In late 2011 – the eve of the swansong tour of New Zealand by entertainment legend John Rowles, Alex Staines chatted with him about his 45 years in show biz.
“It’s my global wrap-up. I’m getting a bit weary now,” said John about his final tour, at the start of our conversation.
He’s been on quite a journey since leaving school at 15 to work in a forestry gang in his home town of Kawerau.
He was born with an amazing baritone voice – it has never let him down, though he said he has had to nurture it. “I drink warm water and chardonnay only,” he said. “But I’ve really got to protect that gift. Without it, I’d have to go back to the forestry.” He had to work hard to get the timing, delivery, sound and energy into his voice.
John won a singing competition at age 10 with All Shook Up, a song made famous by Elvis, though he preferred I’ll Get By because he was a big Platters fan. When Elvis became the idol of all the girls at school, John thought, “I’ll get rid of the Platters and move in that direction. The Brylcreem and everything. And it worked really well, so I stuck with it.”
John’s father Eddie (who, by the way, played for the Māori All Blacks) used to sing with his mother Phyllis, prompting John to start his own band while he was at school, called the Shadows, in which he played lead guitar. His first job in entertainment was as a guitarist at an Auckland club when he was 16.
John moved to Australia with Eddie Low in 1963 to sing in Melbourne. In Australia in 1966, John met New Zealand promoter Graham Dent, who gave him a new image under monikers like “The Secret” and “JR” and launched his career as a solo entertainer on shows like New Faces in 1966 and Bandstand.
That was before Peter Gormley took over and “JR” went back to being “John Rowles”. And that’s when he had his international fame.
“Music has always been in my veins,” said John.
“Eventually I established my own uniqueness. And that took a long time, because before then I was sort of copying everyone.”
I asked John about the context of his music. He was heavily influenced by The Shadows. “Hank Marvin was my idol,” said John. “I emulated him as a guitarist before I became a singer. His style fascinated me.”
We talked about the Māori showbands – the Maori Volcanics, the Quintikis, the High Fives. “They were a big influence on me,” said John.
“I remember driving in my Ford Prefect from Kawerau to Rotorua to see the Quintikis. The Māori showbands had tremendous entertainment value – they had the gift of showmanship. And no-one has emulated that since.”
They were not mere “light entertainment”. They were a big influence on music around the world, said John.
“I got the big breaks as a solo entertainer, with the right voice and the right management and so on, but they were unable to sustain it and it all left in the ’70s. And unfortunately, it never came back.”
We got talking about the global hits Cheryl Moana Marie and Tania, named after two of John’s sisters. These are New Zealand treasures. They don’t really relate to anywhere else.
He wrote Cheryl Moana Marie when he was in Blackpool – a depressing, miserable place, recalls John. “I was listening to the radio, and they were playing Engelbert Humperdinck’s The Last Waltz.
“I had been asked to write a song for the Rio De Janeiro Song Festival in 1969, to represent New Zealand. I was thinking of stealing Po Kare Kare Ana or Hoki Mai, but that would be plagiarism. So I looked at The Last Waltz and thought ‘surely I can write a song as easy as that!’ I picked a guitar up and thought, ‘what the hell can I write about New Zealand?’ And I came up with ‘Cheryl Moana Marie, back home she’s waiting for me’. I thought, ‘that’s a great hook line’.”
I’ve met a lot of famous people … Elvis invited me to Graceland, but by the time I got there, he was out of it.”
He got his friend Nat Kipner who wrote Too Much, Too Little, Too Late, to help with the lyrics. “Ten years later I sent him Tania and said ‘can you finish it off for me?’ And he did.
“They’re great songs – they take me back.”
If I Only Had Time and Hush, Don’t Say a Word to Mary were the two big hits in the UK for John, in 1968. He left Britain before Tania and Cheryl made it big and these songs didn’t get a fair chance in Britain, according to John. “Cheryl Moana Marie was never played in Britain,” he said.
Though Cheryl was very popular in America, Hawaii in particular – it had a ring to it that appealed to Americans, said John. Tania was successful here and in Australia.
“One of the big regrets of my life,” said John, “was leaving Great Britain when I was on a roll, so to speak. And I got back there too late. I could have had Delilah.”
“It’s all down to timing. The right place at the right time with the right influence.
“I’ve met a lot of famous people. Gregory Peck. Connie Stevens. The Brat Pack – Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr. Mafia figures – Marcus Lipsky (Al Capone’s right-hand man). I’m not a person that gets impressed with famous people. I mixed with them superficially. It’s a very superficial business, show business.
“Elvis invited me to Graceland, but by the time I got there, he was out of it.
“When I was at the Royal Hawaiian, all the major American actors would stay in the hotel – Dorothy Lamour, Marlon Brando – they all dropped by to see my show in the Monarch Room downstairs.
“I was on Bob Hope’s Learjet with David Janssen, who starred in the TV show The Fugitive. And I remember being young and lost for words – I mean, how do you converse with Bob Hope? I was standing by the window as we were flying out of California and I said ‘Mr Hope, look at those beautiful islands down there’. ‘Yeah kid,’ he says, ‘they belong to me’. I checked it out later, and he wasn’t joking, they did.
It’s all in John’s autobiography, If I Only Had Time, published in 2013.
I asked John about his plans for retirement.
“Spend time with my boys [Dane and Blake]. Put them through the ropes of what I’ve experienced. Singing, acting, writing songs.
“Are they into the music scene as well?” I asked.
“Well, they probably don’t know this yet, but they will be. I’ll make them an offer they can’t refuse. I want to be making some money at 75, managing them.
“Seriously though, music is a saviour for a lot of stress. Music is the greatest relaxation remedy. It’s like a medicine. That’s why I want my sons to be involved with music because it’ll help them with life.”
John is from a large family – he is the only boy left alive following the tragic early deaths of his two older brothers, and his brother Wally died in 2004.
John took his brother Edward’s name as his own middle name throughout his career out of love and respect – Edward died aged eight when John was only a baby.
“I thought it had a ring to it,” said John. “And I hope it still has a ring to it in 10 years’ time when they call me ‘Sir John Edward Rowles’.” Priceless.
Article reproduced with permission of NZME. Educational Media