It’s a Long Way to the Shop if You Want a Sausage Roll.
By Chris Bourke
Wanganui’s Elvis is in an alleyway behind the Regent Theatre in Palmerston North, having a cigarette before he goes on stage. Pasted on a brick wall are posters for gigs of the past, present and future: grunge bands, rap acts, DJs spinning electronica, a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, New Zealand’s country Highway of Legends and tonight’s rock’n’roll equivalent, The Best of The Best.
The poster for this nostalgic package tour has a 1950s design that splashes the stars’ names above timeless photos: Ray Columbus, Larry Morris, Shane, Sharon O’Neill and Tom Sharplin. Topping the bill is Johnny Devlin, with a smirking portrait from the heady days when he greased his hair back and rolled out of Wanganui to tell Selwyn Toogood the news.
Devlin’s hair is thin now, with a dark brown tint, but there is still enough at the front to form a rock’n’roll quiff. He glances over the posters. “I like all kinds of music,” he says. “But I can’t say I understand hip hop.”
His Australian rhythm guitarist, Wayne Rogers, inhales deeply and nods his head. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s a bad influence on young people.”
“What?” says a local fan, enjoying their company. “Rock’n’roll was a bad influence.” He points at Devlin. “And here, this man got blamed for it.”
Devlin laughs. He is now two years away from 70. “No doubt about it,” he says.
Day 14 of The Best of The Best tour opens in a quiet suburb of Napier. At the Palm City Motor Inn at 11 o’clock on this frosty morning, no one is about. Sharon O’Neill is shopping at the No 1 Shoe Warehouse. Larry Morris is in the laundry. Ray Columbus can be spotted through the nylon curtain of his unit, reading the paper while the cleaners refresh his towels.
“Welcome to Napier,” he says. “You missed the earthquake last night: 4.4 on the Richter scale.” Columbus is in road mode, and happy to make an instant coffee and yarn.
He had the idea for the Best tour after performing as “the only New Zealand-based Kiwi” on the Australian nostalgia show Long Way to the Top. That tour evolved from a documentary series named after the classic AC/DC song. Columbus mentioned the possibility of a New Zealand version to promoters Ian Magan and Gray Bartlett.
“Two years ago, we did the original Best of The Best in Rotorua, with Allison Durbin, John Rowles and Howard Morrison. Sir Howard. It was a huge success, so they said, let’s do a tour.
“I said, sure, as long as it ain’t called Give It a Whirl. I hated that name. My father would turn over in his grave if he thought I was doing a show called Give It a Whirl. He didn’t put me on stage to give it a whirl. I was to be an entertainer. It was serious stuff.”
Columbus has been on stage since the age of six, when he was a champion tap-dancer. It doesn’t take much to nudge him into telling his life story: selling ice creams in Christchurch picture theatres, watching Elvis movies then mooching about the Square in a baseball jacket and jeans, “the first Levi’s in Christchurch”.
He was “a complete Yankophile”, and his mother knitted him a frat-boy jersey with a big “R” on the front. It wasn’t long before he was performing with his band the Invaders to GIs at the Deep Freeze base, on television with his own show Club Columbus, and touring Australia with the Rolling Stones.
Forty years later, he’s on the road with their New Zealand equivalents, the bad boys of 1960s pop, Larry Morris and Shane Hales. “I’m writing a film script about them, I can see Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan in the lead roles.
“I’ve often been asked to write my biography, but it would be boring. I never did drugs or cheated on my wives. And I’d have to leave out so many of the other things I’ve witnessed. The Harry Miller stories.”
Miller promoted the Invaders’ Australian tours, and it was being left high and dry on one of them that gave Columbus his lifelong philosophy about contracts: “I don’t go to the toilet without a return ticket.”
In the courtyard, a few of the tour’s Australian backing band the Tornadoes are having cigarettes and Nescafé outside their units. They’re in no hurry to go anywhere; the Tornadoes have been doing this since 1961.
The New Zealand stars are congregating, in dribs and drabs. Tom Sharplin is very welcoming, introducing me to those I haven’t met. Shane, cherubic winner of the Loxene Gold Disc in 1969, immediately comes across as a likeable rogue. Johnny Devlin was notorious in our house long before that, when bodgies were talked about in tones of horror and awe. Even his band was called the Devils. This afternoon, the Satin Satan isn’t saying much.
A taxi-van arrives to take the troupe to Channel 51, Hawke’s Bay’s regional television station, which reaches 110,000 viewers from its bunker-like studio. The host of Chatroom is Willy De Wit, a recent émigré to the Bay from Auckland. He’s “high on Nurofen”, battling a cold; the Best stars are relieved they have recovered from a lurgi caught early in the tour in the chilly deep south.
Columbus and Morris are the first guests, and take their seats in front of a panoramic photograph of sunny Hawke’s Bay. After a polite opening the conversation quickly turns to something the Bay’s tourism board has probably written out of the region’s history: Napier’s notorious Cabana Bar. For several decades this seedy rock’n’roll venue played host to beat groups, rock bands, ship girls and deadbeats.
Morris cuts to the chase, a sly look on his face: “It’s the only venue in the country where I ever saw a guy and his woman get it on in front of the stage, while the band was playing. We’re talking extreme intimacy. I could not believe my eyes.”
Columbus tries to keep it seemly. “The Invaders never played the Cabana. I do remember the Top Hat. But I didn’t used to go out after a show. I had a family.”
De Wit: Any anecdotes from this tour you wish to share?
The larrikin in Larry has never been coy about sharing a farcical story and, this being the Bay, he recalls a night when Shane climbed out a Napier hotel-room window to retrieve a woman’s clothes from the balcony.
“I threw them out there,” says Morris. “And Shane was gentleman enough to go and get them. Only he was naked. And as he was climbing up the ladder with this woman’s knickers on his head, I did the obvious: I closed the window. Ray says we’ve got to get this into the movie …”
Columbus looks directly at the camera: “But we can’t go into it now, for copyright reasons …”
Morris: “Besides, my mum’s still alive. Like me, she’s got all her hair – whereas Ray has more hats than a bald man.”
Columbus: “My first wife hated hats. So when she left, the first thing I did was buy lots of hats.”
Morris chuckles. “I’m not looking forward to this tour finishing.”
It’s not just the music that is a throwback on this tour. The humour is ribald rather than sleazy. Sharon O’Neill was indulging musicians’ quips before sexism had a name, and laughs along with everyone else; no hint of negative reaction is detectable.
O’Neill and Shane are next to receive the De Wit welcome. “Here we go,” says Sharplin. “Shameless and Sh’ron.” Both small, perfectly formed and in touch with their feminine side, they have become firm friends on this tour – “I love her like a sister,” says Shane, and for once I’m sure it’s true.
De Wit opens by introducing O’Neill as his girlfriend from the late 70s, “my imaginary girlfriend”.
“Oh thank you,” she says sweetly. The tour has been a joy; of her fellow performers, she only knew Sharplin well before it began. They sang together in front of the Queen in the early 80s.
“Whereas Larry and I are thick as thieves,” says Shane. “When we’re together, things go astray …”
De Wit: “So we’ve heard …”
Shane: “I felt sorry for that lady he talked about, so I had to retrieve her clothes … do we have to dwell on this?”
He gets his own back on his partner in crime: “Larry got into my unlocked bag on this tour, and took a pair of my undergarments. He placed them on the bus’s windscreen wipers without anyone noticing. We set off, and it started to rain. And there were my G-strings, going back and forth. A great way to clean them ...
“Larry is the original rebel. I’m not far behind him, maybe a bit more reserved. I love him to bits.”
You can almost hear a drum roll from De Wit as Johnny Devlin and Tom Sharplin take their place. “And here, in their entirety …”
“Not me!” says the one-legged Sharplin, whose business card describes him as “A New Zealand entertainment leg end.” The limb he lost in a tractor accident at the age of six will always be part of his character.
What are their memories of Napier? “Well,” says Devlin, whose slow drawl shows his journey from Wanganui to Australia, via many American westerns, “I had my first paid gig here, at the Swing’n’Sway Club. Ten shillings. Then I came back to the Cabana, and got paid five quid.”
“Napier is part of my rock’n’roll history,” says Sharplin. “I played the Cabana, the Leopard Inn. Johnny was actually managing me then – he took me in, a floundering little cripple, and I learnt a lot about the game from him. I saw Johnny perform on the same show as the Beatles.”
“Actually,” says Devlin, “I have a photo of myself with them …”
The photo is Devlin’s most prized memento: in the foyer each night on The Best of The Best tour, signed copies sell like it was 1964 all over again.
The Chatback producer says farewell, pleased they didn’t push the envelope any further with their stories. Back in the taxi-van, such badinage is all in a day’s work. “We were going to call the tour the Antiques Road Show,” says Sharplin, “but that was already taken. Sharon’s idea was Rage With the Aged.”
Dinner that night in the Masonic hotel is a blur of anecdotes from master raconteurs. Among those with walk-on parts are the Bee Gees when still in short pants, a Lady Godiva who rode through Shane’s Grey Lynn flat on a horse, and a pilled-up Bruno Lawrence on crutches causing havoc at a record industry dinner. Ritchie Pickett’s nicknames are shared: Stray Commer-Bus, Torn Sharkfin. And the secret language of an ancient order of New Zealand musicians is explained: using “doy” for “boy”, and “cher” meaning “cool”. It goes back to the days of the Howard Morrison Quartet ...
“That’s Sir Howard to you.”
“Not to me.”
The avuncular bus driver Ron Imrie receives countless versions of “Happy Birthday”. Recent exile from Auckland Kim Willoughby calls by with Dudes husband Ian Morris; Willoughby and O’Neill became “soul sisters” on the revival tours of When the Cat’s Away. “That was fantastic for me,” says O’Neill later, “because it eased me back into performing in New Zealand.
“Because actually, this tour has been hard for me. It’s the first time I’ve come back to New Zealand and I can’t call Mum and Dad. They’re not there now. So while I would have loved to play Nelson, it would have been very difficult.”
Shane too, has had a battle with grief during this tour: his brother died from cancer, in Australia. Just before going on the road, Shane had taken his mother over for a last visit, but the day of the burial his loss hit home. “I broke down in Tauranga, that night. I cried on stage. I can’t explain what happened to me right at that moment, I just broke down in tears.
“My voice had got sore, and I was tired, but I was carrying it. I was singing ‘St Paul’ for him, and when I got to that bit where I say ‘God bless John Lennon and George Harrison,’ I said, ‘and Bruce, my brother.’ And the crowd all sang along, and I finished, bowed and then – I just couldn’t talk. I was crying, I went to pieces. I croaked ‘this is terribly unprofessional – I buried my brother today.’ It must have been an emotional trigger, and I was there for everyone to see. But Auckland a couple of days later was really special: my Mum was there and it was a great show.”
Day 15 is “show day” in Napier, but with a visit to the Cabana in the itinerary, it’s more like show-and-tell. Ray Columbus puts on the first show of the day, in the car park of the motel. He is dancing across the asphalt, seemingly without moving his feet, while shaking imaginary maracas and pouting his mouth like a hungry groper.
“Mick Jagger isn’t a singer!” he cries. “He was the original rapper!”
The taxis arrive, and on the way to the musical den of iniquity, Columbus and Sharplin are recalling the diminutive and theatrical Hubert Milverton-Carter, the top Auckland singing coach in the late ’60s. Milverton-Carter also taught Bunny Walters, Suzanne and Donald McIntyre how to pitch, breathe, enunciate and use their diaphragms. “It was pure classical training,” says Sharplin. “How to use the voice as a tool. The things I learnt then, I’m still putting into practise today.”
There’s a party on at the Cabana: a Napier enthusiast is writing a book on its nefarious history. While the club itself is no more, the building remains at the foot of Bluff Hill. Its present function – as art gallery, wine bar and backpacker lodge – reflects how New Zealand has moved on since the days when sirens insisted patrons went home at 10 o’clock.
The singers mingle among well-worn former patrons. Scrapbooks are produced, long forgotten bands and gigs are recalled. The visitors enjoy themselves beyond their expectations. Shane leaves with photos of himself performing at the Top Hat club in velvet bowtie and three-piece suit, Morris with a C’mon ’68 tour poster. But he is quietly fuming. “A guy insisted on showing me his diary account of our gig here 40 years ago. It said the band was not much chop and far too loud. What rubbish! We didn’t have the capacity. But what kind of person reads you a bad review that’s 40 years old? I just don’t get it!”
Walking to soundcheck, Morris cheers up when we pass by the hotel that was the scene of his shenanigans with Shane. The next morning, promoter Benny Levin fired them from the tour. “Benny was Larry’s manager, and Phil Warren was mine,” says Shane. “They came to a compromise where we weren’t allowed to speak to each other. He had to sit at the back of the bus; I had to sit at the front. Of course, as soon as he went out of sight, it was the same as usual.”
At the Municipal Theatre the Tornadoes are on stage, dressed in street clothes in front of a ’60s-style set. They are ready to go, and lead guitarist Dave Goodger doesn’t waste time. “What’s your poison?” he curtly asks each singer.
“Cadillac,” says Sharplin.
“Happy in a Sad Kind of Way,” says Columbus.
“Cuddly Toy,” says Shane.
They rattle through the songs, sometimes only needing a verse and a chorus to get the levels. Each singer has their own cordless microphone, labelled with their names. Sharon O’Neill’s is pink, otherwise, in the dark she might grab Shane’s. She shivers in the wings, dressed in thigh-high dark brown suede boots, a quilted sleeveless windbreaker and a beanie pulled down low over her blonde fringe. It has a star on its brim.
“Are you a happy camper?” says Goodger.
“She’s always a happy camper,” says Columbus.
There’s a fanfare from Sharplin: “Heeeere’s Johnny!”
Wanganui’s rebel with a cause is in a leather jacket, jeans and shades. The soundman hands him a microphone: a real one, with a cord to play with and a stand to twirl. “Just a chorus,” he says. “‘Shakin’.”
The band kicks into “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”. To my surprise, Devlin is more Jerry Lee Lewis than Elvis: all swagger and attitude, and compelling.
“Good evenin’ ladies’n’gentlemen,” he drawls to the empty theatre. “Would you like to hear some rock’n’roll?”
“What if they say no, Johnny?” says Goodger.
“Well they’re getting’ it anyway!”
Ninety minutes later, the Municipal Theatre foyer is packed. The crowd is well dressed, its median age about 55. There are no rock’n’roll revivalists, I think, and not even any bogans. Then I notice a vagrant sidling nearby. He’s got long, greasy grey hair, a mouth full of broken teeth, and a mad look in his eye. If he weren’t already invading your space, you would be crossing the street.
“Whaddaya think of these guys?” the tramp says to the innocent bystander beside me. He catches my curious eye, as if he recognises me. Looking worried, he quickly stabs at his programme: “I’ve seen them before. They’re all good, but this one …” he points at Tom Sharplin’s picture “… is a poof.”
The voice seems familiar, but its dishevelled owner has darted into the crowd.
Showtime. The Tornadoes, Wollongong’s finest, are dressed in royal blue jackets and black polo necks. They warm up the audience with “Green Onions” and “Splish Splash” before introducing New Zealand’s best of the best.
Tom Sharplin strides on and starts to croon the 1950s rockabilly ballad “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache”: “Who you been lovin’ since I been gone …”
Only the first few rows can hear him: his microphone is dead. The crowd holds its breath while he grabs a musician’s microphone. He doesn’t miss a beat. After some very retro jokes, Sharplin gets an enthusiastic response. “And it’s only Tuesday night!” he cries. He walks off beaming, his job done: the cold theatre is now warm.
Shane enters, stage right, to a gasp from the audience. He is wearing a tight, powder-blue skivvy that’s bursting at the seams. The sleeves have extravagant blue-and-white ruffles all down the arms. They look like a flamenco dancer’s wings.
“A woman came up to me after a recent show in Hamilton,” he explains. “She had a shirt of mine from 1969. When I asked if she found it under the bed, she was most put out. She won it through my fan club, and did I want it back? After 37 years, she couldn’t get rid of it fast enough.”
With so many stars on the bill, there is no need for any musical filler. Every song is a hit, so the evening is a rapid-fire wallow in nostalgia. Sharplin pays tribute to Tommy Adderley and Billy T James. Morris still has the macho intensity from the Rebels, but with more gravel in his voice for “I Feel Good” and “Everybody’s Girl”. O’Neill shows her late-70s sophistication with “Luck’s On the Table”, “Asian Paradise” and “Maxine”. Columbus does the Mod’s Nod – of course – and goes operatic with “Till We Kissed”. These are like old friends to the audience. They enjoy the stories behind the songs, and all the banter.
Columbus: “Sharon says she never knew Maxine. Larry did.”
Morris: “What about that shirt of my mate’s? He shoulda been gay.”
O’Neill: “The best thing about this tour is the jokes. We are just cracking up backstage, which is the worst thing for your voice.”
The singers introduce each other with humour and respect. There’s a subtle pecking order, most apparent on stage when they pass the baton to the next performer. “When I was young,” says Columbus, “I had to choose between being Fred Astaire or Elvis. Here’s the man that showed my father a career in rock’n’roll was possible: Johnny Devlin.”
The godfather of the New Zealand rock’n’roll carries his burden without comment; enough was said in the 50s, in headlines, in Parliament, and from pulpits throughout the country. Devlin strides on, carrying his microphone stand like a weapon. He’s wearing a shiny purple jacket and black leather pants. “Thank you Napier, for not forgetting me,” he says. “Do you like rock’n’roll?”
There’s no time for an answer. Devlin takes over the stage with his sheer primeval presence. “Whole Lotta Shakin’” is irresistible; couples immediately start jiving in the aisles. He uses his microphone stand like a dancing partner, leaning over it, engaging with the front rows. He closes the show by breaking it in half and using the top for a walking stick.
As we leave Napier the next morning, the Ruahine Ranges are shimmering with snow. For Johnny Devlin, Palmerston North will be the highlight of the tour. This is his territory, and he’s looking forward to spending time with his cousin, best friend and early musical collaborator, Tony Mercer.
He starts talking, though just briefly. He’s weary and a little wary – he has a book of his own planned – but as the coach heads towards home turf, he can’t help but reflect on the old days.
This is the route he took when he rode his motorcycle from Wanganui to bring rock’n’roll to Napier. He was heading for his first paid gig, with his guitar strapped across his back. “It was a bit difficult, particularly if you got a wind gust. The guitar went one way and the bike the other. I’ve gone over a few times on the motorbike: the gravel was always a killer.
His apprenticeship was in the Devlin Family Singers; with Mercer, he formed the River City Ramblers. “When rock’n’roll came in, Mum and Dad dipped out, they didn’t like travelling much. Tony’s father had a Model A Ford and he’d come up to Wanganui and pick my brothers and myself up. We’d go down to wherever the talent quest was on, or a charity show, and sing and harmonise. I won my first one in Dannevirke, and got second in Foxton.”
Devlin laughs. “My brother had an old tea-chest bass and Tony and I would play the guitar. My other brothers would get broken beer bottles, use the tops of them and put a bit of paper in between them, and get a sound like a saxophone!”
What did his parents think of his shift from country to rock’n’roll? “Well they didn’t mind. I went on my own because I was doing the Elvis thing. But Mum and Dad used to say, if you see any of those bodgies and widgies down town, walk on the other side of the road, y’know? But it was just the style at the time. I remember I had a ming blue coat, a pair of white stovepipe pants, and I searched everywhere and eventually found a pair of blue suede shoes. And that’s what I wore on stage before I went professional.”
This tour has brought back a lot of memories, especially the madness of his six-month barnstorm through New Zealand in late 1958. He runs through a few of the incidents: the night the fire hoses were turned on the crowd, the riot in which a policeman lost a finger, and the photo opportunity with MP Mabel Howard. One time, he had to take the louvres out of a toilet window to escape the crowds. “I climbed through and raced up the road and ended up in the Chinese restaurant!”
But Devlin has done enough talking. He wants to sit quietly and enjoy the DVD of Billy Connolly touring New Zealand. The Australians are taking the most interest. Larry Morris has his eyes shut; he’s listening to Steely Dan to prepare for a tribute show. Shane is reading Cynthia Lennon’s autobiography, while O’Neill is doing crosswords. Sharplin is asleep, his leg off, his stump tucked between the seats in front of him.
The towns of southern Hawke’s Bay pass by without comment until we stop at Dannevirke. The Tornadoes disperse in all directions, looking for another version of the great Kiwi pie. Morris takes pleasure misquoting AC/DC’s song: it’s a long way to the shop if you want a sausage roll.
Standing outside New World, having a cigarette, Devlin calls me over. “Something just came back to me. Dannevirke was where I promoted my first gig, at the Town Hall. The Devlin family were the whole bill, in different line-ups. In one item, my mother whistled.”
The Australians have settled in for the day in the carpark of the Palmerston North motel. They’ve pulled chairs out of their units and found a large cardboard box to serve as a drinks table. They bask in the sunshine as if they’re on a verandah in Brizzy. “We’re the trailer trash,” laughs guitarist Wayne Rogers.
Actually, they all have a diverse range of day jobs back in Wollongong: one is a helicopter pilot, another programs computer games and the drummer works with special-needs children. Lead guitarist Dave Goodger founded the Tornadoes as a schoolboy in 1961; by day he moulds presentation deep-sea fish out of fibreglass.
“We started as a family band, with my three brothers and Fred Marsh,” he says.
In the past 45 years, the band has “married everyone in Wollongong,” though a few members have come and gone. Marsh, a sax player, briefly left to play for the GIs during the Vietnam, on the same bill as Maori showbands, Bob Hope and Ann-Margret.
Goodger saw Devlin on television when he first arrived in Australia in 1959. “It was a big deal. He was always billed as being from New Zealand. In those days it gave him extra cachet: if they’d travelled so far, they must be good.
“The New Zealanders have always had a great reputation as performers: Dinah Lee, Max Merritt. It’s a drawcard. I saw Ray and the Invaders on stage with the Rolling Stones in 1965. I’ll never forget this little monkey shaking his hair doing ‘She’s a Mod’.”
In the dressing rooms of Palmerston North’s Regent Theatre, the vocal warm-ups are like arias. Marsh – born of Maltese parents – has taught Devlin some Italian scales. Fredo, fredo, fre-e-do …
Wanganui’s Caruso is enjoying himself. He can’t resist adding a yodel to the mock-Puccini.
The show is a virtual replay of the one in Napier: the same set-list, revealing anecdotes and shaggy dog stories. But there’s more of a sense of occasion here in Palmerston North, maybe because of the magnificent theatre, probably because of the regional connections. Sharplin gives a shout-out to local girl Angela Ayers; Morris thanks a schoolmate from Freyberg College who first got him up on stage.
But it’s the unexpected that brings the biggest laughs. “We’re a great team,” Sharplin tells the audience. “Johnny, who mismanaged me years ago. And Sharon and Shane. From the back, their bums are the same.”
Shane camps it up, riffing on his rivalry with Morris. He has changed into a military-style jacket, and shows off his new bracelet. “Larry bought it for me today. They keep saying I’m gay, but … what kind of man buys his mate jewellery?”
He waits for the laughter to subside, collects himself, and then:
I … looked up to the sky …
“St Paul” instantly transports the audience back to 1969. The Paul-is-dead epic has drama and pathos, with all its Beatles references and its big “Hey Jude” ending. By the end, Shane is on his knees, his jacket off, a Fab Four T-shirt revealed. He could milk the moment, but instead he lightens it, peering over the monitor to say, “I feel like Ray Columbus.”
The meet-and-greet in the foyer is a family reunion that threatens to go on past midnight. The extended Devlin family is here in force, among them a young nephew eager to have his guitar signed by Uncle Johnny. But other branches of the entertainment whanau are present: an ex-Happen Inn dancer, and country music veteran Johnny Morris, resplendent in bola tie and straw Stetson.
Boarding the bus, Larry Morris puts his arm around Devlin’s shoulder: “Good on ya, Johnny. You did Manawatu proud.”
“This is Shirley Bassey’s dressing room,” says Columbus. He’s backstage at the Wellington Town Hall. The dressing rooms have been refurbished, in keeping with the building’s Edwardian elegance. It wouldn’t have been half as smart when the Beatles and Rolling Stones jostled for space in this corridor. “I’m retiring the old Cuban-heeled boots,” says Columbus. “I nearly fell over last night going sideways.”
Morris and Sharplin are squeezed in together. Sharplin produces a pair of zebra-striped shoes, bought in the 70s at Cook Street Market. Morris is ironing his lurid Bob Marley shirt, and it’s not going smoothly. “How the f--- does this work?” He is steaming more than the iron; he’s very domestic, in an angry kind of way.
The auditorium is filling up; backstage, the atmosphere has a nervous energy. It’s as though everyone is about to jump out of an aeroplane. Sharplin warms up by singing scat trumpet. Devlin is genial, but on edge. “It’s coffee time!” he calls out. “Let’s liquidate these tonsils!”
But the last night of the tour also has an air of celebration, of camaraderie – and of sadness. Right through the concert, the backstage corridor echoes with everyone singing along to whoever is on stage. When Sharplin closes his first bracket with Max Merritt’s ‘Slippin’ Away’, behind the scenes it’s like a Kiwi All-stars choir of backing vocalists, with O’Neill providing country harmonies.
Sharplin is the first to thank the Tornadoes: “We’d like to keep them, and change their name to the Retirement Village People.”
Suddenly, Columbus darts across the stage, bent over, his knuckles almost scraping the stage. The natural-born vaudevillian is wearing a Groucho Marx mask. Sharplin does a double take, but isn’t wrong-footed for long. His Tommy Adderley medley brings a wave of emotion from the audience. Standing in the wings in his ruffled sleeves, Shane admits it’s a hard act to follow. But he wins over the baby-boomer crowd by telling them his vintage shirt is from Wellington. “Remember His Lordships boutique?”
This brings a laugh; the audience is immersed in the nostalgia. “Nice, noisy Wellington,” says Columbus in the wings. Songs are recognised from their preambles, before the music even starts. ‘She’s a Mod’ is a hair-wiggling triumph, and Columbus reaches for a small phial from his pocket. “It’s nitro-glycerine for my heart,” he says. “You probably thought it was something else, it’s that small …”
In the wings, Morris is aghast. “What? Am I hallucinating? Forty years it has taken, but we’re finally influencing him!”
Devlin hasn’t sung his “Rocket in My Pocket” all tour, despite requests. He stands triumphant on the same stage he stormed Wellington in a rock’n’roll jamboree nearly 50 years ago. He winds the crowd up for the encores, with a mixture of hype and honesty:
“Would you like some more? What? I’m a little hard of hearing!”
The Tornadoes take the groove up another notch as Devlin is joined on stage by his friends: Sharon, Tom, Shane, Larry, Ray. It’s a dance party; the audience is standing, dancing and singing. On stage, the performers are cutting a rug, doing the Mod’s Nod, the Frug, the Swim, the Twist.
Devlin wanted to close the shows with “Rock Around the Clock”, but he got out-voted. Instead, they chose Del Shannon’s “Runaway”:
And as I still walk on, I think of the things we’ve done
Together, a-while our hearts were young …
It’s a poignant moment, but you can’t keep a good party down. It’s an extended, joyful vamp on Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say” that sees the Best of the Best leave the stage.
Both the performers and their audiences have been struck by the sense of connection and belonging that has emerged. Professionalism makes sense when you witness the staying power of these singers. But it’s more than that: since the late 1950s, these performers have dominated our headlines, pop shows on one-channel television, charity events and classic hits radio.
“They know us so well, there’s a sense of ownership,” says Morris. “We were the musical landscape of their teenage years. A woman came up to me in Palmerston’s two-dollar shop. She said, ‘We conceived our first son to your “Let’s Think of Something”.’
“It meant a lot to me, to be part of her life in that way. But while I was thanking her, all I could think of was a Ford Prefect bouncing up and down.”
- North & South, 2006