A musician’s musician, Jim is well known in band and elite musical circles as a touring and session player, songwriter, arranger and multi-instrumentalist, and has shaped an impressive, award-winning career in the advertising and recording industries. But it was not until his album of songs for TV commercials, Big Songs From Small Movies (1999), hit gold, that he garnered a more public profile.
His songs for big-budget TV ads are often so familiar you think you grew up with them. That’s been his calling card. In another era he might have been a Sammy Cahn or Irving Berlin or Jule Styne, but in this one he has been one of a handful of experts able to tailor something perfect for clients.
Remember that lovely song for the insurance ad with the umbrellas, ‘There’s a Blue Sky Waiting For Me’? That was Jim’s. What about McDonald’s quirky, “Double-double, cheese-cheese, burger …?” And consider those Vivaldi excerpts from Four Seasons in National Bank black-stallion ads from the early 2000s: those were Jim’s “re-imagined” Vivaldi compositions. They were recorded live at York Street Recording Studios with a 20-piece chamber orchestra from the NZSO.
Remember that insurance ad with the umbrellas, ‘There’s a Blue Sky Waiting For Me’? That was Jim’s.
Patrick James Hall immigrated from England with his Irish-Cockney father and young English mother in 1952 when he was two, a family of “10 pound Poms”, leaving bleak, post-war London to come to the green land of plenty. They did it hard at first, living in inner-city boarding houses and rundown rentals, including an old, rodent-infested house on Armagh Street. “Its outside toilet was used habitually by drunks stumbling home from the six o’clock swill,” Jim says.
Things improved incrementally with the hard work of his parents, and the family eventually moved to a new suburban house of their own. His father worked first for his immigration sponsors and then for himself in general plastering, with a sideline in garden ornaments. His mother began managing a city restaurant once Jim’s little sister, Jeannie, was old enough.
His father was a moulder and modeller in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm in World War Two, and his balsa-wood model of an Avro Lancaster bomber was gifted to the Shah of Iran. Later, during the Tasman Series of the 1960s, he did fibreglass body repairs on Lotus cars; to young Jim, watching legends such as Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham sparked a lifetime obsession with Formula One racing.
Both his parents loved music and if they weren’t recording harmonies on their reel-to-reel tape they were enjoying their latest records. Pop music, sentimental songs, light operatic, Bing Crosby, Lonnie Donegan, Nat King Cole, Rimsky Korsakov, Hank Snow, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals – Jim was soaking it all up. Along with his favourites from the Sunday Request Session on 3ZB and songs by new sensation, Elvis, he was amassing a vast mental storehouse of different musical styles for later use.
Jim’s father played the harmonica and had a short love affair with guitar and lessons, but Jim was more successful, teaching himself the uke from a “learn the ukulele in five minutes” book and working out fingering on his father’s reedy chord organ. “It was part-accordion, part-vacuum cleaner, but I learnt a lot about Romantic-era harmony from it.”
At school Jim made two lifelong friends in Lindsay Talbot and Jeremy “Jay” Peters, and while at Christchurch Boys’ High School they formed their first bands, including Beatles parody, the “Feetles”. Jay’s mother had bought him The Beatles’ Please Please Me and for Jim it was “beyond revelatory”.
“The song that pressed the blast-off button for me was their cover of Arthur Alexander’s ‘Anna’ with its haunting guitar riff. For my 14th birthday I got a 30-quid Teisco SSL-4, a cheap Japanese four-pickup electric guitar from Elaine Moody’s Music Shop in Manchester Street, [with] a funny little Fountain electronic box that allowed it to play through the radiogram via AM radio frequencies.”
The band mutated through various changes, becoming more competent at each turn. First it was Four Steps Beyond and later Wild Blue Yonder with the addition of drummer John Chappell. At one stage Jim also put the chord organ to questionable use, plugging it through a 15-watt Concord amplifier and using it as an ersatz Hammond organ.
By the time UE came around music was no longer a part-time affair, but a real contender. Jim left the band and signed up for a music degree at the University of Canterbury, buying a nylon-string classical guitar and having some lessons.
“I was a stranger in a strange land – the only student who had no background in classical music,” he says.
Despite this, he found his niche, making an impression as a versatile musician on campus in the days when Tim Shadbolt was busy politicking and James K Baxter was titillating youthful minds with his raunchier poems. Jim was seen playing classical guitar one week; arranging and playing electric in a note-perfect Beatles concert the next, and in between playing guitar for Mervyn Thompson’s production of Marat/Sade, which starred Sam Neill, Bill Stalker, Catherine Wilkins et al. He also played first lute in Ngaio Marsh’s production of Monteverdi’s opera, The Coronation of Poppea.
JIM was hired to play bass on Cilla Black’s national tour alongside Tony Newman, Jeff Beck’s drummer.
By night he was doing professional gigs, playing bass with top jazzmen Harry Voice and Dean Howe, and doing live-to-air concerts with them, Doug Caldwell’s band, “and a plethora of grown-ups”. He sometimes played acoustically at the Christchurch Folk Centre and arranged strings for a recording of ‘Streets of London’ for folksinger Christine Smith.
In a move that Jim says was “a bit like being asked to play bass for Beyonce today” he was hired to play bass on Cilla Black’s national tour alongside top London pianist Ralph Dolamore and Tony Newman, Jeff Beck’s drummer. When that tour ended he moved to Auckland and joined Mike “Spike” Walker’s band at the Ranch House. This legendary northern venue featured such international acts as Chuck Berry and the Peddlers.
Jim stayed on with Mike Harvey and singer Lynn Williamson (now Linn Lorkin) after Spike and Larry Morris left, and then played in TV’s Happen Inn band on bass and later guitar. He played bass for the touring Vera Lynn show; did sessions for John Hanlon, Ray Columbus and others, and formed Cricklewood with Tuhi Timoti, Dean Ruscoe and Basil Peterkin. After a short tour with a Melbourne theatre company’s Godspell he played bass for prime-time TV entertainer, Rolf Harris.
By 1973 the walls were closing in, so Jim flew off to London to join Bronwyn (then girlfriend, now wife). Not long after he landed in a dismal, grey London he succumbed to the black dog, an unwelcome shadow that has recurred intermittently through the years. He needed music to lift him out of this hole, so he had his mother send over his bass and Stratocaster, and placed an ad in Melody Maker, adding the tag “No Timewasters Allowed”.
Eventually, a group of like-minded Anglo-American professionals with recording credentials contacted him and, as Skye, they headed to Copenhagen for an intensive three-month, six hours a night, seven nights a week residency.
Back in England, Jim found work writing lead sheets, including those for ELO’s Eldorado album and, when Jay Peters and his wife arrived in London Jay joined the band. He took over on bass, Jim swapped to guitar, they added Turkish-American drummer Nico Findheisen, and became Inshallah – a name that might raise a few eyebrows today. The band had residencies in Stuttgart and Reutlingen, but found the German scene a lot heavier than Denmark’s:
“One night a Yugoslav gangster took offence at Steve having his back to the audience for a second or two (‘he insulted my mother!’) and held a knife to his throat mid-song. The dodgy club manager defused the situation by making Steve apologise to his would-be murderer.”
When Inshallah wasn’t working he and Jay set out on off-road cycle tours, and on another break he and Bronwyn took a five-week European jaunt – to Rome and back – on their Honda 125. They were based in a flat by now with Barry Saunders and Richard Burgess, and Jim was doing the rounds of gigs and auditions. With Richard he played in the Barbara Dickson band then both joined Easy Street, with which they made two albums for PolyGram and toured England and Scotland on the Barclay James Harvest bill.
It was all fun, but for Jim, it was empty fun. “It was everything I had dreamed of doing,” he says, “but I hated it.”
After Bronwyn returned to New Zealand, Jim shipped his instruments home and flew to join her, via the United States. He was back by late 1977, “28, broke and deflated”. He joined Shannon at Adam’s Apple Nightclub and one night, half of Bowie’s band jammed with them; on another occasion he won the NZ Radio Control Car championship. He was still unsatisfied; something had to give. He and Bronwyn decided to move to Wellington.
The capital had three top recording studios back then and Jim wanted to investigate production. He got a good reception at Rocky Douché’s Marmalade Studios and although there was no production work going, he met Steve Robinson (formerly of Tamburlaine), who was writing jingles, and the two hit it off. Jim started doing sessions for Steve, while gigging at night, mostly with Dennis O’Brien. He moved into production when asked to produce ‘Running Round in Circles’, a song he’d written for EMI for singer Kim Hart. Through Marmalade Jim also arranged and conducted the strings on Sharon O’Neill’s ‘Asian Paradise’ single and co-wrote one of Jon Stevens’ album tracks.
Next Jim produced two albums each for Dennis O’Brien and Jodi Vaughan (including her hit, ‘Rodeo Eyes’), and co-wrote the music for Carry Me Back with Tim Bridgewater. This soundtrack required Jim teaching himself basic computing to write a program for syncing film speed with music tempo. He was nominated twice for record producer of the year, and O’Brien and Vaughan were both nominated in their categories.
“I had acquired a house and a daughter, but I was hating the nightclub lifestyle I was still living. The record production work was not financially rewarding and the rest of the world was a long way away in these pre-Internet days.”
His soaring music was a perfect fit as the black horse galloped through the majestic back-country hills.
Advertising become a giant lure; with its deep pockets and appreciation of high production values, “it was the new rock ’n’ roll”. Jim got his first major break in 1984 when Saatchi & Saatchi approached him to do the music for the first big-budget National Bank black horse ad. His soaring music was a perfect fit as the black horse galloped through the majestic back-country hills.
Next, he and Steve Robinson formed a partnership and founded Soundtrax. Engineer Ian Morris and singer/voice-over artist/office manager Callie Blood soon joined them and Soundtrax became a go-to Wellington destination for advertisers for the next decade.
“We were instantly insanely busy. Most of the money we made we poured back into equipment with our own 16-track studio and cutting-edge synths.”
Jim and Bronwyn had another child by now, a son, and after being won over by a Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) on a flying visit to Sydney, Jim added to his “family” by buying one for $110,000 of bank-borrowed money. His modus of staying ahead of the game through this Fairlight investment went on to pay dividends as the work flooded in.
Things changed when he and Steve parted company, and the black dog kicked in again with a vengeance when Jim’s father died of asbestosis, sending his mother into a deep cycle of grief. The keelboat Jim bought was a salve for the family’s sorrow on sailing holidays and the boat was a winner in other ways, too, when Jim entered and won the Wellington Harbour championship.
By the mid-90s, most of Jim’s clients were in Auckland, so moving there was a sensible option. He also wanted to invest in digital equipment, and this he planned over a family trip to Europe. On return he bought out partners Ian Morris and Callie Blood; Bronwyn, kids and dog flew to Auckland and Jim sailed up with some friends. He leased studio space from Mandrill, headhunted engineer Luke Tomes from Airforce Studios, and Soundtrax opened mid-January 1996.
As an early exponent of the internet, Jim was attracting international work and awards such as Cannes Gold Lions and Clio Golds had started rolling in. The French song he wrote for a Robert Harris coffee ad won another Gold Clio.
“Bronwyn and I jumped on a flight to New York and accepted the award in a ceremony at the Leonard Bernstein Theatre inside the Lincoln Centre. Toots and the Maytals were the opening band and I was played onto the stage by a small orchestra playing an arrangement of my song. Crazy times!”
In 1990, with mate Steve Clansey, plus Morris and Blood, Jim had founded Tower Music stores in Wellington; the partnership sold five years on, just before the market bottomed out.
Jim focused on establishing Soundtrax in Auckland. Boh Runga joined him as producer and together they wrote the Government’s Millennium song, featuring Boh and Dave Dobbyn on vocals. After Boh returned to Stellar*, Stacey Edwards replaced her and later became a business partner. Jim scored the music for the Temuera Morrison Crooked Earth (1999) movie and, with Bruce Lynch, scored four NZ/US co-production Kid’s World movies. Hinewehi Mohi had done vocals on Crooked Earth and the two worked together for a time, employing an early use of te reo in some TV ads.
When Warner Music’s album of Jim’s ‘familiar old songs’ from TV ads, Big Songs From Small Movies (1999), achieved gold sales, there was an almost audible, collective “ohh” when people read the credits and realised they were Jim Hall originals. Around this time Jim also produced a Hayley Westenra album for friend Adam Holt, who had just become Universal’s managing director. Sadly, his achievements of 2002 were overshadowed by the death of his mother.
“My rather eccentric mum was an integral part of Soundtrax,” he says. “Although legally blind she had embraced the new technology of the Internet and I had her linked in to us via an original iMac (with the text settings on large). She had been the company book-keeper and confidant to all the staff.”
His mother’s death rocked him hard, as Jim had been particularly close to her when his father was working and before his sister was born. But creativity has always picked him up and one day a young woman entered the studio, clutching a demo of ‘My Heart Will Go On’. It was Amber Claire. Jim was won over by her tunefulness, tone and thoughtful interpretation. It led to him producing her sophomore album for Sony and whereas this sank when Sony had an administrative shake-up, it planted the seed of an ongoing musical partnership.
Jim produced the music for successful election campaigns by Helen Clark and John Key.
Jim produced three major National Bank campaigns (of 60 different tracks) with his Vivaldi-like compositions and had done music for three successful election campaigns for Helen Clark and John Key, but companies were opting increasingly for “low-budget, low-creativity ads – the industry was shrinking”.
The stress and the weight of a company on his back were telling. He needed to step back. In a move that meant he could share the load and/or work remotely, he and Stacey merged with music-licensing company Mana Music and started Franklin Road Studios with Jonathan Mihaljevich. As well, he and Bronwyn moved out of the city to more relaxed Orewa, where he had easy access for boat launching.
It was now nearly 25 years since he had played live music, so for fun he formed social bands the ConRays, with Eddie Rayner and Paul Crowther (Split Enz), Suzanne Lynch (The Chicks), and Mal McCallum; plus the Flab Four, a Christchurch-based Beatles clone band, with Jay Peters. The ConRays toured with the Hollies; the Canterbury earthquakes ended the life of the Flab Four prematurely.
The short-lived move to Orewa was reversed when Jim became musical director of X Factor NZ in 2013. It was three months of intense and satisfying work, but before he could bask in the afterglow, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After treatment he, Eddie Rayner, Pat Kuhtze and Mark Denniston formed the core of Bowie Waiting in the Sky, a 30-song tribute concert for the just-deceased David Bowie. The 2016 show featured a top selection of guest vocalists and instrumentalists, toured the country, and closed the book on the band.
Cole Porter once said his best inspiration was a telephone call from a producer and Jim has always relished the same challenge. Time and again he has delivered to ridiculous deadlines on urgent requests from agency reps, accruing multiple international awards in the process. Although he has not turned away from advertising entirely, he can now move to his own imperative:
“I have a recording deal with Universal for Random Hearts, the alter ego of myself and Amber Claire. In a glaring example of the ups and downs of the New Zealand recording industry, I have re-recorded a couple of my songs that were on Amber’s 2003 album and they have appeared in Hollywood movies, TV shows and on various streaming platforms.”
These days Jim plays a bit of golf, sings bass in the Jubilation Gospel Choir, fishes, does F1 racing online, and enjoys spending time with his four grandchildren. State of the universe willing, there is much more creative output to come. Jim is not one to sit in suspended animation. Next time you hear a classic American ballad online, in a movie, on TV, or a lovely European song you think you heard on an obscure album somewhere, think again and listen closely. It might be another Patrick James Hall classic.
Read more: Jim Hall in conversation
Read more: Songwriter’s Choice, by Jim Hall