Arthur Pearce: the weirdest show on air

NZ Listener, revised 2013

As Cotton-Eyed Joe and Turntable, New Zealand radio pioneer Arthur Pearce was with the music and ahead of the times

Gene Pitney called it “the weirdest show I have ever heard in my life”.

In New Zealand in the 1960s, Big Beat Ball, a half-hour weekly radio programme on 2YD, was the only place one could hear surf music, blues shouters, Phil Spector B-sides or James Brown funk. It was likely the only place on earth where one would hear all of these in the same half-hour.

Connecting it all was a man with a light, ageless voice, who identified himself as Cotton-Eye Joe and spoke in a bewildering stream of puns. He was veteran Wellington broadcaster Arthur Pearce.

In his biography of Pearce, Arthur and the Nights at the Turntable, Laurie Lewis shows how the 40-year career of the broadcaster paralleled the growth of New Zealand radio and 20th-century American music.

Born in 1903, Pearce was into jazz before most people knew the word. In his early twenties he had chanced upon a recording by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Contrary to their name, they were not the originators of jazz. However, this white New Orleans group was the first to get a version of this hot new sound onto disc. Bitten by the jazz bug, Pearce – working by day for trading company Levin and Co., of which he would eventually become a manager - persuaded officers on American-bound ships to track down the recordings for him.

His tastes quickly moved towards the black musicians of the American South, the music’s true originators - Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Johnny Dodds, Louis Armstrong. The so-called “race records” were generally advertised and distributed only by mail through the black media. Tracking down and getting the shellac 78s to New Zealand was a feat in itself.

If Radio New Zealand today devoted a slot to gangsta rap, there might be an outcry. But it would hardly compare with the one that followed Pearce’s first radio broadcast, which was devoted to the music of black bandleader Duke Ellington. In 1935, the first exposure of radical American music on Kiwi airwaves saw the station and newspapers showered with complaints. Of course, it also initiated a generation of jazz listeners.

Two years later, as the swing craze grew, Pearce (using the pseudonym Turntable) began to host 2YA’s Friday night dance band slot, Rhythm on Record. Among the more sanitised (read, white) swing records, he would slip in recordings of his favourite black performers. Later, these would include examples of the burgeoning rhythm and blues, by favourites such as Louis Jordan and Johnny Otis.

It was during World War II that a teenage Laurie Lewis first began tuning in to Turntable. “I was always twiddling the dials, usually late at night, to my parents’ disapproval. You don’t sit up and mess up tomorrow’s schooling listening to jazz programmes! I got mad on the saxophone. In those days, there was nobody at all to teach you, except in the classical field. But here was this wonderful man, explaining who all these musicians were and where they came from. He exposed you to things that were happening in America that you had absolutely no other way of hearing.”

Pearce also developed a taste for western and hillbilly records that were coming out of the Southern states and, in1948, launched Western Song Parade. This was where the Cotton-Eyed Joe persona first raised its head. Borrowing his name from a record by western swing bandleader Bob Wills, Cotton-Eyed Joe would intersperse tracks with a mix of discographical information and off-the-wall humour.

“Ozark Red, who leads the Ozark Mountain Boys, is really Rusty Draper, for here is a draper who curtains his real identity to escape from many a hanging…”

“The puns were absolutely extraordinary,” Lewis recalls. “We used to compare reaction to the programmes at school and everybody would hear it a different way. They were so personal that you had to know a bit about the artists involved to understand half the jokes.”

Later, when he got to know Pearce, Lewis discovered that the puns were tossed off effortlessly. “Those scripts were just little spidery, handwritten bits of paper all over the place.”

Pearce’s knowledge of American music – the players, the writers, the producers – grew to encyclopaedic proportions. Little existed in the way of music media, so he would write directly to artists to find out whatever he could not glean from record labels or his own finely tuned ears. He corresponded with musicians as diverse as Duke Ellington and Carole King.

With Ellington, Pearce developed a special rapport. He offered the composer a set of lyrics he had written to Ellington’s tune ‘Black Butterfly’ and these subsequently appeared with Ellington’s published sheet music. Ellington’s son, Mercer, told Pearce’s son, Neil, that the Duke said Arthur Pearce was one of the few people who really understood the musician.

When Elvis Presley came to rock the foundations of popular music in the mid-50s, Pearce was one punter who was not surprised. For years, he had been telling people that, sooner or later, a white singer with a black feel would be the catalyst for a new direction in pop. When he debuted Presley’s Sun sides on Rhythm on Record, jazz purists who failed to share his broader view of music howled in protest, just as an earlier generation had when he first played Ellington.

By the 60s, jazz and rock artists from the US and Britain were touring New Zealand regularly. Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Pitney, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles… Pearce met them all, yet these valuable interviews were never recorded. Lewis surmises that, because Pearce grew up before the advent of tape recorders, it never occurred to him to use one. “He never even took any notes. As far as he was concerned, these were just conversations to check up on as few things he thought he might be wrong about.”

So the exchange that took place in Wellington’s St. George Hotel when Pearce, then 60, visited with the Beatles in 1964 is lost. But by Lewis’s account, the broadcaster reduced Ringo to hysterics with a typical Pearce pun. The tour had been promoted by the R J Kerridge Organisation and when Pearce was asked how he got through fans and security into the hotel, he replied: “Partly by car, partly by Kerridge.”

Meanwhile, local teenagers were discovering a world beyond the Beatles, thanks to Pearce’s eclectic playlists. College student Rick Bryant, who would become one of New Zealand’s most celebrated interpreters of blues and soul, stopped mimicking the British beat groups and began emulating black vocalists like Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding after encountering them for the first time on Big Beat Ball.

Susan Pointon was fifteen when she heard the Chicago blues on Pearce’s show. Thrilled by this passionate and gritty music yet unable to find any in local stores, she wrote to Pearce. They arranged to meet on the Wellington waterfront, where he presented her with a stack of rare Chess singles - Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and others. But her parents took some convincing that the schoolgirl and the 60-year-old man were simply two music fans getting together to share their enthusiasms.

Lewis - a dyed-in-the-wool jazzer – stops short of calling Pearce’s affection for rock and blues a lapse in taste, although it obviously puzzles him. “I’d go round to his place to hear my favourites, and would come away almost frustrated. He would always play the weirdest records. It was like getting a private programme.”

For other listeners, the magic of Pearce was in the sheer diversity of his palette. As a pre-teen, writer Gordon Campbell was as dedicated Big Beat Ball listener. He remembers trading in a telescope for a reel-to-reel tape recorder to record the programmes.

Later, Campbell worked at the NZBC as a producer of Pearce’s shows. “I was in awe of him. The thing that floored me was his passion for these things that were completely subterranean – surf groups, American garage, which was then called ‘punk’. He was about 30 years ahead of so many fashions, with no kindred spirits to feed off. Tarantino has only just caught up with him.”

At a time when all New Zealand radio was government owned, Pearce was a law unto himself. Lewis: “Everything was so strictly controlled. Even records that were top of the charts in overseas countries… a committee would decide, in their wisdom, that they didn’t like them and that was it – nobody was allowed to hear them. For years, Bugs Bunny was banned from the airwaves in New Zealand! But Arthur was working in an area where nobody else knew enough even to argue with him.”

The NZBC dropped Big Beat Ball in 1975, saying it no longer fitted the format. As if it ever had. Two years later, Pearce farewelled radio with his final Rhythm on Record. Until he died in 1990, he continued to keep up with a vast range of music.

Neil Pearce recalls his father – then 75 – enthusiastically introducing him to the first Ramones album. “He would recognise anything that was good of its type. By then, jazz was mostly seen as music for older people and rock for the young, but he liked it all. He could see how one thing developed out of the other. He was there when it happened, and he could always hear the connection.”

Tags: jazznew zealandarthur pearcecotton eyed joegene pitneymuddy watershowlin wolfchess recordsradiobluesrick bryant

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