The popular band played Saturday nights in the early 1960s to 700 to 800 young people, who came from far and wide to dance and socialise at by far the most popular dance and function venue in the mid North Island.
Johnny and The Contacts were formed in 1960 to be one of the resident bands when the Top Hat ballroom, managed by Bernie Meredith, opened in Napier, Hawke’s Bay. The original lineup was John “Mac” Walker (lead guitar), Melvin Gardener (rhythm guitar, vocals), Noel Morley (baritone, tenor and soprano saxophone), Paul Gitmans (tenor saxophone), Mike Angland (bass), and Johnny Dick (drums). Mac Walker and Noel Morley both worked at Sutcliffe’s Music Store in Hastings at the time.
John Walker had been with Teddy and the Bears, and Johnny Dick came from The Shadows, later to become The Rockets. Paul Gitmans and Mike Angland both had been members of Des and the Echoes, Noel Morley had been with the Crescendos, and Melvin Gardener was in a local skiffle group.
The two saxophones gave the group its popular big band sound. Paul Gitmans came on board shortly after the core group first formed to add an extra dimension. Both had Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophones, probably the best sax ever; these were used to good effect on the likes of ‘Night Train’ and ‘Do The Blue Beat’. Noel also played a soprano Beuscher True Tone. He then obtained an old Conn baritone sax from his ex-tutor, who was returning to Scotland. He had trouble getting the sound he wanted, until he imported from the US, through Sutcliffe’s, two top mouthpieces: a Berglarsen and a Dukhoff. These got the Conn performing well, especially on group’s version of ‘In The Mood’, based on the version by Ernie Fields.
This original group made one studio recording, ‘Night Train’ backed with ‘Intrigue’. It would seem the idea was to offer it to a record company for release or offered to broadcasting.
They were a dance band, influenced by the current music and harmonies of the day. Their repertoire aimed at keeping up with the current hits, plus a strong understanding of dance tempos – foxtrot, Latin American beats, rock’n’roll, jive, and so on. They were also influenced by songs and numbers that would do full justice to having two saxophones.
Initial influences were Billy Vaughan, Acker Bilk, The Shadows and instrumental versions of popular songs of the late 1950s and early ’60s. No one had songwriting skills, or time to develop them, as they all had full-time jobs.
Around 1963 the contacts’ influences were taking in the pop revolution.
The first changes to the band came in 1963 with the departure of Melvin Gardener and Johnny Dick. They were replaced by John Lindsay and Craig Alexander, who came across from The Rockets. Also around this time, their influences were taking in the pop revolution, following the singing trend of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Searchers, The Hollies, The Animals, Manfred Mann, etc. Three or four of the group were quite strong vocalists and had no trouble finding the voice or harmonies to suit the artist or group they were covering.
Craig Alexander recalls: “We had to learn three new tunes (supplied by Bernie Meredith) from the Top 10 every week. We had a turntable and a 45rpm record and it was a case of lifting and dropping the needle until everyone got their part. Bloody hard work but we did it!”
Later Garry Martin taped endless radio shows of new releases. Often the beginnings and ending were spoken over by the DJs and the group had to figure out what was obscured. Also, in time, DJ Keith Richardson supplied tapes of the latest hit tunes he predicted would make it big. Because the band kept up to date with the latest hits, their popularity spread throughout the bay.
Recent comments on Facebook have recalled the popularity of the Contacts (I have included Christian names only). Rose: “Those were the days – fab band.” Julie: “Great band, great memories.” Jackie: “They were great.” Lynda: “There’s a blast from the past. Oh what memories. They were such a great band.” Lorraine: “Loved the band and dancing at the Top Hat. Great days.” Trish: “It’s funny when you hear certain songs it brings back memories of the Top Hat eg: ‘Sloop John B’, ‘Needles and Pins’, ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ – good old songs.” Jan: “Golly the fun we had at the Top Hat – Doug and I and friends. Great memories! Thanks to these guys giving us wonderful music to jive to! I remember them so well.” Marie: “Yes doing rock’n’roll at the Top Hat with Johnny and The Contacts was a real treat.”
Because of the residency at the Top Hat, Johnny and The Contacts backed many of the popular singing acts of the time, including Ray Columbus, Allison Durbin, Eliza Keil, Tommy Adderley, The Chicks, Ray Woolf, Dinah Lee, Jimmie Sloggett, Yolande Gibson, Toni Williams, Shane, Max Merritt, Larry Morris, Mr Lee Grant, Frankie Rowles, and more.
Special mention should be made of Peter Posa, one of the artists backed in 1964. Peter’s own rhythm guitarist couldn’t make the trip for the weekend so none of his band came down. John Lindsay, Mike Angland and Craig Alexander did the business and had three great nights. Peter was very impressed and wanted the three Contacts members to be one of his backing bands. John recalls that he didn’t see himself playing ‘White Rabbit’ five nights a week!
Luckily some live broadcasts have survived the passage of time.
Although Johnny and The Contacts only made one potential commercial record – ‘Night Train’ backed with ‘Intrigue’, mentioned earlier – they did do some broadcasts, both studio and “live”. Luckily these have survived the passage of time. In mid-1964 they broadcast a 30-minute segment from the Top Hat on 2ZC’s Top 40 Show. Though the group were including vocals in their performances at this stage, just before they were due to go on air the PA system failed and they had to fall back on their vast repertoire of instrumentals. Titles from this broadcast include ‘The Rise and Fall of Flingle Bunt’, ‘Do the Blue Beat’, ‘Till There Was You’, ‘In The Mood’ and ‘La Bamba’.
Later in the year, Gary Bothwell replaced Craig Alexander on drums and the group went into the studio to record four tracks for a short 2ZC series called All Our Own, featuring Hawke’s Bay groups and sponsored by Sutcliffe’s Music Store. The tracks were ‘I Only Want To Be With You’, ‘Flamenco Love’, ‘Rhythm of the Rain’, and their first recorded vocal, ‘Don’t Throw Your Love Away’, with John Walker taking the lead and John Lindsay singing harmony.
About this time, 2ZC disc jockey Keith Richardson, always keen to promote Hawke’s Bay musicians, sent some recordings of the group to John McCready at Philips Records in Wellington. It is not clear which tracks were included, but it may have been the instrumentals from the All Our Own sessions, as they were studio recordings. John McCready replied on 3 September 1964 thanking Keith for the tape “containing the three numbers by Johnny and The Contacts, it is a most interesting tape. As you say, the group are indeed good musicians and have an excellent sound, they are slightly reminiscent of The Shadows in some places.” McCready then went on to say that he had a full slate and that for the next 12 months they were not planning to sign on any further local artists.
Also in 1964, Bernie Meredith wanted an even stronger vocal sound from Johnny and The Contacts so Garry Martin, who had been singing with the Ken Charles Combo, was added to the group. Mike Angland left the group for about a year and a half to join Max Merritt and the Meteors. He was replaced by Max Hyde.
John Lindsay recalls: “It seemed I had only been in the band for not much more than 18 months or so, when lots of changes, upheavals if you like, occurred. Craig left, was replaced with Gary Bothwell, Mike also left, and was replaced with Max Hyde. Our vocal strength lifted considerably with Max in the band.
“Mac (Johnny) the leader of the band decided we needed to hit the ‘Big Time’. He had been communicating with the owners of the popular Auckland night club, The Top 20, re auditioning for permanent work at the club. Max Merritt and the Meteors had the residency but were leaving for Australia. The catch was that they only wanted four of us, Mac, John, Max and Gary, the band would have to split, and the ‘Fab Four’ would be leaving the Top Hat and Hawke’s Bay. A special promo photo was taken. To cut a long story short, we performed on the Friday and Saturday night at the Top 20, [and] we were offered the job. Two wanted to do it, two didn’t. We returned to Hawke’s Bay and carried on at the Hat.”
On Thursday, 29 October 1964, Top Hat Entertainments presented The Dinah Lee Show at the Napier Municipal Theatre. Johnny and The Contacts led both halves of the show and accompanied all the solo guest artists, including Dinah herself. I was there that night and particularly remembers the opening of the second half and the enthusiasm of the full house not wanting The Contacts to leave the stage, they were enjoying their music so much. Dinah Lee also was the featured artist at the regular Top Hat dance on the Saturday.
During holiday periods the Top Hat ran dances from midnight to 4am: a real beach-party scene.
As well as playing at the Top Hat on a Saturday night, the band played every Friday night at the Top Hat during the ball season (autumn into winter), and during holiday periods the Top Hat ran dances from midnight to 4am: a real beach-party scene, and well attended. Away from the Top Hat, the band played at various youth clubs from Hawke’s Bay to Wellington. The biggest and best was their regular youth club venue, the Centennial Hall at McLean Park, Napier. These gigs attracted over a thousand young people every Sunday afternoon, 2pm to 6pm. Friday nights during the summer they played at two Hastings venues, the Premiere Hall and the Orphans club, running these dances themselves.
About six weekends per year they travelled away from Hawke’s Bay, playing at the Downtown Club in Wellington, the Top 20 in Auckland and the Chateau at National Park. They treated these trips away as holidays, as their residency could get into a bit of a rut at times. Their final trip to the Downtown Club was for a couple of weekends to cover until the newly formed Quincy Conserve could build a sufficient repertoire to take up their own residency there.
When Max Hyde left, Mike Angland rejoined. Then in 1966, John (Mac) Walker left the group to further his music career at the famous Butlins holiday camps in the UK. He was replaced on lead guitar by Kepa Toa. Derek Fitzgerald on keyboards also replaced Paul Gitmans on Sax. At this time the name of the band was shortened to just “The Contacts”, and John Lindsay became the de facto leader. John Olsen, bass player for another Hawke’s Bay group, The Rage, regards Lindsay as “the best rhythm guitarist to come out of the Bay”.
In 1967 another 2ZC series, Switched On Scene, also sponsored by Sutcliffe’s, was produced. This time The Contacts recorded eight tracks, enough for two programmes. This set included ‘Treat Her Right’, ‘Ten Guitars’, ‘Spicks and Specks’, ‘I Put a Spell On You’, and ‘Little Bit Me Little Bit You’.
One final broadcast from the Top Hat was in mid-1967 to mark Keith Richardson’s transfer from 2ZC to 2ZB in Wellington, to take over the nationwide Top Twenty show from Peter Sinclair. This time the PA worked and The Contacts sang current chart-topping songs for The Fabulous Fifty, including ‘Tabatha Twitchet’, ‘When I Was Young’, ‘The Boat That I Row’, ‘Western Union’, ‘Him or Me What’s It Gonna Be’, and ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’. (Audio of 18 songs from this period can be heard on YouTube and Spotify.)
By the end of 1967 times were changing. The pub scene was developing and other attractions were taking the crowds away from the Top Hat. Several members of The Contacts were looking for a change of direction. Indeed, the Top Hat itself underwent a re-branding to refresh its image, relaunching in March 1968 with a nautical theme as the MV Top Hat.
A new band, The Matloes, was formed for the MV Top Hat from members of The Contacts and The Prima Brass, including Noel Morley (saxophone), Mike Angland (bass guitar and leader) and Gary Bothwell (drums) from The Contacts. Others were Grant Galgey (organ, piano, vocals), Gordon Wong (guitar), John Barnes (trumpet), John Williams (trumpet) and John Meehan (trombone).
John Lindsay and Craig Alexander joined a band that had been playing as the After Set, which became The Squires with the addition of the new members. This band stayed together for about five years.
Bernie Meredith’s 90th birthday took place on 24 January 2018. Four members of The Contacts who have kept in touch, Craig Alexander, Mike Angland, Noel Morley and John Lindsay, called on the 90 year old to help him celebrate the special day. Alexander said of the visit, “He was still in great nick and grumpy as he always was. He’s a great guy who spent a lot of money keeping teenagers out of trouble with the Top Hat Ballroom. Bernie is a top man in Hawke’s Bay history but will not be officially recognised.” See the photo taken on the day in the gallery below.
There were 13 members of The Contacts during their existence. At time of writing, four have passed away. Of the nine surviving, the four who visited Bernie Meredith on his 90th birthday reside in Hawke’s Bay, two in Auckland, one way north of Auckland, one in Australia, one unknown but could also be in Australia. RIP to the four musicians who were part of this great group: John (Mac) Walker, Johnny Dick, Melvin Gardener and Gary Bothwell.
Bernie Meredith died on 20 March 2020, aged 92.
Thanks to John Lindsay, Craig Alexander, Noel Morley, Keith Richardson estate.
Read more: Lee Pritchard on The Top Hat
John "Mac" Walker - guitar
Melvin Gardener - guitar, vocals
Noel Morley - saxophone
Paul Gitmans - saxophone
Mike Angland - bass
Johnny Dick - drums
John Lindsay - guitar, vocals
Craig Alexander - drums
Gary Bothwell - drums
Garry Martin - vocals
Max Hyde - bass
Kepa Toa - guitar
Derek Fitzgerald - keyboards