The birth of Kiwi rock 'n' roll

The birth of Kiwi rock 'n' roll

Johnny Cooper (left) and his band the Range Riders

Johnny Cooper – 'The Māori cowboy'

New Zealand music wouldn’t have been the same without Whanganui. It was at a pie cart in this North Island town in 1957 that New Zealand rock ’n’ roll was born, at the hands of a country singer.

Country meets rock 'n' roll

Johnny Cooper grew up on a farm in Wairoa where he played guitar to the shearing gangs. He became known as ‘the Māori cowboy’, crooning country ballads with his band, the Range Riders, which was formed in 1952.

Cooper made New Zealand’s first rock ’n’ roll recording in 1955 with a cover of Bill Haley's hit ‘Rock around the clock’. Unlike the country's teenagers, Cooper wasn't thrilled by this new sound. By all accounts, his version of the Haley hit wasn't the best rendition.

First New Zealand rock 'n' roll

It was Cooper's third rock ’n’ roll recording – ‘Pie cart rock’n’roll’ (1957) – that took him into local music history. Cooper often had a meal at the Whanganui pie cart late at night after a talent quest or dance. The menu was basic: pea, pie and pud, with a choice of takeaway or dining in by perching on the narrow seats in the hot and stuffy carts. It was there one night that Cooper told the pie cart proprietors, Arthur and Geraldine Dalley, that he’d write a song about their cart. ‘Pie cart rock’n’roll’ was born and, with it, New Zealand's first home-grown rock 'n' roll song.

There’s a story that Cooper traded the song for free meals at the cart. Asked about the episode in 2007, Geraldine (who still lives in Whanganui although she has long given up the pie cart) has a different version. ‘Oh, no,’ she says, ‘it was only the police who got free feeds.’

Was 'Pie cart' first?

Was that tasty tune about a pie cart really our first real home-grown pop song or was it beaten by a long-forgotten beach ditty 'Resuscitation rock'? Both songs emerged in 1957, as the rock ’n’ roll brush fire reached New Zealand.

'Resuscitation rock' was born on a summer’s day at Wellington’s Days Bay as 16-year-old Sandy Tansley watched kiss of life demonstrations.

Described by the Evening Post as ‘the Capital’s own Elvis Presley’, Tansley composed the song with two other members of the Hutt Valley Youth Club. It was recorded on tape early in March.

The big mystery is the actual date of the record’s eventual release. Auckland researcher John Baker claims the record came out in September 1957, beating the recording of 'Pie cart rock'n'roll' by a few crucial weeks.

Johnny Cooper on stage

Johnny Cooper performs at the Wellington Town Hall.

article about Resusitation rock song

This is the Evening Post article, published on 1 March 1957, about 'Resusitation rock'.

See Holmes - Johnny the 'Māori Cowboy' (NZOnScreen):

Community contributions

16 comments have been posted about The birth of Kiwi rock 'n' roll

What do you know?

Stephen Lloyd-Jones

Posted: 29 Jan 2021

My father on double bass...

Renata Taylor

Posted: 28 Oct 2020

Hi I have just found this page My Grandfather was in that band Johnny Cooper and the range Riders Jim Gatfield guitar.

John Fowke

Posted: 16 Jul 2013

Where can I buy either a re-issue or a used copy of one of Johnny Cooper's 3331/3 LP's- I particularly want "Blackboard of My Heart and Lonely Blues

Very grateful for any help,



Posted: 29 Jul 2012

I am enquiring about Colin King who spent many years on the Gold Coast Australia playing dance music for hundreds of fans and loved ones. We never hear of him and would value news and perhaps a photo.
Love to him.
Would Graeme Duckett oblige?? Perhaps an email address or such??

Brian Lewis

Posted: 19 Jan 2012

Thought you may be interest to know Max Merritt and The Meteors still haven't quite left the 60s behind.
A brand new live album, Been Away Too Long, recorded in 1969 and never released, will be released in about a month or so.
If you want a full-length preview of every number on the album go to and follow the links to the viinyl streams.
Enjoy, and believe it or not, we may actually make regular radio airplay on this one.
Brian Lewis, Producer
LosTraxx Records

Badger Bloomfield

Posted: 05 Sep 2011

Johnny Cooper, Promoter, managed a band "The Fabulous Flamingoes" Colin Laurie (Sax)- Mike Nock (Keyboards) Tangi Williams (Drums) one other player I cant remember, but he fell out of the truck and broke both his wrists. Mick Nock is now a world famous Jazz keyboard player who inspired me in the 50's. This touring band used to have meals at my wife's father's house, because Johnny didn't feed or pay them very well .My wife's father was drummer Arthur Laurie, drummer for Ruru {Daddy} Karatiania (of Blue Smoke fame).

Graeme Duckett

Posted: 29 Jul 2011

Hi from Waitara,a correction to my email of 26th July,drummer was Donny White,regards Graeme Duckett,Waitara

Graeme Duckett

Posted: 27 Jul 2011

Hi from Taranaki,The Nitelites were another popular taranaki band.Playing at the Lakeside rendevous at the Bowl Of Brookland in New Plymouth 18 Jan 1964.They appeared at the dancetime Spectacular in the Queens hall in New Plymouth,and were resident band at the Top Of The Pops.They also played at the Stratford memorial hall on saturday night.I believ they evolved into the Nevadas,another very popular band here in the 60s-70s.Members included Robert Bradshaw,rhythm.Allan Clark,trumpet.Dave Orams,bass.Buster walden,vocals.Erroll taylor,piano.Bari Gordon,lead.Lionel Page,alto and tenor sax. Regards Graeme Duckett,Waitara

Graeme Duckett

Posted: 27 Jul 2011

Hi from taranaki,The Melodians were a well known dance band here in the 1950s through to 1984.The early band was Tup (Laurel)Burke,piano.Bert Sharrock,piano accordian.Danny White?drums. Tup left the group and ian Johns took over on piano from 1953.Danny White pulled out and Bob Sharrock joined the band.Bert Sharrock left and Bob hindle came in on Clarinet and sax. Alan Thomas on guitar replaced Bob Hindle,and Bob Sharrock was replaced by Bob Crow. The last band members were Ian Johns Piano. Allan Thomas, Guitar.Jay Horne on drums.Finishing in 1984.The band played all over Taranaki during its career.The Bungalow, at Kawaroa in New Plymouth, a popular venue as was Ngamotu beaches Paladium, A very popular band here along with The Waitara Swing band ,Regards Graeme Duckett Waitara.

Graeme Duckett

Posted: 27 Jun 2011

Hi from Taranaki. Bands such as Colin King and the harmonisers weren't the only big names in the music scene in Taranaki. Bert Vinsens Ambassadors were reputedly the best of the best in music circles and in big demand for dances throughout the north island. Over 300 bookings in one year, was astounding. Cramers Swingkapaters from Inglewood, The Stuart Gordon Trio, The John Sheridan Trio, The Murra y Newson trio, The Norm Cumming trio all played in the Taranaki district in the 50s-60s.Haweras Swingkings.The Modernaires of the 40s-60s,the Rayjay trio, The Diplomats, The Topliners, The Airliners, The Nitelites, the list goes on. As guitars entered the arena, swing and dance bands moved aside as rock and roll, and in the late 60s Rock music took over. Our local bands such as the Nevadas and Kount5 plus 2, hugely popular in New Plymouth until the mid 1970s .Regards Graeme Duckett, Waitara.