Johnny Cooper (left) and his band the Range Riders
Johnny Cooper – 'The Maori 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 Maori 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 performs at the Wellington Town Hall.
This is the Evening Post article, published on 1 March 1957, about 'Resusitation rock'.