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Neil McGough, in his tuxedo, sits between Billy Kristian and Tommy Adderley the night Headband met the Auckland Symphonia, April 1972

Crescendos and codas 

I stepped off the conductor’s podium and walked off the Auckland Town Hall stage to the wings. The “Rock Symphonic” Concert with the Auckland Symphonia and various pop stars was a huge success, the audience in the packed hall was on its feet applauding and stamping making a brobdingnagian din. After a minute the stage manager David asked, “Have you got another encore?” “NO” I firmly stated. “How the hell do you follow ‘Land of Hope and Bloody Glory’?” but he flagged me back on anyway.  

I walked back to the podium, acknowledged the orchestra, shook the orchestra leader’s hand, bowed a couple of times and smiled and waved again as you do, and walked off as the house lights went up. I didn’t stop for David this time, just thanked him and walked back down the empty silent corridor to an empty silent dressing room, poured a large brandy, sat back and looked at myself in the dressing room mirror and thought. “It’s all gone.” All that music writing, endless telephone calls to artists, hours of rehearsals, budgeting, incredible stress, two concerts each on successive nights, everything worked. (Well almost, except that bit in Elvira Madigan the bloody trombones left out!) The crowd loved it and ... It’s all gone.

This was one of those depressing moments in music when after all the work and stress, it’s suddenly over. I thought of the tremendous emotional excitement and awe of my first opera La Traviata when I was only 17 years old. I couldn’t get to dusty, smelly, elderly old His Majesty’s Theatre early enough each night during that season, just to smell the place, to sit in the orchestra pit and wait for the first stage manager’s call. I also thought of the depths of depression after the last night when I realised “it was all gone”.  

I had come a long way since learning the mouth organ at primary school, and the playing in the Pukekohe Municipal Band, even if I did nearly march the band down the wrong street the day the Queen came. I was 33 years old now, married with a lovely wife, three children, one only two weeks old, I was well established in the music scene, I had no right to be depressed. 

What keeps you going is knowing that there will be another opera, and another, then symphonic work. Jazz gigs with world-class musicians, pop concerts with world stars such as Cilla Black, Robin Gibb, Bob Hope, Lulu and Des O’Connor. Friendships with stars including John Rowles and Kiri Te Kanawa, who most people never have a chance to even speak to. I would gain experience, maturity and training as time went on. I’d got this far, so I must have enough confidence to believe that will happen, and it did.  

1958: Radio dance bands 

One Sunday afternoon while travelling home in a taxi from one of these rehearsals, I asked [saxophonist] Bernie Allen what young guys like us had to do to ever get into the radio dance band. “Oh,” scoffed Bernie, “Blokes like us don’t get in there till some bugger dies!”

The radio dance band played a live broadcast from the 1ZB radio theatre from 7pm to 7.30pm every Saturday night, and a studio broadcast every Tuesday night. This was the top band job in Auckland, and to become a regular member of the band put you clearly in the top ranks in Auckland, and opened many other doors. It was currently led by Crombie Murdoch, a brilliant if slightly eccentric pianist and arranger who as it happened lived just round the corner from my porch. 

The next morning I got a call from Bernie, who, sounding rather incredulous, advised he had a call from Crombie, who said he had a bit of tiff the day before, and precisely while we were having our taxi discussion he had sacked the trombonists Neil Dunningham and Merv Thomas and the sax player Bart Stokes. Would Bernie like to start next Thursday rehearsal? And who was his lead trombone player in the rehearsal band, could Bernie contact him and invite him too?

It seems the “misunderstanding” arose because trombonists always carry a small water pistol to wet the slide. When I started on the instrument, you used Ponds Cold Cream – a very fine film of this cream was spread on the inner slide, and then sprayed with water to give a sort of “water ball bearings on Ponds”. This required you to always have your water sprayer with you. In Crombie’s band a small war had started by way of the trombones – always accidentally of course – spraying the musicians in the next section.

This innocent error was misinterpreted by the saxophones who brought their own sprayers, and eventually the trumpets did the same. Crombie had put up with these small water wars for a bit, but just as he was starting to complain, the sax player Bart Stokes produced a water fire extinguisher which was the equivalent of introducing a machine gun among the pikemen of old. Crombie considered that things had all gone too far, so he sacked Merv, Neil and Bart and called Bernie.  

Crombie decided to bring in two new young players, to keep everyone else on their toes. Of course Bernie and I grabbed the chance, and were delighted to get a shot at this, particularly as, contrary to Bernie’s opinion, no bugger had died to create the opening. The following Thursday we turned up at the 1ZB Radio Theatre and were introduced to the band. 

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Neil McGough, trombone, with bassist Nick Wilcox and the Bridge City Jazzmen

The trombone leader was well known band leader, arranger and trombonist Dale Alderton, I was to play second trombone, and Bob Davis was on bass trombone. I was to do many years of work with these men whom I greatly admired as top players. I had also spent a lot of time at jazz clubs listening to Neil Dunningham (whom I had just replaced) and the “rising star” Merv Thomas. So I was a little daunted at what I was up against. Later, lead trumpet player Lou Campbell told me that getting the first call was hard, but you then had to impress sufficiently to get a second and third call. It could still take years to become an established member of the radio band. The radio band system was that the musical director was changed every 13 weeks, and in theory, a different band was engaged. However the reality was that once in one band leader’s band, you were almost always in every other radio band as well.  

1959: Phil Warren’s special coffees

The Crystal Palace ballroom hardly justified the term “ballroom”. It was a bare basement under a Mt Eden cinema, run by a young entrepreneur called Phillip Warren. I remember him with an apron on at the refreshment counter, making toasted sandwiches as fast as he could, while he and an assistant also sold Fanta, other soft drinks, and a few lollies, Jaffas and Chockie Bars. Life was very simple then. Of course to even mention a drink with alcohol in it (like an Irish coffee) would get you closed down in an instant in those days. I went on to do a lot of work with Phillip Warren of course, who in turn became chairman of the Auckland Regional Authority and a very successful promoter. 

His greatest feat was to run over himself in his own Rolls Royce. He purchased a gaudy mostly yellow Roller so he could look important, and one day on his way home he stopped in Upper Queen Street to talk to someone he had been trying to phone all day, walked round the back of the Roller, and discovered the very painful way that he had left the hand brake off. Pictures of him all strapped up in hospital duly appeared in the papers, and poor Phil was inundated with rude telegrams such as “There are easier ways to get you name in the paper, Phil”. The entertainment industry is not strong on sympathy. 

Perfect pitch

The following year at Maple Furnishing, where I was working, a new young ticket writer was engaged. Direct from school and 16 years old, this rather gawky and shy young man joined our team and began learning to write one-stroke brush lettering in between being the dogsbody who swept floors, mixed colours, took out the rubbish and fetched my lunch, etc.  

After about seven months of working there, Alan one day sheepishly announced that he played a bit of piano and was interested in music, so I invited him to come up to the Musicians’ Club one Friday night and have a blow with the others. He was deeply shocked, and apart from the fact that I think his mother was still a bit loath to let him out at night, particularly to the dreaded Musicians’ Club, Alan said with wide eyes, “I couldn’t play in front of those musicians, they are all in the radio band.” “Well not all of them,” I replied, “they were mainly just jazz musos enjoying themselves after their gigs.” However Alan couldn’t possibly play in front of those people. 

After another few months, Alan, who played with a small band of school friends, asked me one day, “Mr McGough, What is perfect pitch?” “Why? I replied. “Because the guys in the band were talking about it, and I didn’t know what it was. I was a bit shy to ask them in case they thought I was a bit dumb.” “Well,” I explained, “some people have a peculiar ability to remember pitch. Most of us need an instrument note to know where we are, but people with perfect pitch can just remember.  For example if I went (whistling a random note) a muso with perfect pitch would tell me it was an E flat.”

“But it wasn’t,” said Alan. “You whistled a C sharp. “Are you sure?” “Absolutely,” he said. “Is that all perfect pitch is?” 

A little later, Bob Kevin – a drummer friend in the bedding department at Maple – said young Alan was asking for some gigs, what did I know of his work. I told him apart from perfect pitch, very little, so why didn’t he get Alan around one morning and try him out. This he did, and came back with his eyes wide open. “This guy is a genius!” he said. “Every tune I called he played, he played them in every key I asked, and played like a seasoned jazzer!” 

“This guy” – who was of course Alan Broadbent – became a bit of a sensation in the jazz world very quickly while still a teenager.

1962: The Diva’s mother

Having had the breaks to get established as a trombonist, I had long yearned to conduct and considered that my training with Ossie Cheesman, coupled with my orchestral experience would one day lead to a break. Finally it arrived in 1962, when I got the chance at His Majesty’s. 

Ossie phoned, and said he had been approached to do the orchestrations for a Māori musical called Uwane (pronounced “oo-war-nee”), written by a brother and sister unit Lindsay and Zella Rowell. Lindsay was a welder by trade, with no experience at script writing or indeed theatre work of any kind, a very retiring character indeed. Zella was something else. 

All the harmonies in Zella’s charts had to be reworked, and her tunes were so naive that there was little room for innovation. She was convinced she was the coming Richard Rodgers and would brook no changes. 

Then auditions were held in a former ice-skating rink in Khyber Pass Rd; it was as cold as if the ice was still there, with no furnishings and as bare as a baby’s bottom. Lots of people turned up hoping to be famous in this the first New Zealand Māori musical, and few of them ring much of a bell. (Actually it was about the third “New Zealand Māori musical”.)

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English jazz trumpeter Kenny Ball tries out a tuba while jamming after hours at the Monaco club, Auckland, 1962. At right, Auckland musician Merv Thomas wonders if he'll get his tuba back. - Neil McGough collection

We waded through this bevy of hopefuls, rather like the auditions for Has New Zealand Got Talent? Many were told to “fill in the form and leave it in the bin by the door,” until a large imperious Pākehā lady emerged from the shadows. She stood in front of our table blocking the light and harangued us: her daughter was there to audition, she was brilliant, and unless she got the lead role, she would refuse to be in the show at all. I was on the verge of agreeing to settle that she not be in the show at all, but this large, loud lady continued until I stopped her and told her in quite clear terms, that if she would just shut up and sit down, we might get to actually hear her daughter, and we might even offer her a job. (Although if she were anything like her mum, she was already a goner!) 

A young attractive Māori girl in school uniform stepped shyly forward without a word. I asked her what she wanted to sing as she gave her music to the pianist and she replied “Oh! Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. She stood demurely, with her hands exactly as Sister Mary Leo the singing teacher had taught her, and she began to sing. Within three bars the whole room went silent; this was far and away the best singer I had heard for a very long time. When she finished I asked for her form and there, neatly printed beside “Name” was Kiri Te Kanawa. The imperious woman was her adoptive mother, Nell.

Tauranga, Bridge City

In 1963, Tauranga staged the first Tauranga Jazz Festival. Don Bruce had been playing with another group called the Bridge City Jazzmen which had broken up leaving the name available, so Don put together the Bridge City Jazzmen with himself, Ray Pilkington and me, the Wilcox brothers John and Nick on piano/banjo and bass, and Bruce King on drums. The band’s first appearance was at the debut Tauranga festival, and it went on as a star turn for many more. It was a wonderful group of musicians to play with: we had polished routines, comedy turns, you name it. Although the band could play modern, rock and roll, and the dance repertoire, it specialised in traditional Dixieland jazz from the 1920s through to the 1960s. This band made a number of released recordings including ‘Hoki Mai’, ‘Bill Bailey’, ‘Moulin Rouge theme’, ‘Get Me To The Church On Time’ and ‘Po Karekare Ana’. The band also appeared on the early television shows Teen 63, In the Groove, On the Beat Side and had regular gigs at the Bali Ha’i and Monaco clubs.


The band was fortunate that its formation and life coincided with a great surge in interest in both traditional and modern jazz. In a half-dozen years these musicians all performed at the Auckland Town Hall: Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck, University of Denver Jazz Band, The Glenn Miller Orchestra directed by Buddy de Franco, Eddie Condon’s Allstars (with Pee Wee Russell, Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, Bud Freeman, and singer Jimmy Rushing: all stars in their own right), Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Jacques Loussier, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Acker Bilk, The Dutch Swing College, Kenny Ball, and Thelonious Monk (and that is only the programmes I have in my files).

It was traditional for the local jazz fraternity to entertain these musicians at the Musicians’ Club at that time, and I well remember driving Thelonious Monk up to the club in my green Ford Prefect. Eddie Condon was entertained at the Monaco, a club owned by Phillip Warren. It was a great experience to stand on the band stand with the Eddie Condon band all round us taking turns to solo. It was also a bit nerve-wracking taking solos after these greats had all had a blow as well. One night Kenny Ball’s band jammed the with the Bridge City Jazzmen, plus Merv Thomas and a few others, blowing away until 4am, possibly the biggest Dixie band to ever take the stage in New Zealand.

Acker Bilk was a great character, he said he learned the clarinet in army prison for going to sleep on guard duty, and while his Paramount Jazz Band was famous, his greatest success was his composition ‘Stranger On The Shore’. It was a huge seller and permitted Acker to fund and step up the touring band. After their concert we all met backstage, to repair unto the Bali Ha’i for a blow. When an accountant-type manager from Kerridge-Odeon called Norman heard of this intention, he ran into the room and told Acker in no uncertain terms, “You can’t play anywhere in New Zealand that is not specified in your contract!” Acker took him by the lapels of his previously neat suit, raised him against the wall and quietly said, “No one tells me I can’t have a blow wi’ me mates.” He waited for this message to sink in a few seconds, slowly lowered Norman to his normal five foot three, and carefully brushed his lapels back into some semblance of sartorial order. We heard no more about contracts.

Union dues 

One day during the war unionist Tom Skinner was playing snooker with Bert Peterson, a saxophone player and band leader at the Peter Pan cabaret. Bert said to him, “Listen to me young Skinner, how would you like to be acting secretary of the Musician’s Union? Our secretary is on holiday at a camp for conscientious objectors to the war.”

Tom told me that at the meeting he was elected, a snag arose. The Musicians’ Union rules stated that no one could be elected an officer of the union unless he was a “musician”. So the members took Tom into the street, gave him a triangle, and he beat time while the musicians sang ‘God Save The Queen’ – and then they gave him a shilling. Tom Skinner had met the requirements of the law, and was duly elected secretary. 

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A recording session for the Auckland radio dance band, Durham Street West, 1970. - Mark Davis collection

Some time in 1963, I had a call from Stan Holland, a retired musician who was still involved with the union. He asked if I would be available to work in Tom’s office to assist his secretary with office work and the like. Tom had built the Musician’s Union into a national organization of almost 2,000 members, 600 in Auckland, and six regional branches. The union’s office, formerly in the Pacific building on the corner of Queen and Victoria streets – where Stebbing’s had an early studio – had been demolished. So Tom took over the floor above a toy shop, next door to the St James Theatre. Kerridge-Odeon owned the building which later contained the new Regent theatre, and Tom leased space from his mate Sir Robert Kerridge.

When I later worked for Kerridge’s theatres with our signwriting business, I was shown a dark and unprepossessing door in a back corridor of the St James, which opened onto another small corridor: this emerged in the foyer of the Westend Cinema. Halfway down this almost secret corridor was a private men’s club room. Cigar thermidor, bar, small-screen cinema, luxury chairs, the lot! This was Sir Robert Kerridge’s private little gentlemen’s club. At last I discovered why, every Friday about 3pm, Tom suddenly had an urgent meeting with the Glass Worker’s Union, or the Kapai Corn Broom Company Industrial Union of Workers, or the Northern Jam Workers’ Union, and he disappeared for the rest of day.

The compulsory aspect of unionism was abhorrent to many and in fact a great drawback in those days. Next, Tom put me in touch with a group of actors in Wellington led by the actor Alan Jervis, which was working hard on the same project. Many of them recorded commercials, and were becoming tired of being paid £2/10 for a commercial that ran a dozen times a day on the radio for so many years that the actor’s voice became so recognisable that no one else would hire them. Auckland actors had the same complaint, in particular Athol Coates, who had made an advertisement for a dental firm that went: 

Broke my dentures, broke my dentures, woe is me, what shall I do?

Take them into Mr. Geddes. And he’ll fix them just like new!

This jingle ran for nearly 40 years, and virtually put the actor out of business.  

My own status as a musician was helpful because it reinforced the argument that the Musicians’ Union was a union of and for musicians. We did not have to behave as those unions of more newsworthy fame behaved, in fact in all my years with the union, I only recall three occasions in 16 years when musicians actually went on strike. It also seemed to me that if I could thoroughly organise the top tiers of music, radio, TV, and recording, that would also strengthen the union itself. To do this I set up a system whereby the union itself hired the bands for tours, and negotiated rates and conditions particular to each tour. I soon found that far from the view that having the union secretary in the band would invite trouble was a nonsense: almost all the promoters took the view that having me along on the tour would enable any band problems to be settled much more quickly and easily than if I remained in Auckland.  

I had become annoyed in recent years that when I was on a gig, there would be a line of musicians all wanting to ask about notice, and holiday pay, until one night I wore a sign round my neck saying, “I AM NOT A WALKING SUB-BRANCH PLEASE CALL ME AT THE OFFICE.” The other annoyance was the musician who would bail me up at the Musicians’ Club with a handful of money from the night’s gig, and tell me he was paying his annual subscription. I asked, “If I were the credit manager for the Farmers Trading Co, would you give me a fistful of money and say it was this month’s payment on your new sofa? Besides, I intend to get pissed tonight so your money will probably go over the bar.” That always did the trick.

Kawerau cool 

My first tour after Porgy and Bess was a pop show. The star was our own John Rowles. I was the band leader, putting together a band of only eight players, but very strong in the rhythm department. The first half featured Allison Durbin, comedian Chic Littlewood, and a magician called De Larno. I conducted the first half, and John brought his own musical director, Dougie Reece. Doug was essentially a bass guitarist who knew little about front-row instruments, and a lot of the tour was spent with me giving him tips on writing for brass and reed instruments. He was a really nice, humble guy, and we spent many hours off stage together.

John was at his singing best, at the height of his fame with worldwide hits such as ‘Hush Not A Word To Mary’, ‘If I Only Had Time’, ‘The Pain Goes On Forever’ and of course ‘Cheryl Moana Marie’. John told me that in one state in the US, Cheryl Moana Marie’ was banned because it was deemed to be a sort of code for “Share Your Marijuana With Me’. Of course the result was wonderful sales in the adjacent states. John and I became good friends on this tour, he was a real down to earth Kiwi from Kawerau, with many family and friends here, and he had a great ability to work the crowd. It was astonishing the little tricks he had that always got the same response throughout the country. At one point he would tell the crowd that he understood one of his cousins was in the hall tonight, and asked if he would put up his hand, so John could find him. Every night throughout the tour hundreds of people put their hands up, to general hilarity. At another point he would start to take off his jacket, which every night without exception resulted in whistles and cat calls, John would feign surprise and a little embarrassment, and put it on again to boos, then eventually take it off for the rest of the night. He had an enormous natural talent, and dark good looks.

One thing was clear: having left New Zealand, it took John only a year or so to become one of the big pop stars in the world. John was very proud of his family, and for part of the tour at least his dad, “Pop” to all of us came along for the ride. I remember one night after the show in Napier, a few of the band went for a walk with Pop and I asked him if he was surprised at John’s success. “Well yeah,” he said slowly. “Actually, it only seems like last year he was running round the yard with a runny nose and the seat out of his pants, and I said to the wife, ‘What we gonna bloody do with that one!’” This became the band’s catch-cry, and quiet calls of, “What we gonna bloody do with that one!” were regularly heard on the rest of the tour in reference to John. The guitarist for the tour was Tuhi Timoti, who finally admitted to John halfway through the tour, “Y’know John, you’re not bad for a Kawerau Māori”. John took all the ribbing in good fun, and more than any other tour or show I ever did, he was part of the gang. 

In 1971 John came back for a shorter tour, which included a show recorded for an album called John Rowles Back Home Live. It was recorded in His Majesty’s Theatre with The Neil McGough Show Band, produced by Bernie Allen, and released as a double album. It begins with the announcement, “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. JOOOOOOOHN ROOOOOOOOOWLS!!!” (rather like the MC at a boxing match) over a frantic musical introduction which segued into ‘Gee But It’s Nice To Be Back Home’. We often addressed John in this drawn out announcement style when we met him. 

Neophonic workshops

Light-orchestral work on radio had all but died out by the late 1960s for me, Ossie was only doing a couple of programmes a year, and they were for much smaller orchestras. However, although radio dance band work was also declining, a late burst of activity for a few years was caused by a notice in 1968 announcing a lecture in the Ellen Melville Hall by Russ Garcia. It had always been said that music was a bad place to live unless you had a bus ticket out of town on the mantelpiece at all times. Bernie Allen and Tony Baker were at training college earning their bus ticket in case the sky fell in musically (which it regularly did) and they were interested in this notice. Surely this couldn’t be the same Russ Garcia who was a famous Hollywood musician composer and band leader? But it was. Russ and his wife were touring the world in their yacht, and had been asked to lecture in Auckland by their friend, local instrument retailer Robert Eady.

Having looked at the world, Russ and his wife decided to settle in Kerikeri, where they made a vast contribution to local and national music. With Bernie Allen, Tony Baker and Murray Tanner, we established the Auckland Neophonic Orchestra as a vehicle for Russ, and to give us a unit we could sell to Broadcasting to stretch the radio-band concept out as long as we could. Russ directed the band for about three years doing radio programmes and concerts with his world-class arranging skills and the Neophonic went on for another seven or eight years, being taken over later by Julian Lee


Read Neil McGough part two - The Secret Musician’s Ball - here