Tuhirangi Louis Timoti (Ngāti Whātua/Ngāpuhi) was born on 9 January 1947 and raised at Kakanui, near Helensville. The family shifted to Manurewa in 1962 and, shortly after, Timoti began receiving guitar lessons twice a week from Johnny Bradfield in Blockhouse Bay. “Johnny was a lovely man with a lovely whānau,” he remembers. “I’d spend all day there, getting fed and everything.”
His first full-time band came in 1965 and he’s been a professional musician ever since. “I can’t remember the band’s name but it was at the Crystal Palace in Mt Eden. I worked for Phil Warren, played at his clubs around town, the Crystal Palace, the Orange Ballroom, always working with older musicians, who taught me how to play and read. Bernie Allen, Andy Brown, Tony Baker, those people were my mentors. In those early years I was just the young wanker in the band, go get the smokes, but it was very exciting and I was just happy to be paid to play.”
One musician in particular appreciated Timoti’s budding talent, bandleader Bernie Allen, who he remembers as “a really nice man, I owe him a lot and he was good to work for.” Allen was to play a large role in Timoti’s career. Another early influence was Howard Morrison. “Howard taught me about show business. Crisp white shirts with cufflinks, always cleanly shaved. Don’t come to the house bar dressed like that! Where are you guys working next week? I learned real quick at 18.”
Allen encouraged Timoti to join the New Zealand Musicians’ Union, considered old hat and unnecessary by a growing number of pop and rock musicians. In Timoti’s case, it was a great career move. “When a big international act came to New Zealand they would have to use local musicians and the promoters would go to the musicians’ union …”
For Tuhi Timoti, joining the NZ Musicians’ Union was a great career move.
In the years to follow Timoti performed with Cilla Black, Bo Diddley, Bob Hope, Dolly Parton and many others. John Rowles and Prince Tui Teka are just two New Zealand singers he toured with, and Joe Brown’s Miss New Zealand Show became an annual gig.
In February 1970 Phil Warren was commissioned to showcase New Zealand talent to Prince Charles and Princess Anne at a concert at Western Springs, Auckland. Artists at Super Pop ’70 included The Chicks, Larry Morris, Bunny Walters and Corben Simpson; Tuhi Timoti was musical director.
In 1972 he was a member of the backing band for Harry M. Miller’s production of Hair, and other stage musicals followed. He replaced Billy Peters in The Impressions, resident at the North Shore’s Thunderbird Hotel, and in 1973 he formed Cricklewood with bassist Basil Peterken and drummer Dean Ruscoe, primarily as a nightclub band but the trio was soon securing other engagements as guns-for-hire. Timoti recalls, “I was starting to pick up more work on television, plus one-off concerts and tours so I could now provide a guitarist with his own rhythm section. It worked out very well for all of us.”
One such engagement was a 1974 performance with the Royal New Zealand Navy Band at Waitangi in the presence of Queen Elizabeth. Cricklewood also provided the nucleus of the resident band on Free Ride, New Zealand’s first pop music show to be broadcast in colour. Timoti says, “the way show biz worked back then was that if you were seen on television, you’d get more work. Gee, you have to be good to be on TV!”
In 1975 Timoti toured with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ron Goodwin. “Man, that was an eye-opener for me,” he remembers. “Better conditions than for the musos on the street, pay scales, travel allowances and per diems, I’d never thought of that shit. Even flunkies to carry your equipment. And I was only playing for 10 minutes a night! In Cricklewood I was hauling PAs up and down stairs and playing for six or eight hours!”
There were further performances with the NZSO and also the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra and the Auckland Symphonia, sharing the stage with Kiri Te Kanawa and Malvina Major. He cites a recital of Mozart’s Requiem as his most difficult assignment.
Meanwhile, work on weekly television series just kept coming: The Ray Woolf Show, Hudson & Halls, Saunders & Sinclair, Town Cryer, The Billy T. James Show, the Starstruck talent show – and one-off specials featuring Howard Morrison, Prince Tui Teka, and Ricky May. He played on the soundtracks for Hunter’s Gold, Heroes, The Leading Edge and Came A Hot Friday. That was Tuhi Timoti strumming guitar on TV2’s Goodnight Kiwi sign-off.
That is Tuhi strumming guitar on TV2’s ‘Goodnight Kiwi’ theme.
Much of Timoti’s television work came through Bernie Allen, who was highly placed in the TVNZ music hierarchy. Timoti’s wife Sarah suggests, “I think that Bernie was grooming Tuhi to be the head of a Māori music department but, you know Tuhi, he couldn’t leave live music for an office gig.”
Cricklewood had separated by 1980, followed by the Tuhi-Tama Band, pairing Timoti with another guitar ace, Tama Renata, plus various others, including vocalists Josie Rika and Erana Clark. “Johnny Tabla employed us,” he remembers. “He gave us money to buy stage clothes, suits and dresses, even shoes, well shoes for Tama anyway.” Later in the 1980s there was a stint with The Larry Morris Band at The Foundry before Billy T James beckoned.
Tuhi Timoti was Billy T James’s musical director for four years and was the mentor and main tutor at Billy’s Dream Factory talent school. “The Dream Factory only lasted a year or so but some incredible talent came through there,” he remembers. “The students were all ears and hungry and couldn’t be contained in a school-type environment so we formed a working band to back Billy and called it Hawaiki. There was Taisha Tari, Leon Wharekura, Hal Tupaea, Jay Collins, David Pritchard-Blunt – they have all gone on to successful careers. David Pritchard-Blunt was MD for the Australian Idol series.”
In 1988 Billy T James and Hawaiki had a stint at the New Zealand stand at World Expo 88 in Brisbane, with Hawaiki making a big enough impression to secure a week at the Twin Towns resort in Tweed Heads, minus Billy T who had obligations in New Zealand. The week turned into a month, during which time Billy T had a heart attack, placing everything on hold. Things turned out just fine for Timoti when another band performing at Twin Towns recruited him and then he was offered a job as musical director of a family variety show billed as Flavours of Polynesia, staged at Hamilton Island on the Great Barrier Reef.
“Hamilton Island is just paradise,” Timoti says, “and I enjoyed the time there. It was well-paid, a good lifestyle, but the kids were growing and, well, we were using backing tracks and there’s no human interaction: song starts here, ends there, night after night, so after two years I’d had enough.”
Back on the mainland, Timoti spent 18 months with a group called Gunnadoo. “They were an Australiana band, old school, old English songs from before the war, some country & western. There was an electric violinist and a bass player who was the best didgeridoo player I’ve ever heard, better than any Aboriginal player. I was the only brown face. My Māori mates were going Eh??? We did a week at Tamworth during the festival, that was something.”
Settling on the Gold Coast, the master musician had no problems securing work, touring the eastern coast with acts including John Rowles, Tania Rowles, and The Drifters. He had a residency for a year at the Gold Coast Casino. “I had a bit of a street-level profile,” he says, “enough to get me by. I’ve always been in work and I did a bit of teaching at a couple of music schools but that’s not really me – I learned my craft on the street.”
Tuhi Timoti: “I learned my craft on the street.”
In 2016, Timoti was the musical director and guitarist for the Koi Boys, the trio of expatriate New Zealanders on the Gold Coast, and was responsible for the musical arrangements on their debut album, Meant To Be. “I wasn’t the producer,” he stresses, “that was Robert Conroy but I was, I suppose, the nuts and bolts man.”
The nuts and bolts man: Tuhi Timoti is that and much much more. Laid back and humble, his career spans over half a century, playing with some of New Zealand’s finest musicians, and despite unanimous acclaim from his peers, he remains one of our genuine unsung heroes.