The birth of Kiwi rock 'n' roll

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 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'.

Community contributions

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

What do you know?

graeme Duckett

Posted: 06 Jan 2011

Hi from Taranaki,on talking to Violet Grubner here in waitara(she and her late husband Max,country singers & musicians of note here locally since the 60s) she thought that Johny Coopers talent show came here just the once in 1967 and believed it was called Give it a Go. She told me there is also a Johny Cooper Cup won each year through the Country and western Club here still, regards Graeme Duckett

Graeme Duckett

Posted: 05 Jan 2011

Hi from taranaki. The Johny cooper talent quest came through taranaki in the 1960s.A schoolfriend and i(keith Rae) came 3rd in the quest singing Blue Shadows in the night.First i recall was Johny Eriwhata and Anne-marie King singing Pretty women. Our ownlocal Waitara star of the time Lou Pryme sang to a full house at the Waitara war memorial hall. This would have been in 1967.The big stars who sang were The Chicks(Sue and Judy Donaldson) who were great. And we eagerly lined up to get autographs and to shake their hands and have a quick chat. Other stars in the early to mid 60s through here were Lou and Simon who were real characters and great performers.I remember The Blue Diamonds from Palmerston north played to a packed house. Fun times, regards Graeme

johnny croot

Posted: 15 Dec 2009

Hi, i won a Johnny Cooper talent quest 1965. I have a few stories to tell about this great man who launched a few careers into NZ show business. Regards Johnny

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