Faith and Commitment: Tony Vercoe and the Kiwi-Pacific Records Story

The Kiwi-Pacific Records Story
Tony Vercoe, talking with Tony Martin

Steele Roberts Aotearoa 2017

One doesn’t know whom to thank most heartily regarding the appearance of this book, “The Kiwi-Pacific Records Story” – perhaps the triumvirate of storyteller Tony Vercoe, interviewer Tony Martin and publisher Roger Steele deserves equal shared credit. It’s a book whose subject – the formation and development of a truly homegrown recording company determined to support the work of classical and indigenous composers, musicians, poets, artists and designers within Aotearoa – belongs with other inspirational histories of local artistic endeavours. These include Donald Munro’s Opera Company, Richard Campion’s New Zealand Players and Poul Gnatt’s Ballet Company, ventures which also helped change New Zealand forever during the 1950s.

When long-established publishers AH and AW Reed began Kiwi Records for educational purposes in 1957, the company envisaged certain projects involving music, but lacked any personnel with the experience and expertise to organise any such recordings. The right person in the right place at the right time happened to be Tony Vercoe, at that stage working for the Broadcasting Corporation in Wellington, and whom Reeds approached (on the recommendation of the legendary music scholar and broadcaster John A. Gray, who was also working for Radio) to handle the production of some of their projects on an ad hoc basis.

Vercoe, working in his spare time at first, was able to do this for a brief period until summoned by his Broadcasting bosses and told that his activities represented “a conflict of interests”. When Reeds heard about his predicament, the company offered Vercoe a full-time job, which, after careful consideration with his wife, Mary, he accepted, regarding the new venture as “a challenge and an opportunity”. That he, along with Mary’s unqualified support and assistance, made an enormous success of this venture up to his retirement from the operation in 1989, is the story that this book absorbingly tells.

It does so by reproducing a series of interviews between Vercoe and his nephew, Tony Martin which were begun in 2013. Though specifically concentrating on the story of the Kiwi-Pacific Records involvement, some of the background to the story is also covered, giving Vercoe’s decision to go with Reeds a “context” of previous experience, inclination and interest. Thus the book begins with his post-war years spent in London, his training as a singer at Trinity College and then at the Royal College of Music, and his experiences as a performer, both in the 1951 Festival of Britain and the 1952 Edinburgh Festival, with leading roles in a couple of productions. Mary had come to Britain in 1950 to join him, and they were married in London, and able to enjoy together the plethora of musical and theatrical activity which Vercoe later described as formative and, in retrospect, instructive regarding what he was eventually to become involved in with his management of Kiwi Records.

We learn about the circumstances accompanying the couple’s return to New Zealand at the end of 1953, a decision made upon expecting their first child, though Vercoe had by this time worked successfully, if intermittently, with the Old Vic Company for a period and had just received a singing job offer from the prestigious Sadlers Wells Opera Company. For some reason the narrative’s chapter order relegates the couple’s re-establishment in New Zealand to after a handful of chapters discussing Kiwi’s early Maori, Pacific and Folk and Country ventures – only after these are “done” do we get back into the “swing” of events that led to Vercoe moving from the broadcasting job that he’d taken on returning home, to full-time employment with Reeds Publishers and Kiwi Records. However, the book doesn’t pretend to follow strict overall chronologies, concentrating instead upon beginnings and developments within different individual themes and genres, making it more “accessible” as a reference source to any given vein of activity.

So, while not necessarily told in a conventionally “what happened next” kind of way, the thread of Vercoe’s progress from post-war London through those times of burgeoning creative and artistic activity in New Zealand during the 1950s and 1960s to the fully-fledged activities of Kiwi-Pacific Records throughout the 1970s and 1980s, can be found within the chronicles as tautly-wound and finely-tuned as ever, up to his retirement as owner-manager of the company in 1989. One gets the feeling because of this, that for Vercoe, the raison d’etre of the story’s retelling was never HIM, but the company and its different aspects under his stewardship. He reveals enough throughout, regarding his own attitudes and values, to shine forth as a personality, a determined and no-nonsense “mover and shaker” of things, principled and unswerving in his commitment to “the cause”. But we’re constantly being invited to focus on and admire the view, rather than the guide’s exposition of it.

For this reason one is stimulated, rather than disconcerted, by the book’s criss-crossing of general flow with specific detailings, perhaps generating something of the “what happens next?” aspect of the operation’s range and scope. Vercoe himself admitted, both in the book and elsewhere, that he didn’t envisage when taking the job on the extent to which the company would diversify its interest in creative homegrown activities, and that he “learnt by doing” for much of the time. Each of the categories he discusses and elaborates on regarding what took place has in the telling its surprises and unexpected twists and turns – something which Vercoe came to regard as “the territory” and accounting for his unshirking commitment to what Douglas Lilburn referred to as “our musical identities”, and more besides.

Entirely characteristic of Vercoe’s attitude in this respect was the outreach towards the sounds and music of the nearby Pacific Islands, hardly any of which had, if ever, been commercially recorded at that time, culminating in Kiwi Records’ coverage of the various South Pacific Festivals of Arts – an approach which pleased both academics wanting the preservation of traditional material and the general public who responded with obvious enjoyment to the entertainment. Of course, both traditional Maori and early Pakeha folksong material provided rich veins of material for the same reasons, Vercoe utilising the talents of performers as diverse as the great Maori bass Inia te Wiata and folksingers Neil Colquhoun and Phil Garland.  Each of these categories gave rise to the discovery of talents which flourished in other directions – Kiri te Kanawa, for example, made her first recording for Kiwi Records of “Maori Love Duets” with Rotorua tenor Hohepa Mutu; and songwriter/performers Peter Cape, Willow Macky and Ken Avery took New Zealand folksong into a more contemporary realm with the company’s support and espousal.

In the classical field, Kiwi’s first venture, helped by Vercoe’s “connections” with Broadcasting actually used an NZBS recording of Douglas Lilburn’s “Sings Harry”, an EP (extended play 7” disc) which became THE iconic recording, though the first orchestral LP also featured Lilburn’s music, containing as it did “Landfall in Unknown Seas”, with poet Allen Curnow reading his verses. Another iconic recording was that of David Farquhar’s  music for “Ring Round the Moon”, as was the first of Lilburn’s electronic compositions to be recorded, a setting of Alistair Campbell’s poem “The Return”. All of these and other ventures, along with descriptions of Vercoe’s dealings with individuals and groups whose names constitute a “Who’s Who” of New Zealand classical musicians, are described and placed in a context where corresponding activities such as recording steam trains, bird song and pipe bands were also given valuable time and effort.

The story isn’t without its moments of drama and conflict, as with Vercoe’s initiative in arranging with the Russian record label Melodiya access for Kiwi to Russian recordings featuring the top Soviet artists of the day, and even pressing the discs here for distribution, an activity which, at the height of the “Cold War” inevitably earned Kiwi some attention from the SIS, the acency wanting to know about everything that had been discussed with the Russians, fearful of a possible “security risk”. Later than this and more profound in effect was a physical attack on Kiwi Pacific’s premises in Wellington’s Wakefield St. by the henchmen of a developer who wanted to occupy the whole of the building, and took umbrage at the Company’s refusal to give up its lease –  fortunately the damage wasn’t irreversible, and compensation was duly paid.

To anatomise the whole range and scope of the company’s activities as presented here would be pointless – better to read the original and enjoy what Douglas Lilburn’s “definitive interpreter”, pianist Margaret Nielsen, who commented to me on “the interplay between the two Tonys”, described as “like a superb piece of Chamber Music”. All credit, then, to Vercoe’s nephew Tony Martin, whose questionings allowed the process of interaction and flow of information full sway, and to Steele Roberts Publishers for producing a characteristically accessible, attractive and spontaneously-readable book, furthering their ongoing espousal of things which matter here in New Zealand. It’s an issue which I’m sure would have given Tony Vercoe himself immense satisfaction.