“Politics is show-business in drag.” It’s an oldie but a goodie, the kind of joke that cabaret queen Diamond Lil (Marcus Craig) might have used to warm up the crowd at one of Phil Warren’s Auckland clubs in the 1970s.
But it was something that Warren himself often said, when explaining his shift from being New Zealand’s leading entertainment impresario to being an Auckland City councillor, and eventually Deputy Mayor.
Show business and politics are natural bedfellows. Both require the gift of the gab, and a natural charisma to encourage people to get out to vote for you. Warren had both, and used them to full advantage in all his ventures, right from the time he hit the ground running as a teenage promoter and record label owner.
He came from a family in which entertainment and politics were important. His parents Allan and Edna enjoyed performing in light opera in Auckland between the wars, and his grandfather Frank Warren – “a roving man” – fought in the Spanish-American war and worked with Wild Bill Hickock’s circus in the USA. Frank’s wife Millie was from a prominent Auckland family, the Walters, which was involved in local body politics in the Mt Eden/Kingland area.
Born in 1938, Phillip Reece Warren had piano lessons as a youngster but these came to an end when he was about eight, as the piano belonged to his uncle Jim Warren, a respected jazz trumpeter who had just returned from the war. But Jim continued to influence him. When Phil was leaving school after the fifth form, he was interested in becoming a farmer. The dormitory at the agricultural college he was to attend burnt down, so he went to Tokoroa and got a job in a timber mill. After about three months, Jim told him there was a job at Begg’s, the music retailer on Queen Street (Phil had already worked there part-time as a mailboy).
At Begg’s he was a “gofer”, and he was determined to go places, fast.
At Begg’s he was a “gofer”, and he was determined to go places, fast. Through Begg’s he met Charlie Western, whose firm Western Enterprises distributed musical instruments. Western hired Phil to be a travelling salesman, and he spent about a year driving around the country in the company’s Vauxhall Velox. When in Auckland, he indulged his interest in jazz by setting up a Sunday jazz club in a dance studio near Queen Street. It was a place to meet like-minded people, many of them women. He also had aspirations to be a drummer – having played in the military band at school – but quickly realised that his forte was organising musicians rather than playing music.
An avid reader of the music trade papers, Warren saw an advertisement that said Clef Records needed an agency in New Zealand. He persuaded Western that they should apply, as the company was owned by the jazz promoter Norman Granz. Warren recalled to Roger Watkins in 1992, “I said to Charlie, gee, this is the greatest jazz label in the world. You should get into the record business, I’ll run that side of the company.”
Several other companies expressed interest, but the decision tipped in Warren’s favour when Clef’s Australian agent came over. Cedric Zahara got a shock when he met the eager 18-year-old. While discussing the idea, Zahara said that he knew an Edna and Allan Warren years earlier, when he worked in light opera. Warren said yes – that’s my parents. “Well, that changed everything,” he recalled. “We’re off to meet mum and dad and have a few drinks. So we got the agency, and into the business we go. I grabbed onto it and swung into it like a lunatic.”
“All of the sudden I’m the toast of the town with the Clef record label,” Warren told Watkins. “We’re running the jazz club on Sunday nights, hustling a few records there and then out to the record shops, making contacts with lots of people.” All around the country there were jazz buffs working in record stores, who were very keen to do business.
In 1956 Western saw that Warren’s heart was in the record business, so suggested he set up his own business, with Clef as its foundation. A few independent record companies in New Zealand worked in the shadow of the HMV, which dominated the industry. Among them were the Stebbing brothers running Zodiac; Tanza, revived under Murdoch Riley’s management; and Pye run by George Wooller, who also ran his own distribution company which included Festival from Australia.
He wrote around the world offering to represent the small labels that HMV or the local minnows didn’t distribute.
But Warren had limitless energy and chutzpah. With the Clef agency, he got an import licence when they were strictly controlled. He wrote around the world offering to represent the small labels that HMV or the local minnows didn’t distribute. In the 1950s, about 80 percent of the records sold in New Zealand came through HMV.
“Anything I could sell, I would chase,” Warren said. By his late teens he was importing R&B, jazz, folk, classical and musicals from small operators in New York and Chicago; many were dodgy characters but they nevertheless kept their word. Among them were Verve, Demon, Laurie, Ace, Oriole, Leedon, Prestige, Bell and Roulette – run by Morris Levy, who was connected to organised crime. He also used the imprint Prestige for one-off releases.
In 1958, the record industry was put under pressure when the new Labour government announced even stricter import controls. This encouraged Warren to diversify into music promotion, and to record local acts under the Prestige banner. He secured the lease of the Crystal Palace ballroom in Mt Eden, which had been dormant since the death of popular bandleader Epi Shalfoon in 1953. In 1958, Johnny Devlin was the hottest act in Auckland, and Warren released his version of ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ on Prestige. He then signed Devlin to the label, and several more releases quickly followed before the singer’s barnstorming national tour over the summer of 1958-1959, which packed theatres while selling thousands of records.
At the Crystal Palace, Warren hired Merv Thomas and his Dixielanders to be the resident act.
At the Crystal Palace, Warren hired Merv Thomas and his Dixielanders to be the resident act, and over the next five years they became the leading draw card in town. Their act evolved from playing Dixie to a high-paced, humorous mix of cabaret and jazz. Another attraction at the venue was the “American coffee” that Warren sold; in the days of strict liquor licencing this was code that the coffees came laced with alcohol.
Devlin was undoubtedly talented, but much of his high profile was a result of the publicity efforts of Warren and Graham Dent, a like-minded young hustler at Kerridge-Odeon. They created stunts worthy of Colonel Tom Parker – mini-riots, photo opportunities, loosely stitched stage shirts that tore apart when grabbed by fan. They also stoked the moral opprobrium of the establishment. There were questions in Parliament – MP Mabel Howard jumped on the bandwagon – and to deflect controversy Warren arranged a photo with visiting evangelist Billy Graham.
An empire worthy of Epstein followed: Phillip Warren Ltd had fingers in many pies. He ran a talent agency and a touring circuit of coffee lounges and dance halls; besides the Crystal Palace he ran the Oriental Ballroom on Symond’s Street, Mojo’s, the Crypt, the Galaxy, the Montmartre and Teenarama. Over the harbour bridge, the Shoreline was probably the largest. Their attractions were up to the minute; innovations such as those “special” coffees, toasted sandwiches that were less than special, coloured lights, mirror balls. Over the next two years, his involvement in the Prestige label changed: it became part of Top Rank, which he ran for Robert Kerridge, and was later re-named Allied International. On Top Rank, Warren released local artists such as the Al Paget Sextet, Kahu Pineaha and Inia Te Wiata. But in December 1961, Warren sold his remaining shares and decided to concentrate on his other business interests, especially the promotion of shows, and the management of artists and venues.
In the mid-1960s Warren purchased the Fuller’s Entertainment Bureau from founder Mary Throll, and turned it into one of the country’s biggest managment and booking agencies with a roster that included The Keil Isles, The Chicks, The Rumour, Shane and Sandy Edmonds. Edmonds would be a particular priority for Warren over the next few years. He would employ both Ray Columbus and Lew Pryme as managers for Fullers and sold the company to Pryme in July 1972.
The arrival of Festival Records in New Zealand late in 1966 (in partnership with Kerridge Odeon) offered Warren a way to re-enter the recording business, with his James Productions (a partnership with Jimmy Sloggett) licensing many masters to Festival, including records by his managed artists and the successful C’mon TV show albums.
In 1959, at the age of 21, he booked Western Springs speedway stadium for a show by Johnny Devlin and the Devils.
At show promotion, he had also shown early promise. In 1959 he booked Western Springs speedway stadium for a show by Johnny Devlin and the Devils. In the same year he brought the first overseas rock and roll acts to New Zealand, in a bill that featured Johnny Cash and Gene Vincent at the Auckland Town Hall. Warren had an association with Lee Gordon, Australia’s pioneering rock promoter.
Over the next 20 years Warren brought some of the biggest names in show business to New Zealand. The outdoor festival Redwood 70 in West Auckland was not his finest hour – fences were torn down, violence broke out, and the headliner Robin Gibb was pelted with tomatoes – but that was an exception. The Hollies took him back to Western Springs, and by the time of the Rolling Stones concert there in 1973, Warren was a master of the big show. José Feliciano paid for his Rolls-Royce; Rod Stewart and the Faces trashed his family grand piano when he loaned it to them for their concert. Besides musicians, Warren toured comedians such as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Bill Cosby, and many others.
His chain of clubs around the country provided venues for the acts from the TV music shows that were popular in the 1960s and early 1970s. The acts that appeared on shows such as C’mon and Happen Inn weren’t exclusively booked through Warren’s agency, but their presence in the country’s living rooms certainly helped sell tickets. He made sure stars such as Mr Lee Grant or The Chicks played for two audiences – teenagers on the C’mon tours, with cabaret shows for their parents.
Television also gave Warren his own national profile, when he appeared as a regular judge on the talent shows Studio One and New Faces.
Television also gave Warren his own national profile, when he appeared as a regular judge on the talent shows Studio One and New Faces. On the panel he played the Simon Cowell role, “the big bad heavy” who bluntly told acts they were off-key, poorly dressed, or uncommercial. Split Ends played the ‘Sweet Talking Spoon Song’ and Warren famously declared the group was “too clever”, while his fellow judge Ray Columbus felt it showed some promise.
For three years in the early 1970s, Warren devoted a large amount of time challenging the liquor licensing laws, and lobbying politicians for change. At the Crypt, underneath Queen Street, he tested a grey area in the law by using a “ticket” system, selling tickets to patrons who then swapped them for drinks at the bar. This cost him thousands of dollars in fines. But his efforts paid off in 1976 when, after a Royal Commission, the National Government offered him the first 3am licence.
However, by then, his reign as the King of Clubland was in decline. In the 1970s, the clubs had become post-music hall dens of innuendo with names like Dirty Dicks, Bimbos, Adam’s Apple and Doodles – and acts such as Dave Allen and Dick Emery. In the mid-70s the “one-in-a-million chance” of five dud shows within a short period of time – not helped by the distractions of liquor lobbying – led to Warren putting his touring company into voluntary liquidation. The days of fading UK thespians such as Barbara Windsor, Patrick Cargill and The Black and White Minstrel Show making box-office magic were over, but Warren was proud of the way he handled it. He sold his family home and traded his way back so that “100 percent of creditors received 90 cents in the dollar”.
In a roundabout way, The Hollies had stimulated his shift into politics. Seeing the big outdoor venue, when they had only been booked to play a hall, appalled the band, who demanded a larger fee. Warren was appalled by the poor facilities at the stadium, and was angry the Auckland City Council took their cut yet put no money into improving the fences or toilets. In 2001 he told Radio New Zealand, “The mayor of the day was dear old Robbie, and he said to me ‘There’s no sense being outside the tent. You must come inside the tent’ – though he didn’t say it as delicately as that.”
His ambition to become Mayor of Auckland was thwarted, possibly by his support for the contentious demolition of His Majesty’s Theatre in 1988.
His career in local politics began in 1980, when he was voted on to the city council. Other public roles followed; over the years he was the Deputy Mayor, Acting Mayor, Chairman of the Auckland Regional Council, board member or patron of forums, committees, arts bodies and countless societies. But his ambition to become Mayor of Auckland was thwarted, possibly by his support for the contentious demolition of His Majesty’s Theatre in 1988 (with characteristic candour, he later called it a “rat-infested dump”).
As a politician, he fought for what he believed in, but could also manage opposing parties to find common ground. Auckland benefitted from his many initiatives, with his open-mindedness to recreational possibilities and championing of the region’s environment. In his last campaign he successfully battled the oil companies to lower the lead content in diesel.
Warren was just 63 when he died of a heart attack on 23 January 2002. Since his teens he had lived life at full pace, always in stressful endeavours. He was a heavy smoker, and did like an ouzo and lemonade after doing business. Flags flew at half-mast over Harbour Bridge the day Warren took his final curtain. At the funeral service, Prime Minister Helen Clark called him a “human dynamo”, Howard Morrison declared he was “the boss” of entertainment, and Anglican bishop Dean John Rymer recalled the lurid underwear Warren wore to the gym: “He was showbiz right down to the skin.”
This page would not have been possible without the help of the Warren family and The Phillip Warren archive held by The Auckland Library's Sir George Grey Special Collections Phil Warren. Papers. NZMS 1214.
In 1959 Phil Warren planned to bring Elvis Presley to New Zealand. In partnership with Australian promoter Lee Gordon, Warren pitched US$130,000 to cover 5 Australian shows and one New Zealand show. It was not to be.
In 1958 Phil Warren was drafted into the airforce under the Compulsory Military Training programme. Whilst based at Whenuapai he ran Prestige in the weekends until he managed find a way to excuse himself from CMT.