Why? Possibly because they were mostly an Auckland phenomenon, or that cover versions dominated their set lists, or just that New Zealand’s rock history needed an iconoclastic lone ranger like Devlin to be its first star.
But the Keil Isles were local pioneers, just like the R&B groups in the USA who started rockin’ and rollin’ back in the late 1940s, well before Elvis. And while their legacy on record is dominated by those cover versions – even their biggest hit ‘The Twist’, which outsold Chubby Checker’s disc in New Zealand – there is no doubt that they were a phenomenon.
In October 1962 promoter Phil Warren placed an advertisement in the Auckland Star announcing that he had signed the Keil Isles to an exclusive contract; somehow word got out that the contract was worth £10,000 for 12 months’ work. He quickly advertised their availability. Every weekday, the band would appear at the Bali Hai club on Chancery Street at lunchtimes, plus Friday nights. Each Tuesday and Wednesday night, they played the Montmartre on Lorne Street. And on Saturday nights, they packed crowds into the sweaty Crystal Palace Ballroom on Mt Eden Road.
Those were just the Keil Isles’ residencies for Warren: On Labour Weekend at the Oriental Ballroom on Symonds Street they played a Sunday show starting at midnight, and the following day a show at 8pm.
The Keil Isles were hard workers, rewarded with crowds who kept coming back to their slickly rehearsed, energetic shows where they played the latest rock and roll songs just days after their release overseas.
The band’s origins date to 1951 when Olaf Keil arrived in New Zealand from Samoa. He was then about 18, and during his childhood had made ukuleles out of coconut shells, and enjoyed woodworking and electronics. In Auckland, he joined his uncle’s 14-piece band to play guitar. When rock and roll first reached New Zealand, Olaf was approached by his cousin Freddie to accompany him singing a few songs. By 1956, the Keil Isles had formed, with the addition of Olaf’s brothers – Herma on guitar, Klaus on drums and Rudolph on bass – and began playing at functions for the Mormon Church. Apparently, Mormon contacts in the USA enabled the band to import the latest instruments, and smart cowboy-style stage outfits.
Their first regular booking was at the Orange Ballroom in 1958, and the next year they added a weekly gig at the Jive Centre on Hobson Street when they replaced the Bob Paris Combo. By this stage Olaf’s sister Eliza was in the group as a singer, often performing duets such as ‘Deep Purple’ with Herma. Māori pianist Heke Kewene joined the group, a “gentle giant” who also liked to play Bach and Chopin.
In 1958 Tempo magazine described the Keil Isles as “one of the most sensational rock’n’roll groups to hit the Queen City”, and Australian Music Maker magazine reported that they were “a smartly dressed group with plenty of showmanship and a ton of rhythm.”
Tanza Records signed the band in 1958, and its first release was a version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’.
The proprietor of the Jive Centre, Dave Dunningham, said to Playdate in 1960: “I’ve never known a harder working group. They give up most of their spare time to practise and it’s a matter of pride with them that they introduce at least one new tune at every dance. We tape the hits from overseas broadcasts and that way the Keils are able to play them before anyone here has heard them”
Tanza Records signed the band in 1958, and its first release was a version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’; the record kicks along confidently, with a cutting lead guitar from Olaf, and Kewene’s strong, rolling piano licks. The band’s sound was greatly assisted by Olaf’s skill at electronics: he could pull all the latest effects from his guitar and customised amps, and built his own echo unit to get the Sun Studios reverb.
After a half dozen more releases on Tanza – standards such as ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, ‘Flip, Flop And Fly’, ‘Sea Cruise’ and Splish Splash’ – the label folded and the band shifted to Eldred Stebbing’s Zodiac label. Two years later, the Keil Isles moved to Viking for another productive period.
On the cover of their debut album Take Off (1961), recorded at the Jive Centre, they are pictured boarding a TEAL jetliner in their stage costumes. In the book 100 Essential New Zealand Albums critic Nick Bollinger describes the disc as a “proto-concept album: you are going on a journey, a dream cruise. Eventually the plane sets you down on an unnamed island … it is remote, lost in time, but also hip: they know how to rock’n’roll here. On Keil Isle the party never stops, and this is the soundtrack.”
In 1962, when the programming committee of the conservative New Zealand Broadcasting Service (precursor of Radio New Zealand) rejected Chubby Checker’s massive hit as being “too raucous”, the Keil Isles’ cover version was chosen for airplay and became their biggest seller.
For this and later releases, Herma Keil had a parallel solo career with the band and was featured on the releases with The Keil Isles as backing band. They performed and recorded without him too, often contributing B-sides to the singles. In 1960, while at the Jive Centre, Freddie had fallen out with his cousin Herma and left to form his own group, the Zodiacs. Soon, renamed Freddie Keil and the Kavaliers, they offered an alternative to the Keil Isles. Dressed in stylish sharkskin suits, they too covered American rock and roll favourites. “This was one ballsy, driving band,” wrote Roger Watkins.
The Keil Isles went through many personnel changes in its 10 year existence. Heke Kewene left in 1961 to try his fortune in Britain – where he worked northern clubs for 15 years – and was replaced by Norman Akers, whose role was later taken by Brian Henderson. By early 1963 there were more big changes: Olaf left and based himself in California, where he became a top guitar maker. Saxophonist Bill Fairs sailed for England, and was replaced by George Barna from Wellington. Dave “Red” Williamson replaced Klaus as drummer, and Warren McMillan took over from original bass-player Lou Miller.
Williamson recalled the Keil Isles as a very organised band. “Herma Keil carefully planned each bracket of music … [this] regimentation was actually necessary for such a group as we were. Because we had played the same music hundreds of times over still meant we needed to be always playing with care.”
The Keil Isles’ dynamic stage act meant they were often invited to tour with visiting overseas artists. They opened for Cliff Richard and the Shadows in 1961, and were on the Bobby Rydell and Del Shannon package tour the following year. In 1965 they took part in a Merseysound with Cilla Black as top of the bill, plus Freddie and the Dreamers and the hard-drinking Sounds Incorporated.
In 1967, the band became the resident group on the influential TV pop show C’mon.
In 1967, the band became the resident group on the influential TV pop show C’mon. But Herma and Eliza soon left to pursue solo careers, and a band called the Keil Isles fulfilled the C’mon gig for the rest of the year. It featured an all-star line-up – pianist Brian Henderson, Roger Skinner on guitar, Billy Kristian on bass and Jimmy Hill on drums – but no Keils.
During its 10-year career, the Keil Isles recorded prolifically – at least 25 singles, seven EPs and six albums – provided an outlet for many influential musicians, and entertained thousands. They followed musical fashions in the early years of rock and roll, including forays into novelties such as ‘Limbo Rock’ and several variations on the twist – but once rock music required originality as well as energy, their day had come.
Herma moved to Australia, Klaus and Helga to the USA, while Freddie became a radio station manager in Rarotonga. Eliza had the most prominent post-Keils’ career as a cabaret singer; the 1967 Live At Logan Park was the first of her three albums.
Meanwhile, Olaf – the founder of the Keils – worked for Fender guitars in the US, custom-building instruments for Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Jimi Hendrix and others. In 1973 he went out on his own to play music again, while continuing his instrument making: On each fret board he would inlay Keil in pearl at the top of the neck. Olaf died in the US on 22 January 2022.
Founding member Olaf Keil later worked for Fender guitars in the USA, custom-building instruments for Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Jimi Hendrix and others.
Olaf Keil - guitar
Freddie Keil - guitar
Herma Keil - guitar
Klaus Keil - drums
Rudolph Keil - bass
Heke Kewene - piano
Lou Miller - bass
Bill Fairs - saxophone
Dave “Red” Williamson - drums
Warren McMillan - bass
Brian Henderson - piano
Roger Skinner - guitar
Jimmy Hill - drums
Norman Akers - piano
George Barna - saxophone