One of the most important, plus one of the most prolific NZ-owned record labels of all-time, Viking was a part of the new wave of NZ independents that arrived in the late 1950s that also included Prestige, Zodiac and Kiwi.
Murdoch Riley was a former employee of both the NZBS and the earlier pioneering indie Tanza – he was the label’s manager between 1954 and 1957. In 1957, Riley, Jim Staples and Ron Dalton formed the Viking label, sensing that the market was ready for a more ambitious young independent label than Tanza and the then dominant major His Master's Voice (NZ) Ltd. which both dominated and controlled access to record retail in New Zealand, although the latter was slowly changing.
The label's first release in July of that year was an EP by a band from Palmerston North called The Q-Tees, covering other hits of the day. The had previously recorded for Tanza when Riley ran the label. The EP was a minor hit in the lower half of the North Island but it was enough to encourage the label to keep on going.
Over the next few years the label firmly established itself by licensing records from offshore and had a couple of major Australasian hits from licensed repertoire, opening its own Australian office in 1961, which was run by Jim Staples who had moved across the Tasman specifically to open the branch.
In the early 1960s Viking was so strong it briefly distributed the mighty Dutch-owned Philips label (later PolyGram and now Universal).
In the 1960s Ron Dalton, who was based in Auckland where Viking briefly had a studio (in Newton Road), was the driving force behind the the growing Viking pop roster as well as the producer of many of the records released by the label between 1962 and 1968, the label's golden era chart-wise. It was he who signed a series of artists who were each to have massive hit records, most notably Peter Posa, Maria Dallas, The Chicks and Dinah Lee, all of whom made landmark records which helped define both the label and the decade, with Posa’s ‘White Rabbit’, Dallas’ ‘Tumblin’ Down’ and Lee’s ‘Do The Bluebeat’ being three of the biggest selling New Zealand records in the 1960s.
Dallas also produced a highly regarded album in Nashville after she was licensed to RCA for US release.
Posa’s albums – and he produced quite a few – were big sellers in the Pacific Islands and further afield, and Viking added to that catalogue with a huge number of albums in almost every genre, but strongly in country, Island and Māori music, including records by NZ based Polynesian stars Daphne Walker, Bill Sevesi, Bill Wolfgramm and The Keil Isles.
The label had a string of hits with The Keil Isles' records until the latter part of the decade, plus country hits with Ken Lemon and others.
In 1964 Viking also signed Christchurch's Max Merritt & The Meteors. The band recored the backing on many of the label's biggest 1960s hits as well as releasing their own records for Viking in 1964 and 1965.
Viking purchased the La Gloria label from Harry M. Miller in the mid-60s, acquiring with it the Howard Morrison catalogue from 1960 to 1964. La Gloria was wound down as a label in 1967 but Viking continues to sell the classic Morrison releases from that era, now via iTunes and other online outlets.
Other subsidiary labels included Red Rooster and Viking Ventura, the former having success with Bill & Boyd and The Pleasers, but the latter, headed by Barry Coburn, was largely hit-free despite signing Chris Parfitt (ex–Hi-Revving Tongues) in 1970.
Under unclear circumstances, Ron Dalton left the company in 1967 to manage Maria Dallas, selling-up to Riley and moving to Australia where he became a partner in the booking agency General Artists. He was briefly replaced by Coburn as head of A&R before he too left to go to Philips, and thence to his own management company (he later managed Split Enz and is now on the board of US performing rights society ASCAP).
Ron Dalton's time managing Maria Dallas was brief and by 1970 she was managed by her husband to be. Dalton would return to New Zealand in the late 1970s but played no further role in the music industry he had helped create. One of the great talent spotters and A&R men of the 1960s was last heard of running a gas station in the far North. It is believed he passed away in the early 2000s.
In the early to mid 1970s Viking hit again with Steve Allen (his 'Join Together' went to No.2 in 1974 and was the Commonwealth Games theme), and had a big comeback from Maria Dallas with ‘Pinocchio’, but after that the label lost interest in popular music, concentrating instead on Riley’s written work and publishing, plus continuing strong catalogue sales.
Murdoch Riley, now based in Paraparaumu, continues to own and control a huge catalogue of important and often timeless New Zealand recordings, which he has coupled with his successful book imprint, Seven Seas.