When Bruno Lawrence was introduced to Beaver in 1971, his immediate response to her husky tones was, “Lovely voice, do you sing?” Indeed, the shy 20-year-old frequented the Wellington Musicians’ Club, taking to the microphone when invited, but only when crowds were small. Overcoming her shyness was Beverley Morrison’s biggest obstacle.
Beverley Jean Morrison (Beaver was a childhood nickname that stuck) was born and raised in Lower Hutt. Her father, John Morrison, was a respected pianist and choir master. She sang in her father’s choir, won a school singing contest and was awarded a music scholarship (she opted to study clarinet but her interest waned). During her teens there was no indication that singing would be her vocation but in private she sang along to her Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan records.
Studying graphic design, Beaver graduated from Wellington Polytechnic Institute and then worked as a designer for a Hutt Valley packaging plant for two years. She was drawn to the hippie lifestyle: barefeet and flowing pastel dresses. While Beaver was hanging out at the Wellington Musicians’ Club, Bruno – himself a regular and already smitten by that voice – coaxed her onstage and later offered her a role in his fledgling musical theatre group BLERTA.
In the beginning Beaver performed just four or five songs a night but that increased as the troupe’s more confident singers moved on. In time, she would become the voice of BLERTA.
Another BLERTA original was actor Bill Stalker, who became Beaver’s partner and father of her two children, Fritha and Kate. In 1973 BLERTA headed across the Tasman for what was initially an Arts Council-funded trip to the Nimbin Aquarius Festival but turned into an 18-month stay. Stalker and Beaver opted to remain in Wellington: Stalker had a permanent role in TVNZ soap opera Close To Home and Beaver herself later appeared as his on-screen girlfriend, her acting debut. With motherhood taking priority, there were just sporadic live performances and the occasional appearance on television pop and variety shows.
In 1975 Beaver was reunited with BLERTA, remaining with the troupe until they split up in mid 1976.
At the end of 1974, just prior to their return to New Zealand, BLERTA recorded an album, This Is The Life, at Sydney’s EMI studios, featuring Australian Renee Geyer on lead vocals. Recently signed to RCA Records, who objected to her involvement, Geyer’s vocals were replaced by Beaver at EMI’s Wellington studio.
In 1975 Beaver was reunited with BLERTA, remaining with the troupe until they split up in mid 1976, following their award-winning television series and the Wild Man album, both of which featured Beaver prominently. In late 1976 she fronted her own group for the first time, The Beaver Band: Bruce Robinson (guitar), Terry Crayford (piano), Mark Hornibrook (bass) and Bruno on drums.
It didn’t last long and at year’s end she was a part of Red Mole’s residency at Carmen’s Balcony in Wellington. Musical backing was provided by Midge Marsden’s Country Flyers and Beaver became a member by default. On Red Mole’s 1978 album Crossing The Tracks she provided lead vocals on one track, ‘Slaughter On Cockroach Avenue’.
When Red Mole and the Country Flyers headed to Auckland in September 1977, Beaver tagged along, no longer with Bill Stalker but with two children in tow. She was to remain mostly Auckland-based for the rest of her life.
Marsden crossed the Tasman in mid-1978 and The Flyers, as the remaining members renamed themselves, continued with Beaver as lead vocalist, the line-up completed with guitarist Paul Clayton, pianist Murray McNabb, bassist Neil Hannan and drummer Bud Hooper. The band didn’t survive long, but long enough to provide two songs to the soundtrack of Geoff Steven’s Skin Deep; Beaver also made a cameo appearance in the movie.
After The Flyers, Beaver had a period of nightclub residencies with a nucleus of musicians who would accompany her in the coming years, notably pianists Peter Woods and the aforementioned Murray McNabb. In 1980 she was an original member of the resident band at Jilly’s, a new central city nightclub. Led by Peter Woods, there were several line-up changes throughout the year, including the departure of Woods himself, and in September the line-up was guitarist-singer Dave McArtney, keyboardist Paul Hewson, bassist Paul Woolright and drummer Rick Ball (soon to be replaced by Jim Lawrie), plus Beaver. Renamed the Pink Flamingos, they were destined to become New Zealand’s top band of 1981 – but by then Beaver’s life and career had suffered a downturn.
Vocal cord nodules are a singer’s occupational hazard, albeit easily treated and generally taking less than a month for the voice to recover. Beaver had these non-cancerous growths removed in September 1980; six months later she could barely speak, much less sing. The Pink Flamingos flew to the top without Beaver and it would be 18 months before she sang another note. The death of Bill Stalker, father of Fritha and Kate, only added to the depression and uncertainty. A second marriage fell apart. It wasn’t a good time.
In 1982 Beaver began her comeback, working with piano accompanists and occasional trios. Living in Herne Bay, she was in demand around the immediate neighbourhood, especially at The Gluepot. In 1983 promoter Paul Walker invited her to be part of an occasional collective, All Stars Play The Blues, featuring Sonny Day, Hammond Gamble, Midge Marsden and others. Hugely successful, the All Stars provided her with an alternative to the low-key jazz engagements. In 1985 she appeared (as a nightclub singer) in Grahame McLean’s Should I Be Good? and sang the movie’s theme song, a duet with Hammond Gamble. Beaver and Gamble would occasionally perform as a duo around Auckland.
Managed by Walker (they also became a unit, marrying in 1986), Beaver’s career was on a roll. In 1987, during a visit to London, she performed at Ronnie Scott’s, the renowned jazz venue, with a band put together by expatriate New Zealand pianist Geoff Castle. A subsequent album, Live At Ronnie Scott’s, was released by RCA and won Best Jazz Recording at the 1988 RIANZ Awards. Her theme song to television soap opera Gloss was released as a single in 1988. In 1990, ‘The Biggest Love’ single and video was a duet with Bunny Walters, to raise awareness of child abuse in New Zealand.
There were, however, far too few Beaver commercial releases. She sang ‘This Time’ on the soundtrack for Ian Mune’s 1985 movie Came A Hot Friday and in the 2000s she recorded a reggaefied version of ‘Dance Around The World’ with House Of Shem but it was never released.
It was as a live performer where Beaver’s reputation lay and she was constantly working, big gigs and small. In the 1990s Beaver and Paul Walker co-owned the Java Jive venue in Ponsonby but the marriage and the couple’s involvement with the Java Jive was over by decade’s end.
In 2004 Beaver was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, which she battled over the next six years. In between periods of treatment she continued live performances but they became fewer. At one of her last public appearances, a star-studded memorial for her old pal Sonny Day in August 2008, her performance provided one of the concert highlights.
Beaver died on 23 May 2010. Her career was sadly under-recorded but she has been cited as an inspiration by many female singers who followed her.
Beaver’s sister Annette was also a singer, notably with Spats, the band which evolved into The Crocodiles.