BUDDY WILSON and BEN TAWHITI (R.I.P)

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First published in August 2007, updated December 2013

Buddy can be contacted at buddywil@xtra.co.nz

Ben Tawhiti passed away on 15th September 2012 after a long illness.

Tributes

I was very saddened to hear of Ben's passing recently, I played drums for him in his band “Ben Tawhiti and the Maitineers “ at the Papatoetoe Town hall every Sat. nite for 6 months, he was a master musician and a very nice man, I now live in Australia (for the last 35 years) and have lost touch with so many good musos from the old days but I will never forget the great times I had back then with bands like Ben Tawhiti, R.I.P. - Noel Peterson
My deepest regret to hear of Ben's passing, apologies to the family for not seeing him in Auckland, I will be there for his tribute.  I want to thank Ben for making the effort when he was ill, to visit my Dad Ian Brown, as soon as he passed in hospital you came and gave him a lovely blessing your strong words of wisdom.  I will never forget your words you spoke of how he no longer suffers and is at peace now and feels no pain, it us who feel the pain now, they were comforting words at a time of need.  2 of the best memories I have of you playing with my Dad are the Waiheke RSA Anzac day, when you done an amazing blues bracket, Dad swung the key board mike out onto the dance floor and got my friend to sing a Sonney Brownie number, I don't think I've heard a Gibson sound like that to this day. This old lady in a red dress done a cart wheel like the war was over, it was ecstatic, amazing music.  The other time you and Dad were doing the once a year fair in Puhoi Field day, it was the early nineties no beer was allowed at the fair, well me and my mate kept smuggling them back and forwards from across the bridge at the pub to the middle of the fair, well we didn't realise that the hay bales we were sitting on were to feed the show jumping horses that were performing, one came up behind me took a big chunk nearly out of my leg and knocked me off the bale.  My mate was rolling around laughing, boy did we get in trouble at the break, I don't know to this day if it's because my Dad had no beer or that we were having such a good time.  All my friends of the younger generation loved and respected your great skill on the guitar.  I thank you for being such a good friend to my father who thought the world of you.  I found an old tape recording in my Dad's pa system of you two that when I get it put on cd I will forward to your family great songs.  Your memory lives on - Warren Brown
In Loving Memory of Mr Ben Tawhiti.

E Te Matua E Ben, Haere, Haere, Haere  "Haere koe ki Hawaiki Nui, Hawaiki Roa, Hawaiki Pa Ma Mau.  Ma te Atua i Runga hei Manaaki, hei Tiaki kia koe".
To my dear friend Ben
- I and my family were absolutely shattered and saddened to hear of your passing.  May you now rest in peace.
- Thank you for the friendship shown and given to me and my family over the past 40 years as a friend and fellow Musician.  This I will always treasure.
- To your fellow band members, Buddy, Alex, Marsh, Haggis and the late Warren with whom I have been associated over so many years. Your friendship, inspiration and dedication as musicians will remain with me forever.
- To your loving family, your late wife Ellen, and family members, Molly, Raewyn, Hine, Ben and other family members our heart goes out to you all in this very sad time.  I just regret that I am unable to be there with you all in this time of sorrow, I will be there in spirit and praying for you all.  
 
Tino Arohanui from Thomas Grey and Whanau Brisbane Australia
Nooky Stott and I called in to the church on the way to the muso's bash and were privileged to be part of a mass powhiri on Ben's arrival.  Another part of NZ music history sadly gone - Graham Gill
Ben was one of the finest and most respected musicians we have had the pleasure of knowing and playing with.  Past President of the NZ. Hawaiian Steel Guitar Assn.  We will always remember Ben and his music - Louisa & Mac McKenzie
I'm very saddened to hear this news - long time friend & will miss him.  Condolences to the Tawhiti Whanau.  My thoughts prayers Aroha are with you all - Max Purdie
A legend  has passed on.......many fond memories of Ben, the master of what I'd call "smooth glitter" style of playing guitar!  And such a modest fellow in that he just played without "shouting" his own self onstage.  Many a time I played with him and fortunately I have relatively recent video I took of him a few years ago, I think at a musos get together at the Papatoetoe Cossie Club to replay for memories.  RIP dear friend.......you will live on in many minds for ever - Peter Cox
Another one in guitar heaven, your guitar skills will be missed Ben.  HAVE A HAPPY JOURNEY MATE, some of us are not too far behind you.  Frightening aye - Pat Harrison
Please pass on my deepest sympathies to Ben's family and friends.  I will always remember Ben as a simply wonderful guy, and a super musician, loved by all in our fraternity - Gray Bartlett

So sorry to hear about Ben.  I played lead guitar with Freddie Keil and The Kavaliers in the 60s. Anytime I got a little cocky I could always get a dose of humility by dropping by the ballroom where he held fort.  In all my years of playing and being around guitarists, Ben remained in a league of his own.  A world class musician.  I cherish the memories of hearing him play.  A veritable institution - Jimmy Murphy

(click here to email me your tribute to Ben and I'll add it in - andy@nzmusos.co.nz)

Ben Tawhiti and The Mariners 

My name is Buddy Wilson and I write about a fine musician whom I have been fortunate to have been associated with over the past 45 years, as his rhythm guitarist.  As well I give a little background of my own musical history. 

I cannot speak for Ben’s early career here in Auckland and the muso’s who played with him then. I believe he made his name firstly as a steel guitarist in Auckland in the early fifties.  This was also the era of Bill Wolfgram, Johnny Bradfield and Bill Sevesi.  I did not become part of Ben’s musical career until only recently, by that I mean 1965, about forty years ago.  He was already a legend in Auckland music before that time.  I first met him in 1961 when he played at Morrinsville, backing a little known singer from Whakatane called Eddie Howell.  Eddie was being promoted by Eldred Stebbing at the time and was backed on many of his records by Ben.  Ben Tawhiti, to me, was only a name on a record label, but the sound of the group that night whetted my appetite for the opportunities Auckland music offered.

I had already got a taste for the music scene in Auckland, during my teacher training years at Ardmore Teachers College in Papakura.  It was there I put together a singing group which put me in close contact with people like Lou Clauson who later teamed up with Simon Meihana and with a staunch Mormon gentleman called Olaf Kiel who formed the band, the Kiel Isles.  This was a family band consisting of Olaf, Herma Kiel, Freddie Kiel (before he formed the Cavaliers) Eliza Kiel, Rudolph Kiel and Heke Kawene.  He got our singing group gigs at the Town Hall and the now demolished Maori Community Centre, which was the place in those days.  I remember one Town Hall gig, featured Gray Bartlett and his group The Scorpions, Johnny Devlin and a young group of Maori singers called the Sunbeams.  These kids kept together as a group, called themselves the TeKiwis, based themselves in Australia and later toured Vietnam as a Showband.  One of them, Morrie Otene, later became the saxophonist for Herbs.

I was a teacher in Kawerau, with one of my more illustrious pupils being John Rowles.  I formed a band there, called the Rebels.  After four years I decided that Kawerau had limited opportunities for music and teaching, so I moved to Auckland to teach in 1962.  I joined a group led by a guitarist called Sonny Manihera and we played in a strip club called the Bel Aire, in Queen Street.  Over the next couple of years I played with many lead guitarists, musicians and singers.  Johnnie Walker, Peter Johnston, Richard Santos, and then with Errol Timbers and Terry Dean and the Nitebeats, the late Billy Wolfgram and Fred Penny, and with Bobby Wynyard and Bill Sevesi at the Orange.  Bob had made a name as the lead guitarist for the group called the Sundowners.  One member of that group, Sonny Day, passed away recently.  I mention their names because they set a standard of lead guitar playing for me and offered a comparison when I teamed up with Benny.  I can remember meeting up with Ben again at the Picasso nightclub, playing with Billy Nuku.  What struck me at the time was that he was playing with his left hand bandaged and I found out that he just taken off the top of his finger at his job in the Southdown freezing works.  The Picasso was the choice club at the time, featuring not only Ricky May, but musos like Danny Robinson, Sonny Komene, Trixie Willoughby and others.

While playing with the Nitebeats, we backed Peter Posa at a gig in Whangarei, and from that Peter asked me to be part of his backing band at the Viking Recording Studios in Newton Road, alongside such musicians as Dave Donovan, Jimmy Sloggett, Murray Tanner and Mike Perjanik.  The recording engineer was Ron Dalton.  I also was part of the Nitebeats recordings in the same studio, with Bruce Barton as the engineer.  The Nitebeats also played the Xmas gig at Orewa in 1965 for Doug Elliott, who ran the well known Shiralee Niteclub in town.  It was at this gig, that the band accompanied two fresh faced sisters, who later called themselves “The Chicks”.  I can also remember one afternoon, recording with Terry Dean at the Viking Studios, a group of High School Boys were in the studio to audition, still in their school uniforms.  I can still remember Nuki Stott and his mates who became Larry Morris and The Rebels.

Amongst all this, I also found the time to accompany Gray Bartlett, to a few gigs as his rhythm guitarist.  I can remember the Montmarte in being one of the venues.  

I played in another group in 1964, shortlived as it was.  It was called the Talismen, featuring myself, Johnny Walker, Ian Butchard on Sax, Bruce Logan on bass and Noel Peterson on drums.  Noel was the drummer for Toni Williams and the Tremellos.  We provided the backing for a singer called Steve Ellis at the old TANZA studios.  

Ben joined up with myself, Haggis McIntrye (now with Sel Nash and Southern Cross) and Alex Behrens at one of the dances held at St Patricks up in Hobson Street in 1965.  Before he joined us I believe he almost cooked himself at the Oriental Ballroom after an amp shorted out.  Those were the days when a 15 watt amp was big time and some of them were actually earthed. 

Ben and I also worked with Bill Sevesi and his Islanders at the Orange Ballroom for a time.  It was while I was playing with Bill, that he asked me to record on his Armar recording label along with Daphne Walker, Morgan Clarke and George Tumahai.  Bill’s band also provided the backing for a singer called Ronnie Sundin and on the record label he was called “Will Jess and the Jesters”.  During the time I was recording on Bill Sevesi’s label, Armar, he brought in a trio of school girls who provided backing vocals for me on a song called “Billy The Pink Eyed Seahorse”.  This was on a 45rpm.  It featured on Hauraki when they were anchored of Great Barrier only because one of the DJ’s Mike Parkinson was a good friend of mine.  Otherwise it sank like a lead balloon.  Incidentally, the school girls were the Yandall sisters.

The Ben Tawhiti Quartet started in ’66 in earnest, playing numerous and regular gigs all over Auckland.  It was at a gig at the Mt Roskill Memorial Hall in 1967, that Matiu Rata, MP for Northern Maori, announced that 10 o’clock closing had been given the green light by Parliament.  As well as killing the dance halls, this new law took us off the gig circuit for four years as it was Ben’s reputation which got us an audition at the Milford Marina hotel with Publican Bert Mackie, on the first day of 10 o’clock closing.  That first night was enough to give us the residency of that pub for the next four years.  An amazing four years backing a large variety of singers and entertainers and playing to a packed bar every Saturday at a time when dancing wasn’t allowed.  Ben was driving for Coop taxis at the time and we were playing almost every night.  I’m not too sure how much revenue the taxi generated.  At the Marina, the band became the Mariners Showband, as we were joined by Marsh Cook, ex sax for the Quin Tikis.  This gave the band a showband sound and Ben’s harmonies with Marsh had to be heard to be believed.  I recorded bits and pieces of the 1968 and 69 playing and Ben’s skill at the time still amazes me.  Much of that sound has been recreated on the album we produced in 1997, with the five original members of the band.  The album was called “The Mariners, 25 Years Later” We also had the honour of opening the Thunderbird Hotel in Glenfield, which also became a pub to visit, especially when the Impressions took over as resident band.

Over the forty years, I was in awe of Ben’s temperament as many of the gigs we played, especially 21st’s, ended up in scraps.  There was one exception at the Milford Marina, which was actually recorded.  During a rendition of Wheels a fight broke out halfway through the tune.  You can hear the music stop as Ben dropped his guitar, leapt off the stage, dealt to a couple of the offenders and then calmly walked back to the stage and carried on as though nothing had happened.  He wouldn’t do that today, as he would be frightened that someone would pinch his slippers and gout pills, while he was off the stage.

I have memories of many would be guitarists standing and watching Ben play his Les Paul Gibson.  Many would have the technical skills, but few if any would have what I call “the feel”.  The “feel” combining technique, with heart or soul and sheer ear.  No lead guitarist I have ever played with over the last forty five years, has ever been able to emulate his style of playing.  Incidentally, that guitar of his, which has had a fair hammering, is now a collectors item in the States and if it had been in good nick, good nick meaning, in its original condition and with its original case, not with the carpenters bolts, chewing gum and things holding it together, it could be worth a few bucks today.

Ben’s name would guarantee us gig work for the next 25 years after leaving the Milford Marina in 1971.  Playing regular gigs in Kaitaia, gigs in Te Araroa, Tokomaru Bay and Waiouru and every bloody pokey little hall in Auckland, RSA’s Cossy Clubs and Rugby Clubs.  I especially remember regular gigs in quite unusual places for the combined airlines social club.  For example, on the beach at Rangitoto, to Mollers Farm up in the Waitakeres.  Once we played at a place so small that there wasn’t enough room for the band and Ben had to stand outside and play.

Keith “Haggis” McIntrye left the group in 1975 and we were joined by Keith Roache, a bass player who had led his own group at the Onehunga Hotel, with Red McKelvie, who is renowned as a Pedal Steel Player nowadays.  Roachey, unfortunately passed away in 1985 and we were joined by Warren McMillan.  Warren had featured with the Kiel Isles on the TV Show “C'Mon”. 

10 years later in 1995, Warren died of cancer and it was then that the interest in gigs began to wane.  So we decided to put an Album together before the rest of us karked it.  Using our original bass player Haggis McIntyre for the recording, 500 copies were made and sold to friends and family.  Gigs became less frequent and Ben was now concentrating on his beloved steel guitar, an instrument for which he was renowned, early in his career.  He was making his own recordings as well as providing backing for Dennis Marsh.  His regular Friday night stints on Radio Watea featured his steel guitar playing live, accompanied by many guest musos.

In 2006 Maori TV commissioned a programme called Maumahara.  It features Maori elders or Kaumatua, recalling, fond memories of the forties and fifties.  To support the memories, songs and tunes associated with the era, were also featured.  Ben put together a group for the series featuring himself on steel, myself on rythmn, Joe Haami from the Maori Volcanics, Marsh Cook, Richi Diaz, drums and Tom Paul, bass, from Dennis Marsh’s backing group.  The singers featured were; Taisha, Hinewehi Mohi (The producer), Mahinarangi Tocker, Whirimako Black, Manu Harrison, Dennis Marsh and Mabel Wharekawa Burt.  This programme was to air at the beginning of September 2007.

Probably the best testament to Benny’s ability and skill on the guitar came in two forms.  In 1992, Michael Morrisey published a book called the Top Ten.  A New Zealand Top Ten of everything from athletes, top selling albums, popular films, a whole range of things.  But in that book was the New Zealand 10 Great Maori Musicians and alongside muso’s such as Rim D Paul, Billy Christian, Mark Kahi and Billy Nuku, Billy TK and Tama Renata, Ben Tawhiti is listed as number 2.  In 1999, the Herald’s music writers, Russell Baillie and Graham Reid, wrote an article called “My Top Ten Guitarists” and there featured as number 1 was Ben Tawhiti. 

It starts off; “Why did I pick Ben Tawhiti? “ Quote “At the one minute mark of Haka Boogie by Morgan Clive with Benny’s Five (1955), Tawhiti starts a steel guitar solo which by some mystery of the cosmos, pulled together Hawaiian style and Chet Atkins country.  If this had caught on internationally, Tawhiti might have been a bigger influence on George Harrison from the Beatles, than Chet Atkins was.  Then where would we be?” Unquote.  Indeed.

Many musos have gigged with Ben over the last forty odd years: Alex Behrens, Haggis McIntyre, Marsh Cook, Dave Paul, the late Keith Roache and the late Warren McMillan, Tommy Grey, Bert Penny, Bill Sevesi.  The many many singers Ben has been fortunate enough to back in that time.  Going back to those who have passed on; Freddie Keil, Billy T James, Laurie Morrison, Robbie Ratana, Robin Ruakere, Tui Teka, Dave Cowell, George Seargent and Simon Meihana.  Those who are still around like Bunny Walters, Lou Clauson, Paul Fisher, Toko Pompey, Brent Brodie, Paul Bennett, John Rowles, Yolande Gibson, Manu Harrison, and many others I can’t even remember now.  It has been a great journey.

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