Starting out as a successful young pop star and cabaret performer in the early 1970s and going on to enjoy commercial work singing advertising jingles in the 1980s and 1990s, Bunny Walters has seen all the ups and downs of a career in New Zealand music and entertainment. When this interview took place Bunny was enjoying life on Macleay Island, a small community off the Queensland Coast, where he still sings his heart out. Bunny Walters talks with AudioCulture’s Steven Shaw.
AudioCulture: How did it start for you? Can you tell us about the two guys who first brought you up to Auckland?
“They were a couple of building contractors. I was playing bass down the road in Rotorua, I was singing most of it too, and they came down. They invited me up to Auckland. They had a big cabaret coming up, so they asked, ‘Would you like to sing at it?’ That’s how it started, I sang at Trillo’s. Terry Gray was the leader of the band, he was a prominent music arranger in NZ history. They said we’ll take you to see all these different agents ... but it was just one, Hegan, Hegan Entertainment. They didn’t say ‘sign here’, they congratulated me and the others, and that was it.
“I got back to Rotorua, the two contacted me, and said, ‘We’d like to be your managers. Would you like to come up to Auckland, we’ll look after you?’ I said ‘Yes, yes yes’. So I did, I told my family I was off to the big smoke to become a pop star and that was it. I said ‘Haere ra’ to all the whānau and caught a bus to Auckland.
“Benny Levin said, ‘Ok that’s it, auditions are over, we found our man.’ That’s how it started.”
“They booked me straight into the YMCA, paid my rent, three meals a day, it was great. But they didn’t have a clue. There was nothing happening. I used to jump on the bus and go back to Rotorua and go to socials. I went to one, the band was the Ricky DeVon Set, his agent was Benny Levin, he was a good friend of Benny’s. I said ‘Can I get up and sing with your band?’ He said yeah, I got up and sang a few – ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ – he came back to me and wrote a number down, he said get in touch with this bloke here, Benny Levin, he’s having auditions next week.
“At that time the two blokes who got me up there had got me a day gig at Choysa Tea, one was friends with the manager there, the big boss. He said ‘Bunny, I got you a job, it pays thirty buck a week.’ I was working in the office, I became a dispatch clerk. Never done it before but I picked it up pretty quickly. I had a weekly income and I paid my own rent up at the YMCA.
“I got back to Auckland, rang Benny Levin. ‘Sorry mate we’re all booked up, there’s no room we can’t fit you in.’ I just persevered, kept ringing back. They eventually said, ‘Ok we’ll fit you in.’ I got a time to be there. I was broke at the time. Had about a dollar, rang the local cab company and they took me there for sixty cents. There was a long line, a queue of people, it came to my turn, I sang a couple of songs. Benny Levin said, ‘Ok that’s it, auditions are over, we found our man.’ That’s how it started.”
Who booked you to compete in Joe Brown’s Search for Stars?
“I heard about it myself, Joe Brown’s Search For Stars, down at the Rotorua Soundshell in 1969 [the final was in January 1970]. I’d already signed up with Benny. In fact I mentioned the Search for Stars talent quest to Benny, he said, ‘No no no, he’s the opposition.’ But then he had a think. There was $1000 first prize, five hundred bucks for second. He said ok you can go down and do it. I went through all the heats and semis, got into the final and came second to Tui Fox. So Benny realised there was a quid in it, five hundred bucks I won, it was a lot of money. If you won you would automatically be in the Joe Brown stable."
Footage still exists of you singing ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ in the contest – was it at the final?
“That was the final, yeah. I’m 15 or 16. Tui Fox was young too. While they were doing the telly [filming] and trying to find the winner, he was down in the toilets spewing up. ‘Where’s Tui, where’s Tui?’ We were both in the same sort of category; we both sang Tom Jones songs. We actually clashed [with song choice]. I said you can sing that one. I think it was Tom Jones’ ‘I’m Coming Home’. I sang ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ and another song. We had to sing two songs.”
It’s a pretty showy version ...
“Yes [laughs], especially for one so young. I don’t know what inspired that in me, probably Tom Jones. He was such an inspiration for me back in those days. I just wanted to copy everything he did.”
Your first single ‘Just Out Of Reach’ came out after the talent quest.
“That was recorded at Stebbings, under the house. I even remember the name of the street, Saratoga Ave. Jimmie Sloggett did the arrangement, and I think Benny and Russell Clark were the producers. I learnt it off an old Tom Jones album. There again you see, it was Tom Jones.”
What were you listening to?
“Growing up in Katikati you didn’t get much variety. Local radio was beamed out of Tauranga. Then I got a little transistor radio, it was really quite broken but I could pick up Radio Hauraki. When they were out on the boat, the Tiri. And they played all this music that you didn’t get from the station out of Tauranga. But I really missed out on soul until later in my career; I didn’t hear Stevie Wonder until later on. Most of the black music my ears used to hear was songs by The Drifters, coming from all the parties that used to happen around our little settlement. ‘Under The Boardwalk’, ‘I’ve Got Sand In My Shoes’, ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’. I never got a taste for soul music until I got up to Auckland and started mixing with musicians, the doys.
“Have you heard of that word before, doys? It’s a language that started out way back in show band days, with Māori show bands, Howard Morrison and others. They’d speak this alien language, like gibberish. Chur doy. You’ve heard that term? It goes right back, chur doy, it’s another language spoken by musicians back in the day. Only they could understand it. It was ‘elite’ communication between musicians.
“Where was I? … It was the local Māori musicians that introduced me to funk, Tower of Power, all that sort of stuff. Wilson Pickett was never in my repertoire until later on in life. Even Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, all the good funky singers, I never heard until later on in life. And I loved it.
“Back when I cracked it and became known as this ballad singer, back then all the live gigs I did, you had to adapt; have all this variety in your repertoire. I’d sing the ballads, add a little bit of country, and finish with a rock and roll bracket. You covered the whole range; you weren’t just a ballad singer, you had to do the whole enchilada. I didn’t mind that. Shows like Happen Inn, they taught you to be versatile.
“Shows like Happen Inn, they taught you to be versatile.”
“You had to sing all sorts of songs. Serious songs, funny songs, you had to dress up and you had to dance. It was a good show, it was a good experience. It covered the whole country, that’s how we became such household names, all the people who were on that show regularly. It was our ticket.”
What about the ‘Brandy’ myth? That Barry Manilow heard your version?
“I’ve heard that, I don’t think so. Here’s my version: Benny sent a copy to Casey Kasem at American Top 40. He sent it and forgot all about it. It did reach Casey Kasem’s desk but he just put it in the later box [laughs]. When Manilow recorded ‘Mandy’ Hauraki played it. I never heard it myself but people were coming up to me and saying we heard your version on American Top 40. Casey Kasem played it prior to playing ‘Mandy’ from Barry Manilow. But I think Manilow got it from the same place I got it – Scott English, he wrote the song. He might’ve paid Scott English for the song; I see Manilow’s name is underneath it.”
You worked with Bernie Allen and Peter Dawkins.
“Peter Dawkins brought ‘Brandy’ along. Bernie Allen did the arrangements. But I was just the singer; I went into the studio and did my bit. I didn’t really sit down and converse with Peter Dawkins, he would talk with Benny.”
Tell us about Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan.
“That came about from a TV gig I did, then the NZ Herald did a review the next day. The producer read about it and got in touch with Benny. Richard Campion – Jane Campion’s dad – was the producer. I flew down to have a chat with him. He said I had the gig for six weeks. I was the young pop singer cum savage warrior. I’d do two gigs, I’d get out there and sing the modern songs, then I’d go backstage and put on a piupiu and a cloak and come out and sing some Māori songs. With three wāhine. We did a bit of a Māori culture thing. We did it for six weeks, it was a great experience, it really was. And I came back from there and turned professional. I gave up the day job and Benny got me all these gigs.
“I was out there just by myself, doing floor shows. Just bang! – in the deep end. I had enough experience to get out there. The hardest part was having nowhere to rehearse; I had to get enough material. Back in those days it was half an hour and you’re off. You don’t go over, you don’t go under. You’d get all your music and jump in the car and go off and do another one. In those days, maybe two or three gigs a night on a Friday and Saturday night. You’d have to rehearse with two or three different bands.”
What were the venues?
“The Sorrento up on One Tree Hill, RSAs around Auckland, Trillo’s … that’s when cabaret was the big thing. People went out to be entertained, to be wined and dined. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen our show floor tonight, Mr Bunny Walters!’ You’d get out there and do your show for half an hour … ‘Thank you very much, goodnight’ … you’d exit, jump in the car and off to the next one.”
You sang on advertising jingles, working with Murray Grindlay and others?
“I did a lot of stuff for Murray [Grindlay]. It was a good phase of my career, the jingle thing. You had to be quick, learn quick, be in tune all the time. Murray taught us all those things. He was a good teacher. Also Bruce Lynch, he’s another very good jingle writer and producer. There were others, there was a Wellington producer; we used to go down there … Rob Winch … and Clive Cockburn.”
You released an LP, Bunny Walters Sings For Lovers and Rockers.
“Bernie Allen did most of the arrangements for that. I listen to it, that’s the only one they put out. I’ve been talking to Stebbings who have all of my material. And they’re keen to put more out, they’re sort of sitting there gathering dust. We’re looking at that too, to put another compilation out. And God willing I’ll go back in the studio and record some new stuff.”
So you think Stebbings have unreleased stuff?
“Yeah … even Billy Kristian, I’ve recorded some of the stuff that he’s written. Yeah, that’s unreleased, they should … who knows, it’s no good just keeping them there.”
When did you turn to your faith?
“It was back home, 1997. I finally realised that I was going nowhere fast. I was just waking up and trying to find the next hit. Thinking let’s go to the pub and jump on the merry go round again. I just got sick of doing that. I made a decision to make a turn, turn around yeah. We lived in Brisbane for a while, moved around Queensland for the last 10 years. I’m still in Queensland but I’m on this little island.”
So does the lyric "When the sun goes down we’ll find a little town" ring true?
[Laughs] “Yeah mate. I’m certainly thinking about coming home, just to smell the salt sea air again and see what’s happening. Might be for good, I’m not sure yet.
“I had a major health scare in 2011, ended up in hospital with a mild heart attack. Not massive, just a mild one. That’s changed things in my life; I’ve slowed down a lot. Everything’s ok still at the moment. I have to take things a bit easier these days, as far as going out and gigging. Since I’ve become a Christian going out and doing gigs isn’t a priority. I still love to sing bro; I’ll never leave that. I’ve been doing most of my singing in church. But I’m getting out there, doing the old songs. There are a lot of Kiwis on the island so they come along. And I’ve got a good song in my heart, it’s written by Kiwis too. We’ll keep you in the loop.”