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 HMV.
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. It 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.
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 Dalton, who was the driving force behind the the Viking pop roster as well as the producer of many of the records released by the label in that decade, signed a series of artists who were to have massive hit records, notably Peter Posa, Maria Dallas, The Chicks and Dinah Lee, each of whom made iconic 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.
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.
In 1964 Viking also signed Max Merritt & The Meteors and the band backed many of the label's biggest 1960s hits as well as releasing their own records for Viking.
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 Ventura, the former having success with Bill & Boyd and The Pleasers, but the latter, co-owned 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 1968 to manage Maria Dallas, selling-up to Riley and moving to Australia. He was briefly replaced by Coburn as head of A&R before he too left to go to Philips (he later managed Split Enz and is now on the board of US performing rights society ASCAP).
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.