Dalvanius was New Zealand’s hardest working man in show business. He would be happy to borrow that title from James Brown, plus one more: he was our Soul Brother No 1. Before Maui Dalvanius Prime became a household name in 1983 for co-writing and producing the massive hit ‘Poi E’, it was his exquisite mastery of R&B and soul music that endeared him to thousands of fans in New Zealand, Australia and South-East Asia. In every era from the Drifters to D’Angelo, Dalvanius was a scholar of R&B with the vocal skills to emphatically prove his point. We lost a leader in our community with his passing in 2002 – in many fields – but this album celebrates his first love, soul music that came from Memphis, Detroit or Philadelphia (through a Taranaki filter).
Dalvanius was born on 16 January 1948, the sixth of 11 children who grew up in 1950s Patea. In a 2000 interview he recalled his mother Josephine’s beautiful voice and his father Ephraim’s talent on the mandolin, ukelele and violin. “He could pick up any instrument and make a tune out of it – including these ridiculous castanets he used to wear between his knees.”
The house was full of music, particularly doo-wop and Josephine’s favourite crooner, Perry Como. “Their taste was very un-Maori except at parties when the Maori songs would come out. We were the doo-wop kids: the Moonglows, the Platters, the Inkstops and the Drifters. We grew up with Elvis and Fats Domino, rock’n’roll and lots of country.” From his grandfather, a Catholic, and his father, a Mormon, he learnt hymns – often with Maori words.
He heard his overseas favourites via radio station 2SM beaming into Patea from Sydney, but his “mega-heroes” were the Howard Morrison Quartet, which he witnessed at Showtime Spectaculars at the Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth. “I used to sit there, dreaming. I desperately wanted to be a singer.”
The Olympics was his first band, playing 21st birthday parties and marae dances around Taranaki. Their show-stopper was Sam the Sham’s ‘Woolly Bully’, with the band wearing Beatles wigs.
It was the era in which talent quests ruled New Zealand entertainment, and singers such as Rama White (from Poverty Bay) and the Quin-Tikis’ Rim D Paul (from Ruatoria) were especially inspirational. Johnny Cooper and Eddie Low nurtured his love of country music. “So we had our Maori heroes, but the only ones who sang in the Maori language were the Howard Morrison Quartet.”
In 1967, Dalvanius moved to Wellington, working as a cook by day and as a musician by night: he was pianist and musical director for the Porirua vocal group the Shevelles (“the Maori Supremes”). By 1969 he had formed the Fascinations with his brother Edward and sister Barletta. Together they won Talent Scope, a national talent quest hosted on 2ZB by Philip Sherry; they performed Willie Nelson’s ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’. “Our harmonies were very Peter, Paul and Mary,” recalled Dalvanius, though the absolute confidence of the versions on this collection (a 1973 single recorded in Australia, and a conversational aside from 2000) also suggests Jackie Wilson. The prize was a radiogram, still in use 30 years later.
Dalvanius traveled to Australia in 1970 with the Shevelles, but gigs were limited due to their dislike of travel and a religious objection to performing on Sundays. When Barletta arrived a year later, the Fascinations reformed.
Dalvanius and the Fascinations quickly became a leading attraction on the Australian circuit, playing rugby league and RSL clubs, including a year’s season at Hobart’s Wrest Point Casino. They performed at the opening of the Sydney Opera House and, through the 1970s, supported visiting acts such as Petula Clark, the Commodores, Dionne Warwick, Isaac Hayes, Tina Turner and the Pointer Sisters.
Recording for Warner Brothers (on the Reprise label) they covered the O’Jays’ ‘Love Train’ and the Staples’ ‘Respect Yourself’. “Who in their right mind would attack a Mavis Staples’ song and think they can do it better?” Dalvanius said in 2000. Producer Gus McNeil thought Dalvanius’s songwriting skills hadn’t developed sufficiently: “I was still into doo-wop”. But their vocal talents meant the Fascinations were in demand recording backing vocals for Australian stars such as Renee Geyer, Richard Clapton and Sherbert. The latter group, riding high with their hit ‘Howzat’, invited Dalvanius and the Fascinations to join their arduous Australian tours. The Fascinations opened the shows and joined Sherbert on stage for a few songs. Two Christmas spectaculars were especially memorable, with Sherbert and the Fascinations combinign for rocked-up versions of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ and ‘White Christmas’.
Sherbert’s Clive Shakespeare and their New Zealand-born keyboardist Garth Porter encouraged the Fascinations to record their own material. TV music show host Molly Meldrum talked them out of making Dalvanius’s ‘Voodoo Lady’ the A-side, preferring the slow groove and slick Stylistics harmonies of his song ‘Checkmate on Love’. Dalvanius: “We tried it out on the Isaac Hayes and Dionne Warwick tour and it just killed them.”
The enforced resignation of Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1975 inspired ‘Canberra, We’re Watching You’, a localised version of the Staples’ hit ‘Washington …’ but by the end of the 1970s Dalvanius had taken on board some blunt advice from Sherbert manager Roger Davies (who later re-vitalised the careers of Tina Turner and Joe Cocker). “He told me, ‘Dalvanius, no one wants to know about a Maori guy and two spunky chicks performing American R&B. Go home and find a Polynesian sound that’s going to emulate your own culture.”
Dalvanius was already aware that his identification with black American R&B was incongruous. In a 1976 interview he was upbeat: “People say, ‘You’re just a rip-off of a Negro group’, but to us that’s like telling the Average White Band to pick up the bagpipes or having the audacity to tell Charlie Pride to sing ‘Funky Chicken’.”
But in 1979, while on tour in Japan, Dalvanius heard that his mother was dying. He returned home to New Zealand, and for the first time since childhood was confronted by his Maori culture.
It was as a producer that Dalvanius made his mark back home, with the novelty ‘Maoris on 45’ (a No 4 hit for the Consorts in 1982) and Prince Tui Teka’s sentimental ballad ‘E Ipo’ (No 1 in 1982, and in the charts for 19 weeks). He learnt the Maori language, and then had a life-changing experience when he met the songwriter Ngoi Pewhairangi of Tokomaru Bay. Together, they wrote the New Zealand fusion classic ‘Poi E’ which topped the New Zealand charts for a month.
After the phenomenal success of ‘Poi E’ with the Patea Maori Club in 1983-84, Dalvanius was ubiquitous in New Zealand. For the next two decades he was a tireless campaigner, for music and Maori culture. He discovered young singers and bands, recorded them and nurtured their careers; he helped teenagers in trouble, ran courses in music, performance (and marketing!), and lobbied for the return of moko mokai – preserved tattooed heads of Maori ancestors – from museums around the world.
Dalvanius was a showman in the old tradition, with an open-minded musical talent that saw no boundaries of style or era. He could be outrageous, demanding, cheeky and saucy, but he was also generous, energetic – and a true visionary.
Everything he did had soul, and this collection of his early work and later rarities is a testimony to his giant heart.
No reira, e te puna waiata, haere, haere, haere (“And so goodbye, the wellspring of music, farewell, farewell, farewell”).
– Chris Bourke, April 2003