The cabaret scene of the late 1960s was a long way from her start as part of The Keil Isles, one of the country’s pioneering rock’n’roll bands whose debut long-player Take Off was included in music critic Nick Bollinger’s 100 Essential New Zealand Albums in 2009.
Leaving The Keil Isles in the middle of the 1960s, Eliza Keil went on to release three LPs under her own name before departing for the United States in 1972 for what was intended to be a temporary but lengthy stay.
“I’ll be back,” she told the NZ Herald at the time. “I’m giving myself up to two years to see a bit of the world.” However, apart from periods in Samoa and Vanuatu, she has called the United States home since.
Eliza Keil was born in Samoa in 1938 and was 14 years old when she came to Auckland in 1952, joining her older siblings Olaf, Klaus and Helga at their grandmother’s house in Cowan Street, Ponsonby. A year later their parents arrived with three more children – Herma, June and Myra – and the family moved to Mt Roskill. Eldest sibling Elfie and her husband Eddie then joined them until buying their own home in Mt Roskill.
“We were a musical family and so every evening we would gather together,” Eliza told AudioCulture. “Olaf was the lead guitarist, Klaus was the drummer, and Herma was the rhythm guitarist and lead singer. My two elder sisters, Helga and Elfie, would sing along with Herma and me. Papa would join us with his ukulele and his washboard.”
Before long the Mormon family was entertaining at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hall in Ponsonby every Friday and Saturday night at the invitation of the local bishop. “Big changes came about as the sound of our music improved.”
PHIL WARREN TOLD ELIZA SHE SHOULD LEAVE THE KEIL ISLES AND GO SOLO.
With the addition of cousin Freddie Keil, Olaf moulded the family unit into a band they called The Keil Isles. “Olaf was the Keil most responsible for forming the band,” Eliza recalled. “He was very talented and helped all of us become better musicians and singers.”
In the late 1950s, The Keil Isles became well known in Auckland with regular appearances at the Orange Ballroom, the Trades Hall, the Oriental and the Jive Centre, where Eliza and Klaus were dance partners. In 1958 the band were signed to Tanza Records, but when the label folded moved to Zodiac and then Viking.
Their Dave Dunningham-produced debut LP Take Off was released on Viking in 1961 and featured Eliza solo on ‘Hush’, ‘Pineapple Princess’ and the recent Petula Clark hit ‘Sailor’. The single ‘Unloved Unwanted’ the following year was credited to Eliza Keil with The Keil Isles.
In October 1962, Auckland entrepreneur Phil Warren announced he had signed The Keil Isles to an exclusive contract. With the band increasingly becoming more a vehicle for Herma Keil’s rock’n’roll singing, Warren later had a suggestion for Eliza Keil.
“He told me that I should think about leaving The Keil Isles and starting my own career as a solo artist,” she said. “He felt I would be more successful on my own. I followed his advice and he became my agent. He made bookings for me in different nightclubs in New Zealand and in other countries. I was amazed at how fast I became successful singing solo with different bands.”
Along the way she met international stars such as Cliff Richard, The Beatles and Connie Francis as well as making many appearances with John Rowles. In 1966 she and her brother Herma featured in the home-grown musical comedy movie Don’t Let It Get You. Eliza worked with bandleader Bernie Allen and her backing groups often contained such noted jazz players as pianist Crombie Murdoch, trumpeter Murray Tanner and trombonist Merv Thomas.
Her first solo cabaret performance was at Auckland’s upmarket Logan Park Hotel and she was soon headlining in Wellington, Christchurch, Rotorua and Mt Cook. In fact, her debut solo record in 1967 was Live – At Logan Park, released on Peter Caithness’s Salem label.
HER FIRST SOLO CABARET PERFORMANCE WAS AT AUCKLAND’S UPMARKET LOGAN PARK HOTEL.
Amidst the clinking of glasses and breaking out of enthusiastic applause at the most surprising moments, Eliza made her way through material such as Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Homeward Bound’, Petula Clark’s ‘Colour My World’ and The Seekers’ ‘Georgy Girl’. With the occasional fade-out and double-tracked vocals, it was evident the album wasn’t entirely live.
Two more LPs followed on the Philips and Family labels, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head and Your Songs, including no less than four Beatles songs between them, but Eliza was less than enthused by the studio. “I did not like doing recordings,” she said. “It was much more fun doing live appearances and interacting with audiences.”
From 1967 to 1968 she was based in Wellington while she was the resident singer on the NZBC’s The Late Show. She performed on the brand-new Black Sea Shipping Company cruise ship MS Shota Rustaveli in 1968 as well as in guest appearances at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, touring Fiji with a seven-piece orchestra and performing in New Caledonia, Tahiti, American Samoa and her native Western Samoa.
“I especially enjoyed singing in Western Samoa because of the support of my cousins, aunts and uncles. And the cruise was great, having my three sons on board and also my mother-in-law,” said Eliza, by now married to her manager John Weir.
It was a different story when Eliza was booked to sing at the Hilton Hotels in Hong Kong and Manila: her contract was extended in Manila, resulting in an eight-week stay. “It was very hard being away from my kids during that time.” There was also work in Australia, taking in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, where she featured on Graham Kennedy’s influential In Melbourne Tonight. A June 1969 Sunday News headline declared, “Flying Eliza may be New Zealand’s ‘Mahalia Jackson’.”
Eliza appeared on the New Zealand TV shows A Girl To Watch Music By, hosted by Ray Columbus, and The Music Makers before she and her family relocated to Orange County in Southern California in mid-1972. With the boys – Faron, Jared and Jonathan – settled into school and Weir working as an interior decorator, Eliza auditioned for a singing role in a show at the John Wayne Theatre at Knott’s Berry Farm.
“When I finished the audition and left the stage, the manager said to me that if I didn’t hear from him then I would know I was not selected. I drove back home and got out of my car and I heard the phone ringing. I ran inside and grabbed the phone. It was the manager. He said I was hired and for me to attend a rehearsal the next day with the band.”
She learnt the part and the country and western songs, but resigned after three months. “I didn’t like the noise, the smoking and the excessive drinking!”
“Flying Eliza may be New Zealand’s Mahalia Jackson” – Sunday News, 1969
A residency at the beautiful Vacation Village Resort in San Diego lasted two years, coming to an end only when Eliza decided she needed to spend more time with her sons. “It was a two-hour drive from the resort in San Diego to my home in Fullerton, Orange County.”
Eliza and John Weir divorced in 1979 and Eliza returned to Samoa in an attempt to reignite her career. “I needed an income to help me raise my three sons, so I sat down with my sons and told them that I had to go back to work. I decided to return to Samoa where I was well known.”
In June of 1980 while rehearsing with the band at the Tiafau Hotel, a man wanting to take her photo approached Eliza. He attended that night’s show and afterwards the pair shared a dance. The man turned out to be Robert Heston, an American living in the New Hebrides leading up to its independence as the Republic of Vanuatu. They married in 1982 and Eliza joined him in Vanuatu.
“Bob taught me how to play golf and I became quite good; getting my handicap down to 8 at one stage. I also had a boutique of fashionable ladies’ clothes that I purchased in Los Angeles or Manila or Hong Kong. I did fashion shows at hotels in Port Vila using lovely models and lively music.”
She also continued singing, making appearances with various bands at the Intercontinental Hotel, the Hotel Le Lagon and the Iririki Island Resort, before moving to Tucson, Arizona, where she and Bob now enjoy the quiet life.