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First published January 2013, last updated April 2018
Dave can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Dave 'Red' Williamson
Intro: This story about playing around Auckland in the 1960s actually began in mid 1966, when Frank Gibson Snr interviewed me as part of his Lewis Eady “Drummer of the month” newsletter. I have since added more as time has gone on.
I was born in Christchurch in 1943 and due to the nature of my father's employment as catering manager, I had quite a lot of different addresses around N.Z. My father was manager of Bellamys in the Parliament Buildings from 1946 to 1953. In 1954 my family moved up to Auckland, however it was not for long, as Dad took over management of the Grand Hotel in Palmerston North. I lived in Room 26, just like a long term hotel guest. I just couldn’t turn up the radio as you can at home, so I went to a nearby second hand shop and bought some old headphones. Suddenly I was able to spend hours after school listening to every sort of music. After a year we went back up to Auckland where Dad then joined the Kerridge Odeon group. Later I was to replicate his nomadic wanderings, only this time accompanied by a drum-set.
The beginnings of my interest in music and drumming started really at a young age. My first inspiration to want to play drums was when I used to go to Titahi Bay, near Wellington, during the Christmas holidays. They held concerts on the beach over Christmas and New Year and I was totally mesmerized by the drummer.
1950 Titahi Bay Me in a floppy hat, just visible at the top of the cymbal
I loved listening to music as a kid and I really sought out songs with a strong rhythmic feel. Sandy Nelson records caught my ear of course, as did listening to the “Golden Wedding” - over…and over ..and over. In my late teens I heard on the radio -and finally got to see- the Dave Brubeck Quartet with Joe Morello. Going home after being at their first concert in the Auckland Town Hall, I was tapping on anything that made a noise!
The Dave Brubeck Quartet has appeared twice now in Auckland, and I actually got to meet Joe Morello during his second visit and what a kind gentle man is he.
Joe Morello, Gene Wright and Dave Brubeck
Later on I also saw Ed Thigpen with the Oscar Peterson Quartet. He is such a precise player, so neat and tidy- especially with brushes.
All this musical incentive prompted me to play something, but I didn’t know what. One afternoon I went to Alan Kingsley-Smith’s music shop in Auckland to try some instruments. I squawked and honked on a tenor sax, clanked badly on a piano and fumbled with a double bass. Surprisingly, I made an almost recognisable pattern on a snare drum. That’s it I thought, I will be a drummer! Back then in 1960 I was a very poor first year engineering apprentice, so I had to settle for a set of turquoise coloured Trixon bongo drums plus a pair of sticks. I wanted to use sticks on the bongos so I could learn the mystery of bounce.
Over a period of many months I purchased a set of low cost Olympic drums, then chose a fantastic 5½” Premier Royal Ace metal-shell snare drum …which is a splendid sounding drum.
We had our laundry under the house and luckily the drum kit just fitted inside, so this became my “woodshed”. I spent hours after work experimenting with grip, set up, heights of cymbals etc. I used to hang a speaker cable down from my bedroom and place one speaker in the laundry just so I could play along with the radio…well I tried try to! It was a natural way of learning, because I was motivated by WANT, not by pressure from somebody. Mum was very patient with the daily noise, saying however: “I really do like those soft sticks (mallets) you use, because they sound quite nice dear….”
Meadowbank 1960-my new Olympic kit with Premier snare
My best friend Richard Sisler and I used to go up to the dance at St. Seps on Saturday nights. He danced with the girls while I stood near the front of the stage to watch Frank Gibson Snr playing drums with the Arthur Skelton big band. Frank used an Aquamarine sparkle Premier kit, with double bass drums and 4 toms and it all looked simply amazing. He was so good, the power he put into his regular Saturday night drum solo was spectacular. I finally got brave enough to go up and talk to him one night and ask about being taught.
Frank Gibson Snr: Great teacher, great man
I started my lessons with Frank at his house in Balmoral every Thursday night at 7:30. His patient and skillful tuition gave me a solid foundation from which to gain experience. He would say things like: “Always be on time for the job, play everything correctly and don’t knock playing a waltz man…at least you’re working!” Things like: “Keep your drums clean, dress well and don’t dispute any music you might have to play...even if it’s not cool”. Such were the wise words which proved beneficial in later years. Frank used to lend me drum records to listen to. One was an amazing LP by an Indian tabla player called Chatur Lal. He played single stroke rolls with his fingers … quicker than I could then with two sticks! It was then I realized how much learning was ahead of me. Frank showed a real interest in me and I felt this was very special…he was a really good man.
I listened to jazz records that I rented from Gordon’s Record shop in Vulcan Lane and also started watching local drummers to study their techniques. I visited nightclubs and jazz venues with the same objective in mind: Just listen, watch and learn. I went to the Tijuana club to hear Trixie Willoughby play drums with the Sundowners. Man, he was quite stunning to watch.
Trixie Willoughby at the Tijuana nightclub
I arrived quite early to get a good view and while standing near the entrance. I overheard a guy frantically phoning around trying to locate a drummer for a coffee bar in Queen St called the Bel Air. The regular drummer had just phoned in sick. I leaned across and casually said: “Hey man, I’m a drummer!”. With a surprised look he said: “Right, go and get your drums and be ready to play at nine o’clock!”
I then rushed home and back to the Bel Air within the hour for my first playing job! Jimmy Murphy was on bass, with guitarist Dody Castles and his sister Flo on piano and vocals. I played things mostly by luck and a lot of bluff. Although I found the night was a tense and nervous struggle, I enjoyed the evening immensely. It wasn't until the end of the night that I realised that well-known local drummer Ray Edmondson had been sitting in a dark corner listening to the last few sets. This deflated my ego rather badly; however Ray soon rebuilt my confidence after some positive advice and an impromptu stick control lesson on a table top!
A few weeks later I joined a guitar group called the Futures who were as inexperienced as I was! We started out practicing “Peter Gunn” in bass player Leo Sleeman’s lounge room. I soon learnt that this particular tune was an exercise in boredom for a hyped-up learner drummer as I was. Amateurs as we were, we somehow managed to get the gig at the Bel Air due to a sudden change from its plush night club policy. We spent a few months here and during this period I also started running the first of many successful holiday dances at Oneroa on Waiheke Island.
The Futures -Leo Sleeman: bass. Peter Jones: rhythm guitar, Dave Williamson: drums, Les Neil: lead guitar
The Bel Air gig finally folded and I joined the Kapma brothers, Dick on guitar and Bill on piano. They were such great guys to work with; they always shared all costs and the money fairly. Together we did a tremendous number of parties and dances and this type of music gave me a much greater insight as to what was required for true dance work. Mainly precise and steady rhythmical playing …“get their feet tapping!” as Frank Gibson had often said.
One gig I certainly remember was at Buckland’s Beach. We had travelled there with our instruments by taxi but once the gig was over, we learnt that pre-planned arrangements for transport back to Auckland had fizzled out. We ended sleeping on hard lumpy gym mats up at the back of the old dancehall, which at 1:30 am resembled a large smelly ice box. We lay amongst assorted musical instruments and mouldy gymnasium equipment. All I got was a dose of influenza.
A few weeks later I was at the Picasso watching Ricky May sitting in with the band, playing drums and singing Louie Prima songs and he looked so cool, dressed in a suit and tie. I just wanted to be like him one day!
A young star in the making - Ricky May
During a break, I was approached by the house drummer Ian McKay. He asked me to fill in for him while he was on holidays for three weeks over Christmas New Year 1961. In so doing, I branched out into yet another facet of playing - one which required mostly volume and speed.
Ian arranged for me to come to the club at 1:00 pm on the next Saturday, for my first rehearsal with the band. I lived way out in Meadowbank and on that particular weekend I had no way of getting my drums into town. Having too little money for a taxi, I decided to lug them down to the bus stop close to my house. When the bus arrived I hurriedly shuffled the drums up inside and headed into the city. As I travelled, some young guys offered to help me carry the drums up to the Picasso when we arrived, easing my worries.
I happily waited outside the front of the Picasso, down at the bottom of Cook St, near Greys Ave. I waited….and waited. For 2 hours I just sat with my drums on the footpath, really puzzled as to why nobody had shown up. I started to feel really dopey, thinking I had been “set up” for a joke. I got angrier as it slowly dawned on me what a bind I was in. No one was there to open the club, so I couldn’t even store the drum kit and return at 8:00 pm for the actual gig.
At around 3:30 I thought through the very few options I had left. I needed to get back home so I could eat, get changed and return that evening, so I chose to hide the whole drum kit at the rear of the club down the laneway. This I did, carefully shifting rubbish tins and old cartons as I tried to hide the shiny red drums from any prying eyes.
I caught the next bus home. Around 7:00pm I was all dressed up ready to play and back at the Picasso. Walking in, somebody said “Oh, the police were here a while ago, ‘cos they saw somebody hiding some drums out the back today”. Stunned, I looked and yes - my kit had vanished. I got the band members to come with me up to the police station at the top of Wakefield St. Sure enough, piled up in the hallway was my drum kit! The policeman said “We were advised that a person had been seen trying to hide some red drums behind the Picasso coffee lounge earlier today, so we assumed they were probably stolen”.
I quickly explained the whole story to him… thankfully he understood, so we all picked up the drums and walked back down Wakefield St, banging out some cool rhythms all the way back to the Picasso. As we walked, I learnt the reason for the “no show” of the band that afternoon. On the Friday night in Rotorua, a Maori showband had lost most of their instruments in a really fierce fire in the Rotorua Sound Shell. The phone rang hot as they quickly called up to their Auckland mates, asking to borrow some instruments for their Sat. night show. The Auckland musos found enough to complete the band’s needs and on Sat. morning they drove the equipment down to Rotorua for the desperate band.
I was humbled as I realised the reason for their no-show that day was in fact due to the spirit of kindness to their fellow musicians ..and it certainly was a good lesson for me: about helping others in times of need. That night I finally set up my red Olympic drum kit in the corner …and began three weeks of amazing music, quickly learning what fast, loud, hard, heavy swinging music really was.
This club was perhaps the toughest, roughest place in Auckland. There was a fight or two almost every night. The manager was an ex boxer named Pat McSweeney who had the most stunning auburn-haired girlfriend named Susie. She used to sunbake in a tiny bikini, while lying on top of a table in the courtyard area on Saturday afternoons when the place was closed. This always got my attention. One Saturday as I went in early for a rehearsal and I saw Pat cleaning a black handgun as he sat at the table. He had quite a reputation and later that year the police set him up by putting drugs in his garage …then accused him of selling drugs.
Picasso nights: Me, Colin Clark rhythm guitar,? on bass,? on clarinet, Paul Robinson on lead
The Picasso band was called the “Playdates” , with Paul Robinson on lead, Colin Clark on rhythm guitar , Dusky Nepia sax, Danny Robinson vocals and guitar (depending on the night!) and the gentle giant Heke Kewene was on piano. Heke used to gently play Bach, Chopin and Brahms during the band breaks. On Ian's return I joined another Auckland rock band group, Gene and the Dynamites and amazingly went back into the Bel Air yet again!
The leader, Gene Campbell was very slick artist who loved The Shadows and Cliff Richard songs. His brothers, Danny and Rick used fabulous amplifying equipment with special echo systems. Brian McCarthy was the lead guitarist and had an amazing voice, as well as being a good player. We did numerous trips, shows and rock dances together.
I was still running the Waiheke holiday dances at Oneroa and we did these as well. I took my 1938 Ford 8 over to the island on the Subritzky car ferry one holiday period. Rick was taking a girl home one Saturday afternoon when he rolled the car as he was showing how well he could drive! One holiday time we all stayed in a huge pyramid tent at the rear of Carolina’s Restaurant down at Blackpool beach and played for free on Boxing Day as our payment. For safekeeping, we used to bury the nightly takings in a hole in the ground inside the tent.
Gene and the Dynamites: Danny, me, Rick, Brian, with Gene at the back
One Christmas at Waiheke we rented a house in Oneroa , due to the increasing number of people now attached to the band. Caroline, the owner of the restaurant down at Blackpool Beach kept two geese. When I arrived back at around two in the morning, the rented house had a strange smell wafting throughout as I entered.
I walked into the kitchen, where white feathers were hastily being swept up off the floor. My worst fears were realized. One of the band guys had killed one of the birds and it was now being cooked - at 2am! I was somewhat the worst for wear the following morning as I stumbled down the hall and answered a loud knock on the door. Standing there was Constable Brennan in uniform: Oneroa’s only cop. He asked me many questions about a certain missing animal: to whit - one white goose. I gave him a rather weak and very unconvincing answer, which didn’t impress him. Finally he left, frustrated no doubt knowing we were the culprits, but the evidence had been well and truly devoured by then!
Waiheke days: L to R: Richard Sisler, Rick, me and Danny
We used to rehearse during the afternoon at the hall at Oneroa. We stopped for a break when Rick Campbell our bass player went to move one of the microphones. As he grabbed the mike stand he suddenly screamed out loudly, shaking wildly as he went purple and fell to the floor. We ran around turning off every power point we could find. Four black lines (from the bass) were burnt into his hands. It took a long time to get that horrible event out of our system....let alone out of Rick’s.
Gene and the Dynamites at Panmure Civic Centre Approx. 1961 or 1962
It was a very good group and I really enjoyed playing with the Dynamites, though it was not really advancing my technique the way I wanted. After a while I began to look around for something else. By now I was listening to jazz drummers more and more and in fact almost any music that was more challenging than the Shadows…although both of the Shadows drummers Tony Meehan -and later Brian Bennett- were so good that I spent a lot of time listening to try to play like them, let alone to attempt their solos.
The biggest music shop in Auckland was Lewis Eadys and one year they sponsored a drum competition that was held in the Top Twenty nightclub. My father and my brother came along to watch and because of this, I was quite nervous playing on stage for the first time in front of them - let alone in front of my teacher -Frank Gibson - who was one of the judges. Each drummer played a short instrumental piece with the small group, then launched into their own drum solo. I played every trick in the book and I did my best to imitate Joe Morello’s left hand single stroke rolls, as well as twirling the sticks, and generally playing every darn thing I could think of... in a very short space of time ...as fast as possible! The outcome of this rather flashy portrayal of my percussive abilities was that I was awarded 2nd place. First prize was easily won by another student of Frank Gibson, Owen Kneebone, who certainly has far better stick control technique than me. However I was not sad at coming 2nd, in fact I was surprised I even got that far!
I met the brilliant pianist Mike Perjanik who asked me to join his group for the opening of the Shiralee (then a dinner and dance nightclub). He led a good tight swinging group which included Mike Couples on bass and Andy Anderson on guitar. This place finally lost its conventional approach - as well as the band.
Different bands and casual gigs followed, along with a two month stint with the very popular Versatones, when I relieved their regular drummer Neville Findlay.
Eventually I ended up back at the Picasso… again! I was asked to rejoin the Playdates group. I spent about four or five months thundering away mostly very loudly, with lots of around the kit fills ! I finally decided to look for an easier gig because I was continually looking for a safe place to move the drum kit when a fight broke out. Pommie sailors seemed to really enjoy fighting… one night I saw a sailor kick a drunken sailor right down the steep stairs …back into the club!
During this time Mike Perjanik was forming another group to back artists at the Shiralee. Again I played in Mike's group. Around this time I met the cheery Australian trumpeter and drummer Lionel Kennedy who played with Sonny Day’s group the “Sundowners”. Lionel lived in Grey Lynn and we used to spend Sunday afternoons in his lounge room swapping drum licks. We had a great time trying out new ideas and playing things in unison!
Lionel Kennedy with the Sundowners
He was a funny guy and a really good drummer and we would try and outplay each other, all the time laughing! We practiced Tony Meehan’s drum solo from the Shadow’s drum solo tune “Little B” until we had it down pat. That really took a lot of practice believe me. We also learned a Jet Harris and Tony Meehan tune “Diamonds” which had some good -and easier- drum breaks in it.
Out of the blue I was asked to do an audition for the Keil Isles. During the audition their leader Herma Keil asked me: “Hey Red, do you know that Jet Harris and Tony Meehan tune called “Diamonds”? Did I what! I played it just like it was Sunday afternoon at Lionel’s house. I got the job and started playing with the Keil Isles a fortnight later. Mike Kelly who is a really good drummer took over at the Shiralee, so I was happy about both outcomes.
This was the start of nearly two years of regular work at the Oriental Ballroom. Aussie Jimmy Sloggett was on tenor sax, with George Barna on baritone. John Blake was the bass player, as was Puni Solomon later. Brian Henderson played piano, with Herma Keil on rhythm guitar and vocals. His sister Eliza was a really fine vocalist and they did lots of very good duets together, songs like “Deep Purple” etc. We had Doug Jerebine in the band for a while. Wow… he has to be the best guitarist in NZ for sure! He left and lovely Johnny Walker took his spot, then Ron Craig. Radio announcer Chris Parkinson was the compere and also sang some pop songs each night.
Front: Jimmy Sloggett, Herma Keil, me Centre: Brian Henderson, George Barna, Doug Jerebine Rear: John Blake
The Keils were very popular and we were asked to perform on various TV shows like “C’mon” and do a few tours around the country and in some of the provincial towns around Auckland. One memorable November night we did a gig at a park in the Bombay hills for the Guy Fawkes Festival. The band was set up on a large semi-trailer. Guess who was a perfect target for the idiots who put skyrockets into empty bottles and then fired them into the band? I spent half the night dodging projected missiles. Man, I thought “Jumpin Jack” was an American musician!
The most memorable tour was with Cilla Black. We were the local band sharing the show with Sounds Incorporated, Freddie and the Dreamers, Mark Wynter, with Cilla Black as the featured star. Cilla was quiet and polite, travelling with her manager and boyfriend Bobby. When her fans pushed autograph books under our dressing room door we used to sign her name, then slide the books back out! Tony Neuman was the drummer with the “Sounds” band.. a tough, solid player who really “locked” the band together. Hearing him doing his great big “round-the-kit” fills when he played “Anyone Who Had a Heart” was inspiring to me.
The Sounds Incorporated guys were just plain crazy. At every town the guys would get off the plane or bus and quickly seek out the nearest pub and wash down gallons of beer till six pm. They would quickly go back to the hotel, get changed and go to do the show. One night during Cilla’s act, the sax/flute player suddenly stopped playing mid solo, walked off stage and vomited everywhere. He then wiped his face and walked back on stage and continued playing!
We began the tour of the Cilla Black show at the Auckland Town Hall, where my girlfriend and my mother had bought front row seats on the mezzanine floor. The opening tune was a fast and raucous Latin instrumental called “Husky” and involved a drum solo. As I started out playing the solo, one leg of the floor tom came loose and the drum simply toppled over and lazily clattered its way down the floor of the stage! It was making almost as much of a spectacle as I was. It finally flopped gently into the footlights. I wanted to die. The greatest moment in my youthful musical career instantly changed into one embarrassing nightmare for all to see. After the show Mum said “Oh, but David I just thought it was all part of the show!’ Sweet thing she is.
The Keil Isles was a very organised band. We had regular Saturday afternoon rehearsals and we always dressed smartly. Herma Keil carefully planned each bracket of music and it certainly was a big step up for me musically. Such 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 band made an LP which I actually liked as the drum sound was quite accurate. We also did some TV shows and the Sat night “C’mon” show was the highlight for me as it nearly became the greatest visual disaster on NZ television. We had gone in to the TV studio in Auckland on a Saturday afternoon for a position setup and rehearsal. We were duly placed in our positions to play our version of “The Hall of the Mountain King” - rock style.
The calm before the storm on C’mon
The producer’s plan was for the studio flood lights to flash on and off to imitate lightning, then a strong wind was to start blowing, complete with small bits of paper added in so as to simulate a driving snowstorm. All of this was to be achieved by running a huge industrial fan placed on the studio floor - right in front of the band. The song started, the lights flashed… then. Nothing. We stopped. The floor manager then informed us that the fan had been wired in reverse, so it was actually running backwards like a giant vacuum cleaner. “No worries chaps” he said “I’ll make sure it will be wired correctly for the live show tonight”.
The clock showed 6:59 pm as we all stood nervously at the ready, our hair slicked and my drums polished. The countdown began: …the “ON AIR” light flashed… compere Peter Sinclair opened the show and did an intro to us. We started playing whilst looking very serious. On cue, bright overhead lights started to flash as the tempo increased (as planned) and then the gigantic wind machine was switched on. At first I thought …”Wow, how cool is this going to look on TV “. Slowly the wind speed increased, the floor crew threw handfuls of paper into the air stream. The wind increased…faster…faster, until the whole studio was shaking with the violent typhoon-like wind that rattled everything not screwed down… including our immaculate hairdos. My new Ludwig Ringo Starr drum kit was threatening to topple over, the cymbals wobbled around like plates on a stick until finally the insanity stopped. The silence was deafening.
We all looked at each other with stunned expressions. We could not believe this had happened. What started out as a clever stage production had suddenly descended into a maelstrom of paper, dust and wobbling cymbals - and musicians. We packed up in silence and drove away.
I was too embarrassed to say much that night, however the phone started ringing as various friends called to tell me: “Man, that was just the BEST show, it was amazing, wow… how did they do that?” I was quite stunned. I thought it was a visual disaster, but apparently the broadcasted TV images were quite really quite spectacular…. and the opposite of our own experience in the studio.
After three nights a week and Saturday afternoon rehearsals for nearly two years I finally left the Keil Isles. I formed my own group and started playing at the new Milford Marina Hotel. A few months I realized playing rather boring background music was just not my scene, so I joined guitarist John Willetts and his band at the Colony night club. Now this was an up-to-date place, the cool young crowd really loved all the stuff we played. John was such a good player and I was challenged every night playing with the group as they were so precise and played exactly the music I liked! At the time my friend Clive Sandham was going out with a girl called Kiri Te Kanawa, a beautiful soprano. I played drums at her birthday party at her house, an interesting night but I felt a little out of place amongst the more classical music people there! One night Kiri came in to the Colony to do a floorshow. I have never heard anyone sing like she can.
Kiri Te Kanawa
The crowd at the Colony liked current hit parade songs, but they stopped talking when Kiri started to sing semi classical songs! She drove to her shows around Auckland in a Morris Minor.
I must say that I have had a lot of fun playing all types of music with all types of bands. My thanks go to Frank Gibson for giving me the opportunity to learn drums properly and to see what have fun it is to play with good musicians. It was great to be amongst the drummers around Auckland because I reckon there was a wonderful comradeship there. The Auckland drummers all seemed to want to help each other and this I think was a great thing.
I would also like to extend my thanks to Auckland drummer Don Branch who I used to call during the week. Don was so patient with me during these calls, sharing his advice and encouraging me with his very positive attitude to someone still learning.
I especially want to mention just a few of the people that were inspirational. People such as the fantastic singer Dick Neill, amazing bass player Billy Karaitiana, guitarists Doug Jerebine, John Willets, Johnny Walker and Ron Craig. Murray Tanner trumpeter, plus great drummers like Trix Willoughby, Clive Cavanaugh, Johnny Doherty (also played at the Picasso) Frank Gibson Snr and Jnr, Don Branch, Ray Edmondson … and many, many more.
Footnote - written Jan 2nd 2013:
I moved over to Sydney in 1969 and started playing in RSL and various sports clubs, as well as a couple of cruise ship voyages. I went to the USA in 1973 and lived in Detroit for a year where I played 6 nights at a restaurant in Royal Oak, Mich.
I was fortunate to get to meet with Joe Morello again in later years. Joe was probably the most decent person I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. In 1991 I was lucky enough to sit spend an afternoon with him, sharing lunch and just talking music and life.
“Hey Dave-try this… “ Attempting to play “fours” with Joe Morello, 1991
Later that same day I attempted to trade “fours” with him at the Glen Weber Drum Shop in West Orange County NJ. - half an hour out of New York. Yes…I was simply too overawed to play properly!
The happiest day of my musical career: With Joe in the studio at the Glen Weber drum shop.
Joe Morello passed away on the 12th March 2011 … at 82 years young.
Dave Williamson, Jan 2013 (last updated October
….to be continued.
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