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The Orange Coronation Ballroom on Newton Road in Auckland, also known as The Orange Ballroom or The Orange, was Pacific music central in Auckland from 1954 to the mid-1970s. Bill Sevesi and his Islanders played night after night to audiences who thronged the dance floor. In this image, bandleader Bill stands with his slide steel guitar in front of him with a line-up of notable musicians and vocalists who frequently played with Bill but also many other bands, sometimes on the same night at different venues.

 

On Bill’s left is the legendary Samoan entertainer Freddie Keil whose family music dynasty created some of the foremost rock and roll bands around Auckland at the time. Their Herne Bay home produced The Kavaliers, the Zodiacs, Keil’s Isles, and extended family members Freddie, Olaf, Herma, Eliza, Klaus, Alphonso and Rudolph can be found in many other recordings and bands. Venues like the Montmarte on Lorne Street, the Crystal Palace in Mount Eden, the Bali Hai on Chancery Street and the Oriental Ballroom regularly hosted the various Keil bands. Adele Paris (née Yandall) recalls hanging out as a young teen at the Orange Ballroom and when that closed for the evening, heading to the Oriental on upper Symonds Street where Freddie and his band would appear on stage and continue to rock and roll. Bill Belton who played bass with the Kavaliers, remembers performing every Thursday night at The Orange with Freddie Keil in the 1960s. The Orange featured floor shows where another entertainer would do 20-minute gigs:

 

They ran it old school with a break at about 9.30pm for a cup of tea or orange juice downstairs. It was a very well controlled and very pleasant environment for people that either liked our music or came to dance. We wore matching shirts and trousers made by cousins and sisters of Freddie Keil. They were of a smart western style because the Keil’s were from American Samoa and had access to American goods that you couldn’t get in New Zealand because of import restrictions[1]

 

In the centre of the line-up, holding his beloved Gibson guitar, is Buddy Wilson (Te Arawa, Ngāti Rangitihi) who played with Bill’s band and many others including Terry Dean and the Nitebeats, the Joe Rickets Band, Peter Posa and the legendary Ben Tawhiti (Ngāi Te Rangi). As a young student at teacher’s training college at Ardmore, Buddy performed in singing groups such as the Sasmos and the Starlighters along with other trainee teachers. Lou Clauson of Lou and Simon fame would get them gigs around Auckland. Originally from Tāneatua, Buddy had spent six years in Whakatāne Hospital with tuberculosis of the spine. While there, he learned to play the guitar with another young TB patient and musician-to-be Gerry Merito, who would go on to play with the famed Howard Morrison Quartet. During the year Buddy played with Bill Sevesi at The Orange Ballroom, he recalled that the sharp suits the band wore were sponsored by Cambridge Clothing of New Lynn[2].

 

Other longtime bandmates of Bill’s appear in this image. Bobby Wynyard on lead guitar had performed with Bill and his Islanders from the 1950s and was a regular in other Auckland bands including Sonny Day and the Sundowners, the Soundells and Bob Wynyard and the Music Method. Malu Natapu played bass with Bill for years and in the documentary Song of the South Seas – the Life and Music of Bill Sevesi (1992)[3] Bill tells the story of first employing Malu as a tea chest player. Malu played so energetically during their first gig together at Waihi Beach, that blood from his fingers splattered over the tea chest. Johnny Moore on drums has been described by Bill as having a terrific foot pedal “like a metronome” and all three musicians were part of Bill’s most memorable line-up.

 

Bill got his first big break with the great Epi Shalfoon at the Crystal Palace in Mount Eden. Epi’s mentorship meant a lot to Bill and it’s something he extended to many musicians at the beginning of their careers.


[1] Email conversation with Bill Belton 10/9/2018

[2] Email conversations with Buddy Wilson November 2019

[3] Produced and directed by Chris Todd and Chris Williams, 1992, https://vimeo.com/17203660

One story stands out: at nine years old, Faye Reid, whose father was the publican at the once iconic Gluepot Hotel, would be taken along to The Orange by her big sister who was babysitting her at the time. However, it was Bill’s band that would babysit young Faye on stage and eventually she was invited to play along on the guitar. At age 13, Faye left school to join New Zealand’s first all female pop band The Fair Sect with Linda Williams, Val Tapene, and Norma Stacey. Faye credits her experience at The Orange Ballroom and the musicians’ acceptance and care shown to her as a child, with setting her on the path to becoming a musician herself.[1]

 

Image caption: Faye Reid was the longest serving member of the Fair Sect. Here they are at Embers nightclub in Durham Lane, Auckland c1970 just before they left to tour in Canada. From left to right: June Littin (keyboard/vocals), Faye Reid (bass guitar/vocals), Gaylene Aro (drums), Mary Bradfield (lead vocals) – (Courtesy of Faye Reid Collection)

 

[1] Email conversation with Faye Reid September 2018

Bill’s band played the latest music at The Orange because Bill would listen to the American Armed Forces station being broadcast across the Pacific on his short-wave radio and transcribe the songs he heard. As a consequence, the band would play chart-topping songs long before the music reached record stores in New Zealand. On Saturday nights, the hall, which was legally allowed to hold around 500 people, would sometimes squeeze 1700 into the two floors. Queues down Newton Road would wait for The Orange to open at 7pm. Young Tutuvake Raa (Tutu Kimi) arrived in New Zealand as a 16-year-old in 1948 from the Cook Islands and became a regular at The Orange when Bill was the bandleader. The dress code required men to wear a tie but once you were in no one checked up on you so Tutu and friends would make sure one mate got in who would then pass the tie out a window and the tie would do the rounds[1]. There are many stories of young people meeting their future spouses at what became a lively, popular venue under Bill’s nearly 20-year guidance.


[1] Interview with Tutu Kimi April 2019

Freddie Keil and the Kavaliers. Left to right: Vic Williams, Dave Paul, Freddie Keil, Billy Belton, Jimmy Murphy. Front: Dave Smith, Brian (Tuffy) Smith. (Phil Warren Collection, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZMS1214)

The Ben Tawhiti Quartet. Left to right: Keith McIntyre (bass), Alphonso Keil (vocals, obscured behind Wilson), Buddy Wilson (rhythm guitar), Alex Behrens (drums) and Ben Tawhiti (lead guitar) - (photo courtesy of Buddy Wilson Collection)

Blog Bill Sevesi and His Islanders at The Orange Ballroom by Dr Andrea Low, Auckland Museum Project Curator, Pacific for Tāmaki Herenga Waka: Stories of Auckland gallery.

Find out more about The Orange Ballroom in the new gallery when it opens later in 2020.