Bill Sevesi helped define a musical genre: a Pacific sound that wasn’t Hawaiian or Tongan or Samoan, but quintessentially Pacific. Sefita Hao’uli, a longtime fan, and fellow Tongan, explains.
Bill Sevesi was a part of my history — and a part of the history of Auckland, especially Pacific Auckland. You couldn’t be a Pacific Islander here in the 50s, 60s and early 70s and not know Bill Sevesi and his music, or the Orange Ballroom in Newton, where Bill Sevesi and his Islanders held court for two decades.
Bill was deeply, innately musical. He loved music. Beginning in Tonga when, as a boy, he would follow musicians as they went from village to village and house to house, entertaining people — he’d been drawn to music, like a moth to a flame. Sometimes he’d disappear for two to three days at a time, returning home to a “real good belting” from his mum. But he didn’t care. Music was the thing.
Bill liked to say that music brought people together — and his music certainly did that.
In fact, so many romances blossomed under his watch, aided and abetted by the evocative notes of his signature steel guitar, that the Orange Ballroom might as well have been renamed Courtship Central. There’s a generation of Pacific Islanders whose parents met at the Orange, who wouldn’t be around today, if not for Bill.
He was a master of the steel guitar, which he’d taught himself to play after hearing it on radio. Maybe it was the fact that it reminded him of Tonga, which he’d left as nine-year-old to come to New Zealand, but he was instantly smitten.
He made his first lap steel guitar, with help from his workmates at the radio factory where he worked, as well as the superior one that replaced it: a twin-necked, 16-stringed instrument (his own creation) that he played for years after.
The steel guitar isn’t the easiest of instruments to play, let alone learn, but he taught himself “the hard way”, by listening and playing along to the radio and recordings, practising day and night, and even in his lunch hour.
Bill Sevesi had been a musical hero of mine since I first heard him as a schoolboy on Tonga’s only radio station, ZCO (now A3Z). No one realised he was Tongan at first. Sevesi is not a common Tongan name — it’s the transliteration of Jeffs, his English father’s name — so we all thought he was Hawaiian. But, of course, as soon as we found out, he became a national idol and every Tongan’s relation. (Although, catching sight of him for the first time in Nuku’alofa, I couldn’t believe how Palangi he looked.)
When I came to Auckland as a high school scholarship student in the 1960s and found out Bill was playing in Newton, a short bus ride away from the Epsom hostel where we students stayed, I couldn’t wait to go and see him. At some point, my impatience got the better of me and I snuck in there with another student, only to have our egos crushed by overhearing ourselves described by a group of women as “barely out of nappies”. We were so offended and mortified that we left before the show started.
It wasn’t until 1968 that we felt brave enough to return to the Orange. When the band took a break, Bill made a point of coming over to us. “I could tell you were Tongans,” he said. “You dance like Tongans.” Of course, we took that as a compliment.
Bill was a shrewd operator. The Orange was a dive when he first started playing there, but he cleaned it up and turned it into a lively, popular venue that would become an Auckland institution. Nothing happened on his floor that he didn’t know about. He dominated Auckland’s dance hall scene (from 1954 when his band took up residency at the Orange Coronation Hall, until the early 70s) because he knew his music and his customers.
Bill blended Pacific music with the latest overseas hits, keeping himself ahead of the play with a powerful shortwave radio that picked up overseas stations. He’d built it himself. (His family nicknamed him “MacGyver”; there was nothing he couldn’t build with a few nails and a bit of superglue.) By the time those songs hit the airwaves in New Zealand, Bill’s band was already playing them.
Back then — before 10 o’clock pub closing and television killed it off — the Orange was the centre of our social universe. Everyone dressed up: ties and jackets for the men, and the latest ball dresses for the women. There was no alcohol (it was strictly orange cordial and soft drinks) and no trouble. Some of Auckland’s best Pacific Island boxers moonlighted there as bouncers, so there was plenty of encouragement to behave.
Without the Orange, Auckland would have been a much less welcoming place for Pacific Islanders. At a time when the idea of being a Pacific Islander hadn’t yet arrived — we were Tongan or Samoan or Cook Islanders, not PI — Bill’s music brought us together in a way that few things could, giving us the beginnings of a new sense of ourselves, a new identity. The Orange was where we mingled and danced and got to know each other.
Of course, it wasn’t just Pacific Islanders who flocked to the Orange. We rubbed shoulders with Māori and Palangi, too. And Bill’s “Islanders” included quite a few Māori musicians over the years. (Among those he worked with was the great Daphne Walker, who remained a lifelong friend. She was too shy for the stage, but recorded many songs with Bill, including the 1953 hit, Manu Rere.)
I don’t know of anywhere today that could be as effortlessly multicultural and diverse as the Orange Ballroom was.
Two decades after Bill left the Orange Ballroom, when I was putting together the music for the country’s first pan-Pacific Island radio station in Auckland, Radio 531pi, I used Bill and his Orange Ballroom repertoire as my guide.
When the station opened in 1993, Bill was the guest of honour. For me, there was no musician more iconically Pacific. Bill was proud of his Tongan heritage, but he had a broader view of himself, and his music reflected that. Although the steel guitar was seen as a Hawaiian instrument, Bill used it to play Samoan, Fijian, Cook Island and Tongan tracks — creating a quintessentially Pacific sound that resonated with all of us.
We billed ourselves on 531pi as “the sound of the Pacific” and no one understood better than Bill what that sound was. He had helped to define it as a musician and bandleader who knew in his deeply musical bones what people liked — and what music connected us, not solely as Tongans or Samoans, but as Pacific people.
The music was only part of it, of course. In a way, we were shaping a pan-Pacific identity through the station, by bringing together seven Pacific communities under the one roof, just as the Orange Ballroom had done. At nights on the radio, the programming took us our separate ways, to speak our own languages, and play music that was particular to each group. But during the day and weekends, we were PIs, sharing the same space, the same language, and the same music.
In the station’s early years, Bill hosted a Friday night music show, from 6pm to midnight. He was 70 then, the station’s oldest disc jockey — and working unpaid because we had no money — but no one could match him in professionalism and musicality. He’d arrive every Friday night, his entire playlist for the evening pre-recorded on cassettes. When he was on air, we’d take calls from all over the North Island, many from people who’d once danced in the Orange Ballroom.
Bill also helped us overcome the other potentially fatal challenge we had in building a Pacific music station: there wasn’t a huge range of recorded Pacific music around at the time. In fact, Bill was one of the few Pacific artists who had any recordings.
Luckily for us, he also had a vast collection of music, a rich treasure trove of tracks from all over the Pacific, some of it rare and not available for sale. All of which, he made available to the radio station. And he had his own recording label, Armar, and a recording studio (the famous garage in Mt Roskill) where he recorded himself and others, including Sione Aleki, The Yandall Sisters, Annie Crummer, the Samoan Surfriders, and George Tumahai and Daphne Walker.
Bill admired and nurtured talent. And he was generous. When people came to us, asking where they could be recorded, we’d send them to Bill. He’d record them and then we’d play them on the station. He recorded many of the Cook Islands string bands. And, in that way, we built a playlist that was unique in New Zealand.
Bill also demystified the whole process of recording — starting a trend of Pacific musicians recording their own material in their garages. At one point, we counted 12 home recording studios in Auckland alone. It’s no accident that those years in the 1990s produced more original Pacific recordings than any other time since.
Although Bill stepped out of the limelight after a few years, he never stopped working. He stayed true to his craft and remained a musician all through his life. And he never stopped thinking about music and the difference it could make in people’s lives.
Mike Chunn, the former Split Enz muso who now heads Play It Strange, the charity which distributes ukuleles in schools, has told of how Bill invited him round home in 2002, to tell him what needed to happen for New Zealand to become a more musical nation. Over a cuppa and Shrewsbury biscuits, Bill said: “If you’re going to do anything in schools, it has to be the ukulele. The ukulele will unlock the musicality of young New Zealanders.”
Bill had it all figured out. Ukuleles were made for small hands, they were inexpensive, and you could sing as you played.
He was right. And that push, says Arthur Baysting, a songwriter, has made New Zealand “a much more musical culture in terms of performance”.
“Treasury wouldn’t be able to put a value on that, but it’s a very important thing, and actually for me I think it’s probably more important because economic policies come and go but we’re talking about a legacy for people that will be going on for generations.”
Last year, Bill was finally inducted into the New Zealand Hall of Fame. And not before time.
He was 92, but as sharp as ever. (He’d have credited music for that, too.)
“I am deeply grateful to music,” he told the audience. “It’s made my life a very happy one for over 70-odd years.
“Now I am 92 years old, legs are getting weak, eyes are getting dim, but I’ve still got my mind to put me on an ocean of music.”
Bill Sevesi was born Wilfred Jeffs in Tonga on 28 July 1923.
He was named after his father, who was from Peckham, in south-east London.
His mother, Josephine Matilda Cook, was the daughter of an English dad, Albert Edward Cook, and a Tongan mum, Ilaise Mafi Ma’ake, from Ha’apai, in Tonga.
His first big break came at the feet of another great bandleader, Epi Shalfoon, who played at the Crystal Palace in Mt Eden. Bill went so often to listen and watch and absorb, that Epi finally asked him what he was doing, why he never danced. Bill told him he was learning to play the steel guitar, and that he was practising the Fijian classic, Isa Lei. Epi invited him to play with the band once he’d learned it.
That kindness made a big impression on Bill. For years to come, he extended the same helping hand to the young talents who were lucky enough to cross his path. The Yandall Sisters, Annie Crummer, and ukulele maestro Sione Aleki — among many others.
Bill and his three brothers served in World War II. Bill saw active duty in Italy in 1944. All four brothers came home, but Bill didn’t like to speak of those years. He told Graham Reid, that when he came home he burned everything but his paybook.
He composed more than 200 songs, and released more than 20 albums during a career that spanned six decades. He performed all over the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, Australia and the United States. He recorded some classic favourites such as Bye Bye Baby Goodbye (1958), as well as recording artists such as Daphne Walker, The Yandall Sisters and Annie Crummer.
He also won numerous awards. The Queen’s Service Medal in 1995. The Creative New Zealand Pacific Islands Artist Award in 1997. The Gerry Byrd Lifetime Achievement Award and induction into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in Missouri, in 1998. The Lifetime Achievement Award at the NZ Pacific Music Awards in 2006. And, in September 2015, he was inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame.
Bill passed away on 23 April 2016, aged 92, exactly one month after his son Brent. His brother Leonard also passed away in March.
Bill is survived by his wife Vika Jeffs, daughters Tania and Colleen Jeffs, and Wayne Jeffs, his son from his first marriage.
Lovely doco on the Kiwi ukulele revolution: Bill Sevesi's Dream
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