The “Maj” (or Madge) was the Majestic Cabaret in downtown Wellington, and the merry peddler was the band’s classically trained, hard-case pianist, Alan Wellbrook. The kid in question was Don Richardson, a prodigious Wellington-born musical talent who started playing reeds professionally while still at Rongotai College. This was VJ Day, the war was over, and the whole town was partying. Not surprising that everyone was excitable and a little under the weather.
Richardson might have been young that night, but he was in familiar territory on the bandstand. Cliff Jones had heard him play at the Empress Ballroom on Willis Street, his first professional gig at 15, and hired him to play with the Cliff Jones band four nights a week at the Majestic, the toney venue where Wellingtonians cut loose on the dancefloor and enjoyed balls in the high season. It would eventually become Richardson’s home base and he, its longtime bandleader. His versatility and confidence in moving with the times musically led to him becoming a major figure on the capital’s music scene and prime promoter of rock ’n’ roll.
Donald George Evan (Don) Richardson (1928-2008) – arranger, saxophonist and bandleader – was in high demand from his mid-teens, playing in key jazz bands, on recordings for various labels and live radio broadcasts, and from 17 toured Australia and Zealand with the Kiwi Concert Party for eight years after the war.
In the mid-1950s, he and accomplished drummer friend Vern Clare launched their Festival of Jazz variety concert series with top jazz vocalists, big bands, dixieland jazz, smooth ballroom and, to keep march with the times, rock ’n’ roll. The pair introduced “the Māori Cowboy” Johnny Cooper and “the New Zealand Elvis” Johnny Devlin to big-city audiences, and hosted a dozen or more winner-takes-all dance marathons.
Multi-skilled and adaptable, the genre-gliding Richardson went on to play and arrange music for TV music shows, backing singers in the studio, scoring hit songs for top singers of the day from Shane, Mr Lee Grant and Allison Durbin to The Chicks and Kiri Te Kanawa, and winning many industry awards. For many years he was prominent fronting his own orchestra at Wellington’s Majestic Cabaret where a singer called Marise, later his second wife, sang with the band.
Apart from his native ability on many instruments, swift arrangements were Don Richardson’s forte. He was accustomed to musical notation from childhood after being given a 24-bass piano accordion when he was 10 and through that learned chord structure, theory, and how to think in various keys. A couple of years on he acquired a sax and a clarinet, and began his professional career at the Empress.
“In the war years, when I was 15-16, because most of the musicians were overseas I probably got far more gigs than I would have under normal circumstances,” he told Chris Bourke in an interview in 2007, the year before he died. “I ended up being a night addict of comparatively young age.”
AT 15 He started playing in top Bands, becoming “a night addict of comparatively young age.”
He left school as soon as he turned 16, armed with tunes he learnt after hearing them on Arthur Pearce’s Friday night jazz radio show on 2YA, or from the latest records he’d bought for two and tenpence. Transcribing all the lead lines and so on to learn each piece was, by then, second nature to him.
The swinging jazz orchestras, as seen in Hollywood movies from the 1920s on, reached another level of popularity during the war and when bandleader and clarinettist Artie Shaw took time out from the Pacific war zone in 1943 to perform in New Zealand under the moniker of Navy Band #501. Local musicians, none more keen that Richardson, caught wind of this unique event. Shaw had hand picked his band from servicemen musos at the top of their game who had played in civvy street with Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. It was not to be missed.
“When we found out he was coming,” Richardson said, “we immediately put the feel out for tickets, but were told that the only people who would be admitted would be the American armed services and their partners. I went there and sort of got in everyone’s way until somebody said, ‘What do you actually want?’ I said, ‘I wanna get in there.’ One guy said, ‘Give me 10 minutes. If I can’t find some nice young lady who wants to come with me, you’re it.’ So I waited, we went in and I loved it! That’s hairs on the back of the neck stuff.”
At the end of the war, when Richardson was still only 17, Terry Vaughan, the Kiwi Concert Party’s musical director and London Royal Academy-trained pianist, sought him out to join the Kiwis. Richardson spent the next eight years on the road with them in Australia and New Zealand, becoming official copyist and deputy conductor, and growing up fast as he honed his chops and learnt the ropes of the touring muso.
Despite the opinion of some naysayers, who thought the Kiwis might tank post-war, they had a sell-out eight-week opening season in Brisbane, toured distant reaches of Queensland by sleeper train to full houses, ran for two years at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre, and played Sydney for 13 months – with dates back in New Zealand between more sell-out shows on the Australian circuit.
“Altogether it was eight years, eight shows a week. It was wonderful – eight two-and-a-half-hour shows, 20 hours a week. We all got down to scratch handicaps at golf, playing tennis madly and going to gymnasiums – fit as buck rats.”
He and three of the others in the band studied at the Melbourne Conservatorium on the side. “I learned a lot of rules I hadn’t known. I found out about consecutive fifths, the leading tone always rising, and never double the thirds, but I’d automatically found it out beforehand, so it wasn’t really new.”
In Australia he met and married his first wife, Cath, and they later had a son and a daughter.
Richardson’s experience in the Kiwi Concert Party show was invaluable and long lasting.
The experience he gained as an integral part of the slick Kiwi Concert Party show – seeing the operation from the inside – was invaluable and long lasting. On his return home he and Vern Clare formed music-promotions company, Modern Enterprises, and launched their popular Festival of Jazz concerts. The first of these, in the Wellington Town Hall, featured Tony Noorts and Orchestra, Bob Barcham, Bill Kyle and John Williams’ Reeds and Rhythms.
By the second festival concert, with its Glenn Miller focus, Richardson’s band of four trumpets, three trombones, five saxophones, piano, bass, and drums were uniformed in the Ted Heath manner in pale-blue sweaters and bow ties. A highlight was Clare starring in a battle of the drums on Louis Bellson’s ‘Skin Deep’ with four other drummers. A NZ Listener review of the third festival noted great excitement at the appearance of the big band, girls jitterbugging upstairs, a dixieland bracket that had the joint jumping, and the spotlight on Vern Clare’s drumming and compere Stan Wineera’s humour.
In April 1956 the Don Richardson Band played at the Timaru Carnival at Caroline Bay: 14 nights to 1600 each night. The band featured Bob Barcham, Johnny Williams, Mike Gibbs, Dorsey Cameron, Laurie Lewis, and Vern Clare with compere Stan Wineera and vocalists Ivy Rodan, a fine singer who had singing lessons in Auckland and had won an aria competition, and Johnny Richards.
Any dancehall band worth its salt was required to play everything and anything going, from trad jazz, swing, bebop and schmaltzy sentimental tunes, right through to the knees-up Gay Gordons at the raucous end of the night. Richardson was out front, orchestrating it all, playing the sax or clarinet and later adding vibraphone to suit the smooth sound for ballroom dancing. A demon copyist, it is said Richardson sometimes wrote up to 400 pages of manuscript for around 20 big-band numbers in a concert.
The jazz festivals evolved into full-on variety shows and things had heated up by 1957 as rock ’n’ roll hit the airwaves. Wild swing dancing and jitterbugging had dancehalls jumping as excited teenagers began to dominate audiences. Modern Enterprises launched rock ’n’ roll jamborees with headliners Johnny Cooper (who recorded ‘Rock Around the Clock’, the country’s first rock ’n’ roll record) and Johnny Devlin. Early in 1957 Australian compere and dance exhibitionist Milton Mitchell egged on competitors in an attempted world record non-stop dance competition. Mitchell had set the standard at 24 hours in Brisbane.
Rock’n’roll: “It’ll be a long time before we find another musical gimmick to outlast this one.”
While Richardson was happy to move with the times, some of his contemporaries were not. Rock ’n’ roll was almost the last straw. “It’ll be a long time before we find another musical gimmick to outlast this one … personally, I could stand a change, but I’m not as biased as one of my associates who remarked, ‘Every time I hear the stuff I feel like washing my radio out with a good old Cole Porter melody’.”
These were Richardson’s busiest years. Post-war, radio bands proliferated. Richardson continued writing arrangements, performing, teaching, and bandleading on stage, on air and on record. He had returned to the Majestic Cabaret now and would remain there until the 1970s. Featured singers included a young Malcolm McNeill and the Everly Brothers-style duo, Bill and Boyd, for whom Richardson arranged and produced records in the early 1960s. The regular Majestic vocalist, Marise McDonald, would become Richardson’s second wife in 1968 and provide him with another daughter and son.
He and Vern Clare dissolved Modern Enterprises when Clare bought the Majestic, and Richardson formed another partnership with pianist Dave Fraser (later British singer Roger Whittaker’s musical director). They became Fraser and Richardson Talent, aka FART, an entertainment agency working go-between for musicians and venues, but he soon grew to dislike his involvement.
“The agency work got out of control with so many pubs hiring just single guitars and so on, and I was writing cheques flat out. Dave didn’t touch anything to do with money. That’s what made me think, ‘I've gotta get out of this. This is not music, it’s bloody clerical work.”
Nevertheless, his workload rolled on. By the late 60s Richardson was doing television work and arranging songs for local pop artists, such as Shane’s 1969 hit, ‘St Paul’. He and pianist Bob Barcham were on call as studio session men and along with Garth Young and Brian Hands, they were also doing television work for the new music and talent shows. Richardson was now HMV’s chief arranger, but when the Rowling government introduced a 40 per cent sales tax on gramophone records work dried up for many in the entertainment industry.
Disenchantment must have set in at this point for Richardson, who had been totally immersed in music from childhood. He stepped away from performance work and took up an engineering administration role with the city council, measuring details of the city’s water-reticulation scheme. While he remained in this job until he retired, he had not forsaken all music. He was recording until the 1990s for Radio New Zealand with various of his own ensembles, many featuring top orchestral players and often Marise on vocals.
Although Richardson and Marise divorced in 2002, their friendship remained and they lived next door to one another. She had organised a surprise 80th birthday party for him in 2008, but he died suddenly the night before after taking ill at dinner. It was a sad and sudden end to the life of someone who was known for his outstanding musical abilities, flair, and colourful character.
“Richardson was loud and boisterous, with a vocabulary that would make a cattle drover wince,” wrote Karl du Fresne in a Dominion-Post obituary. “He demanded the best of his musicians and could be irascible. But he had a hearty sense of humour and commanded great loyalty and affection from friends and musical associates.”
Read: Noisy Flows the Don – Don Richardson in conversation, 2007
Read: Wellington catches rock’n’roll fever