September 8, 2008

Taranaki Musician is Still King of the Dance

By PRICE, Vicki

This article was written by a contributor. It is not to be reproduced without permission from the Taranaki Daily News and charges may be incurred.


TARANAKI'S young people used to dance. They used to dance a lot. Every weekend saw crowds swarm to the halls, where bands played old- time, Dixieland and rock and roll music for the largely clean- living young people of the 1950s and '60s.

One of the most popular and successful big bands was Colin King and The Harmonisers. For 25 years, Mr King promoted dances with his own dance band and held the largest dances in Taranaki. Between 1500 and 2000 guests attended his dances in the Stratford Memorial Hall every week for 20 years.

Mr King, born in 1935 in Fitzroy, learnt piano when just a lad from the St Joseph's nuns, later learning modern music from a Mrs Davies. He was an Anglican altar boy at St John's, a Waitara Cub Scout, played in the brass band and, during 79 boxing bouts, became Taranaki's bantamweight champ. He also played for the Clifton Rugby Team, which were the first-ever fifth, fourth, third and junior champs.

Mr King left school when he turned 15 and started a job learning to be a mechanic, but three months later, he was out playing his music six nights a week and realised he couldn't do both.

"Mum said, You got to make up your mind - mechanic or musician. I finished up being a musician and thank her for thrashing me along to play the piano."

As a boy, Mr King hadn't enjoyed his early music lessons and particularly hated practising. He started his own dance band and began a music career that saw him play at the Fitzroy Hall, Star Gym and the Stratford Memorial Hall among others all around the mountain for 52 years.

But it hasn't all been music. Mr King married and had six children in between gigs. Then, in 1957, he inadvertently started a business career that ironically would contribute to the demise of the dance hall tradition - he started a music and television outlet. For nearly 20 years, he retailed the latest television sets, often travelling around the mountain in a van that was set up as a mobile television shop. He would pull up in a small town and find a power source to hook up a TV, to the astonishment of the public, who had more often than not never seen this new marvel.

His business really took off and Mr King was invited by the Phillips Television Company to regularly travel to Japan to learn firsthand the latest developments in TV. He had shops in Waitara (this one burnt down), New Plymouth, Inglewood, Eltham and Rahotu. As president of community service in the Waitara Rotary Club, Mr King was the instigator behind developing the 2.8 hectares of sand hills and lupins into what is now known as Marine Park. Mr King was also instrumental in other beautification activities in the town, including the large carved wooden gates of Manukorihi Marae. As president of the Waitara Retailers' Association, he organised coloured Christmas lights to hang in front of every business.

Mr King began travelling in the early 1970s, playing piano in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Holland, Germany, London, San Francisco and Hawaii on a world tour. In 1975, Mr King left New Zealand to live in Australia's Gold Coast. It seems inevitable that he was to become active in the music scene there, and in fact ended up becoming an honorary life member of the Australian Musicians' Union. For 20 years, he performed around 11 gigs a week. At the Twin Towns Services Club in Tweed Heads, Mr King introduced afternoon dancing, which was immensely popular, and now the Twin Towns RSL is Australia's largest club.

He has also played in resorts in Norfolk Island, Lindeman Island and Hawaii. Mr King has played jazz in New Orleans - in the famous Bourbon Street - and was made an honorary member of the New Orleans Jazz Club. One of the highlights of his career was meeting jazz giant Louis Armstrong when he toured New Zealand.

Mr King returned to Taranaki in 1999 to spend time with his mother and other family members and friends. He organised a millennium dance in the fashion of the popular big band dances of the earlier times to celebrate his return. Posters were put around town touting "Let's do it again, Taranaki's Danceland, Dance Dance Dance to Colin King & The Harmonisers, Celebrating 50 years of Entertainment. Let's have another lovely night like we used to!"

The night was a huge success after 1800 turned up at the Stratford Memorial Hall.

Pictures of Mr King show him with other famous entertainers over the years, like Acker Bilk, Max Bygraves, Sir Howard Morrison, Winifield Attwell and Dame Vera Lynn. He has sold over 15,000 cassettes and CDs to fans.

Brylcreem, Old Spice and bow ties were the order of the day and a newspaper report in 2000 said of the 1950s and '60s dance patrons, "They had pride in the way they dressed. To be clean, shaven, done up with a collar and tie and a bit of Old Spice was the thing to do."

Before alcohol became more available - when six o'clock closing changed to 10 o'clock - the country's young people were better behaved, Mr King says.

"In 15 years, I never, ever had a fight at a hall and I never had to call a policeman to a hall. Too many of today's young people have to rely on alcohol before they can get enjoyment out of life," he was quoted as saying in the millennium year article.

Many people met their spouses at the dances.

"Going dancing on a Saturday night was the number one chance of meeting your future wife or husband," he said.

Even today, while Mr King plays at rest homes and clubs, he has people come up to him and, while they are happily reminiscing about the dances, they regularly say they met their husband or wife at one of his dances.

At first, all the small halls were filled with dancers each weekend, but then, as the big band hall dances became bigger, there was a sort of boom time that saw huge crowds gathered at certain hall venues around the province.

One factor in the demise of the dances, suggested by the big dance bands themselves, was that it became common practice for them to bring in guest artists from Auckland, Wellington and other places, leading entertainers who added spark to an already popular Saturday night's activity, as well as dance prizes. This, they felt, led the young people to expect this all the time - a sort of variety show rather than just a dance. With all the attention they were attracting at the big dances, the dances in the smaller halls began to wind down.

And times change. With the increase of televisions in people's homes, later pub hours and the growing popularity of Elvis Presley and guitar-, drum- and amplifier-based music, the dance halls began to empty. Another factor was the quality of the patrons began to slide, with alcohol considered a major contributing factor. Fights would break out, bottles would be thrown and people who just wanted to dance stopped coming.

The scene might have changed, but Colin King's music hasn't. He continues to bring joy to thousands.He is at this moment playing his way around the Mediterranean aboard a cruiseliner, something he does fairly regularly on different ships and oceans these days. When home, he also entertains at 21st celebrations, retirement villages and clubs, which gives him a lot of pleasure.

"I think the main reason I have kept going is that I've always gone to a show and played what the people want."


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