. In 1973, Split Enz appeared on New Faces and provided quite a stir with their quirky outfits, but Riddell knew he could go one better if he put on a proper glam show. Once his band passed the audition, he convinced the producers to let him switch out the song they were going to play for the Bowie-esque number, ‘Out On The Street’. Within a week of being released, it was a No.1 single and the band went on to record an album. There was a limited audience for glam rock in New Zealand and the cards fell badly when Space Waltz relocated overseas. Riddell kept writing and playing music, but somehow it was this one clip of him in 1974 that had the most lasting impact: a performance so brash that it was unforgettable.
Throughout the 1970s music on television was relatively middle of the road, with prime time light-entertainment shows such as the Ray Woolf Show. Then in 1977, TVNZ created Ready to Roll, with selections based on the sales charts to capture more modern forms of music (disco, funk-influenced pop, and 70s mainstream rock). Eventually it would only show music videos, but in the early years it included live performances. Jon Stevens arrived at the perfect time to capitalise on the show’s popularity. It no doubt helped that his older brother, Frankie Stevens, had achieved overseas success, though it was Jon’s au courant look that really made him. His pants were extremely tight and his shirt perpetually unbuttoned to show a triangle of taut bare chest. Stevens is still the only local act to ever knock his own single off the No.1 spot: ‘Montego Bay’ took over from ‘Jezebel’. Stevens secretly preferred rock and roll and was horrified to find himself badgered by toughs in the street and booed when Elton John invited him on stage at Athletic Park. Overexposed, he bravely left behind his successful career and moved to Australia, eventually becoming the lead singer of platinum-selling rock act, Noiseworks. He later filled in as lead singer of INXS.
It’s odd how male-dominated the pop music TV shows of the 1970s were, especially in comparison to the more evenly divided ’60s. Happen Inn did have Suzanne Lynch, originally one half of sibling duo The Chicks, while light-ent appearances made a star of Tina Cross. But turn on the TV most nights and you’d most likely find a dude in a suit crooning away. Yet there was a surprisingly popular alternative: the succession of country music shows, which started back in the 1960s with The Country Touch, hosted by the legendary Tex Morton (the amazing history of country TV shows in New Zealand was covered by Glen Moffatt for AudioCulture). Jodi Vaughan found fame on country music television, though her first appearance was actually on New Faces. Unfortunately her first husband discouraged her pursuit of music, so it wasn’t until she remarried that she got on TV again, this time competing on talent show The Entertainers. She came second, but more importantly received a phone call from guitar ace Gray Bartlett, who asked her to appear on The Country Touch (he ran the show’s band and appeared regularly, along with his performing partner, Brendan Dugan). Vaughan’s biggest audience would come a few years later with the arrival of That’s Country, the primetime show hosted by rocker turned all-round celebrity, Ray Columbus. Vaughan and Dugan used their heightened fame to launch a joint album, Fairweather Friends (1982), and it reached No.15. In 1990 a combined Dugan, Vaughan and Bartlett album, Together Again, went to No.1. View the entire cast of That’s Country doing the show intro below or skip to halfway through the second clip to see Vaughan and Dugan in action.
Variety shows and talent competitions had largely disappeared by the 1990s, with occasional exceptions, such as McDonalds Young Entertainers, which made stars of Drew Neemia, Hayley Westenra, and Ainslee Allen. Instead, new acts relied on music videos and music TV channels such as Max TV or being featured on non-primetime shows like Radio With Pictures, Ice TV or CV. But in 1999, Jonathan Dowling and Bill Toepfer came up with a way to radically update the New Faces talent quest and created the show Popstars. The winners would become a pop group and receive an instant deal with a major record label. The show was a hit and the rights were bought for Australian and UK series, eventually inspiring the Idol and X Factor worldwide franchises. The winners of Popstars were a female five-piece, TrueBliss, though their short career possibly reflected the fact that our country had no history with having its own girl or boy group – only duos such as The Chicks and Deep Obsession or the all-star line-up of When The Cat’s Away. TrueBliss topped both album and single charts then sold out a nationwide tour, before fizzling out. One member, Carly Binding, jumped ship before the end and used her celebrity as the launching pad for her own solo act. She immediately showed her knack for songwriting by reaching No.10 with ‘Alright With Me’ (co-written with Boh Runga of Stellar*) and followed it with three more hits and an album, Passenger (2003), that hit No.6. Binding might have come across as prickly on the show, but you need a bit of attitude to make it in the music business and her career eventually spanned to two albums, entirely drawn from songs written or co-written by Binding herself.
Stan Walker first appeared in 2009 as a giggling, nervous 18-year-old in the early rounds of the seventh and final season of Australian Idol. Walker was born in Melbourne, but grew up in New Zealand before his family moved to Coolangatta. It’s unlikely many back home really took notice of his ascent in the competition until he reached the final stages, though his home country was certainly happy to claim him when he won. Somehow, he managed to outlast the initial hype and retain fans on both sides of the Tasman. Idol winners often have short careers, and while Walker has had some success writing his own songs, his longevity is most likely due to his wise business decisions (running his affairs through his own company, Stan Walker Music Pty Ltd) and his diversification into other areas (acting in the film Mt Zion and becoming a judge on New Zealand’s franchise of X Factor). Walker also puts his talents towards worthwhile projects such as trying to get a song in te reo to top the charts: he only managed No.2 with ‘Aotearoa’ but the song has since racked up a remarkable 2.3 millions views on YouTube.
There have been many occasions on overseas TV talent shows where the runners-up went on to bigger careers than the winners: for example, One Direction and Olly Murs. Benny Tipene only came third in the local edition of X Factor but was signed to Sony, the sponsors of the show, and he soon showed himself to be a songwriter in his own right. His first single ‘Walking On Water’ was written by international songwriting team DNA Songs – Sony pre-arranged for them to write songs for the runners-up and winner Jackie Thomas – but Tipene went on to write or co-write all of the songs on his first EP and album. He chose his collaborators wisely: his co-writer for ‘Step On Up’ was Jaden Parkes, who went on to form hit act Leisure, and he wrote ‘Make You Mine’ with Dave Baxter from Avalanche City. Both were Top 20 hits and propelled his 2013 album, Bricks, to No.4.