But Merv Thomas can say that. And so much more about his crowded life …
Merv Thomas grew up in Timaru and, from age 10, in Whanganui where his cornet-playing father (“a brilliant player”) led the local brass band and trained young players. As with his father – who died just before Merv turned 21 – the young Thomas picked up tunes by ear from the radio and records “even though I never actually deliberately listened to them,” he told Chris Bourke in a 2007 interview.
“Somehow they just went in there [his memory] and it always fascinated me, so I was always keen to play any request that people came up with. To see if I could see how it went. Even though I had never played it.”
He began playing in a brass band: “Dad took us to band practice every week and that was it. But then evolution came about by an act of God.”
But he soon drifted away from banding towards local dance bands. He played trombone for popular foxtrots and waltzes, often alongside Māori musicians from Rātana Pā.
Dixieland jazz came into his orbit courtesy of a fellow he met while working as an apprentice electrician. He went to his house because he wanted to meet the man’s striking, blonde daughter.
In short order he started buying 78rpm recordings of jazz artists on the Tanza and Stebbing labels. “I don’t know why I enjoyed it, it was different to brass bands and I don’t know why I took any of the style on board, but I liked it.”
In late 1954, a local Whanganui musician Pem Sheppard (clarinet, tenor sax) moved to Auckland and called to ask if Thomas could join him there for gigs and then go to Mt Maunganui for three weeks.“Is the Pope a Catholic? That was the most exciting thing that ever happened in my life. So just before Christmas I hopped into my Model A Ford and drove up to Auckland. My first dance band gig in Auckland was at St Sep’s [Holy Sepulchre Hall in Newton] with Pem Sheppard.” Also in the band was pianist Lyall Laurent, trumpeter Dave Foreman, Bob Ofsoski on bass, and Alan Sweeney on drums.
“St Sep’s? I mean, gee whizz, this is it! You don’t go any further than this. When you get that, you’ve arrived. And after that we went down to Mt Maunganui and we played every night for three weeks – every night.”
Soon after arriving from Whanganui, Thomas was playing with the cream of Auckland musicians.
Thomas was playing with the cream of Auckland musicians and – because people went out for their entertainment in the days before television – he was appearing in front of packed houses in dancehalls and clubs. As a quick study and trombonist, he also found himself playing in radio bands, recordings with artists on Tanza.
WIth his wife Carol, Thomas moved into the legendary musicians’ flat at 57 Symonds St, in Auckland's CBD. There, he became part of a cabal of like-minded players such as Bernie Allen, Lachie Jamieson, Pem Sheppard, Loma Saunders, Tony Baker, and Bennie Gunn. He was connected, but also curious about sound and had built his own radios. Then he heard ‘Rock Around the Clock’, ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’, ‘See You Later Alligator’ and the early rock’n’roll songs which so changed popular culture.
He liked the energy, volume and the style, and at the Jive Centre from late October 1956 he and the likes of drummer Frank Gibson Sr and saxophonist Bernie Allen emulated it in their pioneering rock’n’roll dances. For Jive Centre proprietor Dave Dunningham, Thomas wired up a radio so that it could receive shortwave broadcasts from the US, and tape the latest rock’n’roll tunes.
“The thing was, there were no rock’n’roll musicians,” Thomas recalled. “The only musos who knew how to play the blues – which was basically all it was at that time – were the jazz musicians. But we didn’t play very much rock’n’roll. We might sort of sing the head of ‘Rock Around the Clock’ and play 50,000 choruses after that. The thing about the Jive Centre was that it was the most exciting place to play for a dance because of the jiving. A whole huge floor full of people jiving is the most exhilarating thing to play for.
“I mean, you could play ‘God Save the Queen’ in the right beat and the floor would be literally twirling. It was wonderful, I enjoyed the gigs immensely because of that.”
Gibson was a strong-willed bandleader who didn't take any nonsense from musicians or the audience. “Provided things were going well, he’d have a laugh,” and his powerful drum solos could split the skins, but also pad out the band’s limited repertoire of rock’n’roll. If a fight broke out on the dance floor, Gibson would dive in to stop it. “It’s startling to notice that you’re playing away and all of a sudden there are no drums – I never had that confidence, ever.”
Then came touring as far south as Invercargill and rocking it up on stage. The band, several of which would soon be in Thomas’s Dixielanders, Bernie Allen “would play the sax on his back and the bass player would be on his back with the bass on his feet and all this came from going to the [Rock Around the Clock] film the night before we went on tour.” While watching the film in the Point Chevalier cinema, Allen and Thomas transcribed the licks and lyrics, and took note of the moves. He preferred Haley's band, heavy in the bass, to Elvis Presley's.
This was before Johnny Devlin arrived on the scene; by day, Thomas was working for Les Mills as a radio technician. But in 1958 there he was, backing and recording Devlin, the country’s first rock’n’roll star.
In many ways however it was during the Dixielanders’ residency at the Crystal Palace Ballroom – which started in 1958 – that Thomas came into his own as a singer, MC, trombonist and, perhaps foremost, entertainer. For five years the Dixielanders held a residency at the venue, under the Mt Eden picture theatre. The group revived the venue, which had been moribund since Epi Shalfoon’s death five years earlier. Phil Warren’s marketing tricks also helped: floorshows, giveaways, toasted sandwiches, and advertising which emphasised the special “American” perked coffee, which was laced with alcohol.
Dancers flocked to enjoy Thomas’s band at the Crystal Palace – and Phil Warren’s “special” coffees.
Multi-instrumentalist Clive Laurent led the comedy, in which skits involved the band dressing up, newly engaged couples were serenaded by a gypsy violinist (Ofsoski), and Stan Freberg parodies were popular. Australian Music Maker Auckland columnist Jim Warren was impressed by Thomas: “With his big smile, his obvious pleasure in performing, and his shining trombone, he made me forget all the things I’ve said about rock’n’roll.”
At the 1958 Auckland Musicians’ Ball, the Australian Music Maker noted the way Thomas provided all the bands with a sound system, then “led his own band through their hilarious act. What these boys do to the pops is nobody’s business. There were lots of laughs in this and it was easy to see why the crowds flock to the Crystal Palace.”
Dropping the “dixie” label, the band evolved into the Prophets, and recruited singer Marlene Tong for a cabaret-jazz act in which Thomas and Tong emulated Louis Prima and Keely Smith. “Marlene was great at that, she really was,” Thomas recalled. The Australian Music Maker reported in 1962, “From an outfit which played lots of dixie and head arrangements in the Louis Prima fashion, they became a reading band with scores written by Bernie Allen, and with the replacing of their guitarist by another reed man they developed a rich full sound. The polish of the group was remarkable considering they played together only on Saturday nights.”
Then came all the other gigs: playing serious jazz with Crombie Murdoch and at the Montmartre with the likes of Tong, Mike Walker, and Tony Hopkins; residencies at Trillo’s restaurant, the Peter Pan and Harro’s Hofbrauhaus; playing after hours at the Polynesian Club on Pitt Street; touring in the bands backing the Platters and Shirley Bassey, as well as a roll call of jazz and pop artists such as Cilla Black, Renee Geyer and many others.
From the 1950s to 70s Thomas also regularly played live radio concerts from the 1ZB Radio Theatre (in the early 1980s he reunited with many of the musicians in the band for Billy T James’s Radio Times television series. Lots of hard work – he had a day job until the mid-60s, as a radio technician and an early TV cameraman – but lots of fun.
He told Chris Bourke of a session with the Crombie Murdoch band at the Shortland Street radio studios which got well out of hand. “It all fell apart when the water pistols came. You see, trombone players need to keep their slides nicely lubricated and we use water. We put a little bit of Ponds cream on the bottom then you just spray with water and the water goes into little globules.
“The odd time, through accident, you might be spraying your trombone and it might get onto somebody. This seemed to degenerate where other guys started buying water pistols and things like that.
“I can remember clearly one night it was just pandemonium, people were throwing water and [saxophonist] Bart Stokes came in and he had a bloody fire extinguisher in his trousers. The water pistols started and Bart just pulls this thing out … Bart got fired, I got fired!”
But it was just a small amusement in a long performing career which took him through opening for the Howard Morrison Quartet, playing in touring bands for Eartha Kitt, Nancy Sinatra, Gene (‘Tower of Strength’) McDaniels and others – even the puppet Basil Brush.
Thomas was in the studio band for the Kevan Moore television pop series C’mon, played in the Auckland Neophonic Orchestra led by Russ Garcia with arrangements by Bernie Allen, became a regular MC and player at Pat Shaw’s Cotton Club nights, spent more than a decade working with young players in the Queen City Big Band, and – in the 1990s – established the 1932 Jazz Orchestra playing tunes from the 20s to the 40s …
Thomas seemed to be able to do it all, was a natural sight reader of “flies on paper” (scores) and he was a pragmatist. He knew it was about entertainment and where he fitted in the scheme of things. He quit his day job as a cameraman in the mid-60s and became that rarity, a fulltime freelance trombonist. By this time he and Carol had five children.
“I did evolve, I was certainly playing Dixieland when it came up, then in radio bands, in commercials, rock’n’roll ... and I was getting to some more modern jazz things as well and all that kind of thing.
“There was one thing that took me a while to realise. I was a trombone player. That’s not a piano player, it’s not a bass player and it’s not a drummer. They’re the first ones hired.
“The next hired is a saxophone player and if they’re lucky to have any more [money] the next one’s a trumpet player. You’re a trombone player, you’re at the bottom of the heap hire-wise in a group so you have to adapt.
Trombone players are the last to be hired for gigs, “so you have to adapt.”
“And that’s one of the things that I actually enjoyed about being part of the music scene. I played everything. I played in the Symphonia, I played in some brass bands. If I got called for a gig, I did it. And, despite the fact that I have no theoretical training, I did it all and I knew what was expected. And I knew how you should achieve it.”
And that is why he never stopped being on call, right up until he decided to not to be available any more.
“I actually retired 51 years to the day after I started on the Wednesday before Christmas 1954. And I finished the Wednesday before Christmas 2006.”
Thomas laughs that none of his children were musical but some of the many grandchildren are.
A remarkable life, by any measure. And a lot of fun along the way. It kept him young too. He played at his 87th birthday bash in 2018 presented by the Auckland Jazz and Blues Club alongside fellow travellers such as Mike Walker and Bruce King plus guests Larry Morris, Roger Manins, Suzanne Lynch and others.
In 2007, at 76, Merv Thomas told Bourke the secret to his longevity and alertness at an age when his peers had either passed on or were slowing down.
“I put that down to music, absolutely. Particularly jazz,” he said. “Genes have some part of it, but my mental attitude I put right down to jazz. Because when you are playing jazz your mind is absolutely 110 percent focused, otherwise you’re playing the wrong changes.
“And you know, 50 years of that it’s got a way of … I don’t even see myself or think of myself as an old person. I do when I get to stand up and walk and I’m reminded. But as far as life – you know, doing things and thinking things and experimenting – it’s just the same as if I was 30 or 40.
“I put that down to the mental exercise of jazz and music.”
Graham Reid is indebted to the research by Chris Bourke and Dennis Huggard in the preparation of this article.