‘Poi E’ is correctly considered the pinnacle of his musical career but to get there Dalvanius studied on stages in bars, clubs, cabarets, concert halls and maraes from Patea to Perth.
Born January 16, 1948, Dalvanius Prime grew up loving music. In Patea in the 50s and 60s he loved doo-wop, The Beatles, Dusty Springfield, Motown, Stax soul and country music. To hear the latest music he would listen to 2SM Sydney on the shortwave radio.
“Every weekend we went to the Pā. I wasn’t interested,” said Dal. “I didn’t want to be in the haka. I was into doo-wop groups and Phil Spector. At school we weren’t allowed to speak the Māori language. ‘We won’t have that language here, thank you very much.’ In the 1950s Patea was such a redneck town.”
“People say ‘You’re just a rip-off of a Negro group.’ But to us that’s like telling the Average White Band to pick up the bagpipes or having the audacity to tell Charlie Pride to sing ‘Funky Chicken’."
In his Craccum (May 31, 1976) interview Dalvanius was clearly enjoying recording and performing soul music but he showed some awareness of the cultural alternative, acknowledging, “People say ‘You’re just a rip-off of a Negro group.’ But to us that’s like telling the Average White Band to pick up the bagpipes or having the audacity to tell Charlie Pride to sing ‘Funky Chicken’."
Always part prophet and part profit Dal was blunt to the student newspaper about the bucks too – “I’ve been in this business about four and a half years, about four years of that making money.”
Dalvanius Prime got started professionally in music as pianist with The Shevelles. He arranged their 1960s hit ‘Beat The Clock’. He also performed for two years in Wellington as The Fascinations with his brother Eddie and sister Barletta. Dalvanius moved to Sydney in 1970 to work with The Shevelles.
His 15 year old sister Barletta got an offer to join The Hymarkies Māori showband on a two year tour of bars in Vietnam and when she returned in 1973, the first of many line-ups of Dalvanius with two female singers, often his sisters, took to the stage. Their manager John Lamb soon had his Māori R&B act working the clubs, doing recording session work (including Renee Geyer’s first album) and releasing funky singles starting with ‘Love Train’ (1973) on the Reprise label.
The biggest break for Dalvanius and the Fascinations was working with Sherbet, the Australian pop group. “Sherbet manager Roger Davies saw us up the Cross,” said Dal. “And he went, ‘Oh wow, way out, I’ve heard some of the BVs you do, do you want to do a Coke ad?’ And I said, ‘Anything for money!’ We did it and then he says, ‘We’ve got this tour coming up.’ We ended up becoming Sherbet’s doo-wop group, their backing group for three years.”
Roger Davies went on to mastermind Tina Turner’s solo career, after scoring Sherbet a No.4 UK hit with ‘Howzat!’
“Sherbet’s Clive Shakespeare and their NZ keyboard player Garth Porter said, ‘We want to record you guys doing your own single, we’ve got this song that we want you to have a listen to,’ it was ‘Washington We’re Watching You’ by The Staple Singers. Labour Prime Minister Gough Whitlam had just got sacked by the Governor General and then Garth said, ‘Right, we’re changing the song and we’re calling it ‘Canberra We’re Watching You’.’ They rewrote the lyrics, they localised it.”
“We did the 1975 Sherbet Life Is For Living tour and Countdown TV special. We’d go on stage and Sherbet would play ‘Canberra We’re Watching You’, backing us. Then we did all the BVs for their entire set.”
Early 1976 at the seedy Great Northern Hotel, corner of Queen and Customs Streets, downtown Auckland, Dalvanius and the Fascinations were strutting their stuff, disco style like a downunder Labelle, playing an raw mix of soul and dance hits like ‘Respect Yourself’, ‘Love Train’, ‘Lady Marmalade’ and ‘Shame Shame Shame’.
Although they had singles released across the Tasman and won countless awards from the Australian Soul Appreciation Society, Dalvanius could not get his recordings released in his home country. At the time Dalvanius was blunt in a cover story for student magazine Craccum (May 31, 1976), “We’re with a record company but their NZ branch is just a bunch of idiots. They’ve got a selection committee and they won’t release our new single here and they’ve told us it’s shithouse. They’re literally sitting on it.”
While on tour in New Zealand in 1976 Dalvanius was introduced to Māori funk band Collision and he took them on a NZ tour, before moving them to Sydney where they worked live with Dalvanius and the Fascinations and recorded a debut album on Festival Records’ Infinity label.
By the end of 1977 Dalvanius and the Fascinations were family again, with younger sister Cissy joining her older siblings and a new manager Ian Riddington making sure his local soul act were kept busy opening for the many US soul artists he toured in concert or in cabaret including the Pointer Sisters, Tina Turner, Osibisa and the Spinners.
In 1977 Dalvanius and the Fascinations released the 12-inch single ‘Voodoo Lady’ and ‘Checkmate On Love’, both songs written by Dalvanius with backing by Collision.
“When we brought ‘Voodoo Lady’ out Molly Meldrum (host of the Countdown TV show) rung me up and he said, ‘Dalvanius, what’s this shit record you’ve got? How come it’s the A-Side?’ I think it’s the worst record I’ve ever heard you do and you’ve had some bad ones.’ I just went ‘Oh, thanks Molly’ and then he said, ‘The other side’s better than that, how come Festival haven’t pushed that?’ I thought I’d try it out on the Isaac Hayes and Dionne Warwick tour and it just killed them, so we threw ‘Voodoo Lady’ on the back burner and started featuring the [retitled live] ‘Chessboard of Love’.”
By late 1979 the group had left Festival and Cissy Prime had left due to illness. Dalvanius returned to New Zealand and started to have an impact as a record producer. In 1982 ‘E Ipo’ by Prince Tui Teka reached No.1 on the sales charts and another 1982 Dalvanius production ‘Maoris On 45’ by the Consorts made it to No.3 on the singles chart.
Dalvanius put 'Maoris On 45' together for a fee. “When our parents had parties at home we would bring out the ukelele and sing our Māori medley,” said Dal. “We put together our medley of songs we did as kids. When it got to No.3, I nearly dropped dead.”
Their creation lead to the No.1 song ‘Poi E’ in 1984 by the Patea Maori Club.
A collaboration with Māori language lyricist Ngoi Pēwhairangi started in 1982. Ben Pēwhairanga recalls, “In 1982 Maui Dalvanius Prime walked into my home in Tokomaru Bay. On that day I knew our lives would never be the same. I watched my late wife Ngoi once again. She was the tutor, her student wide-eyed and eager to learn about Māoritanga (things Māori). I recall their days and nights together, Kaiako (teacher) and Tauira (student) immersed in their work, oblivious to the existence of anyone else.”
To release this project Dalvanius started his own label, Maui. He spoke of his envisaging a “Maori Motown” to Rip It Up (Sept 1986). Dalvanius gained some important allies in the music industry for his Maui label.
“Hugh Lynn gave us his Mascot Studio for below mates rates,” said Dal. “Something like $15 an hour. I still made sure Patea Maori Club were totally rehearsed. Hugh was great. Maui would not have got off the ground without him. Tim Murdoch at Warner Music was great. What I loved about Warners was Patea Maori Club always got their royalties on time and to this day they always do. Their promotion team was always behind us.”
With your embracing of Māori language did people see you as a Johnny come lately? “Of course,” Dal quips. “Better to come late than not at all.”
“I have worked with people who had a command of the old language that was dying. Working with Ngoi Pēwhairangi was such a blessing. She’d write words as I sang her the melody lines. With ‘Poi E’ I wasn’t going to compromise with an English version. If the beat doesn’t sell it, nothing will.”
Their creation lead to the No.1 song ‘Poi E’ in 1984 by the Patea Maori Club. The Patea Maori Club album Poi E would follow in September 1986. ‘Poi E’ – The Musical would have its World Premier Season Friday October 28, 1994 at the New Plymouth Opera House.
The single ‘Poi E’ went on to gain praise as “Single of the Week” in UK music magazine NME and the touring Patea Maori Club played New York’s Irving Plaza (Feb 1985) with the Violent Femmes.
Dalvanius Prime died of cancer on October 3, 2002, aged 54.