Born in 1948, Louis Rawnsley has played in The Underdogs and several other Auckland bands of note, originally as a guitarist but, later, he mostly played bass, his preferred instrument.

Lou Rawnsley on the 1967 C'mon tour - Louis Rawnsley collection

The Underdogs was a four, sometimes five-piece teenage band held together by a shared love of traditional blues and the English R&B bands of the era. Success came early. They released a handful of singles and a full-length album on Eldred Stebbing’s Zodiac Records and enjoyed a long residency at Stebbing’s Galaxie nightspot.

As favourites of C’mon producer Kevan Moore, the television exposure gave the band a national audience. In 1968 they were part of the extremely popular C’mon package tour, when their quite zany antics earned them something of a cult following.

The Underdogs was to be the most acclaimed of the many bands Louis Rawnsley has played with but “I don’t think we made any money,” he’ll tell you without a trace of rancour.

Other bands to feature Louis Rawnsley include Bamboo (one of New Zealand’s first reggae bands) and Hattie & The Hotshots. For 24 years he worked behind the security desk at TVNZ’s Auckland studios. He was dismissed in 2007 when he called out Christine Rankin for remarks she had made on air. Over 150 TVNZ staff signed a petition calling for his reinstatement. TVNZ didn’t budge but the subsequent compensation allowed Rawnsley to retire early and concentrate on his painting. He was still playing until recently. He and Mary, his partner of 45 years, kids grown, chill at Kawakawa Bay, south of Auckland. 

Keeping it simple – what was your first band?

My first band was the Founders, originally called the Inmates, Tony Walton was in the same band. We played at the Mount Roskill Grammar parents-meet-the-teachers. Mount Roskill was a big school in those days. We played ‘Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut’ and ‘Bald Headed Woman’.


First we had to run through them for the top teachers, male teachers, and they said, no, that seems okay and that sounds quite alright. Fucked if I know. They obviously weren’t listening.

It was a co-ed school and at rehearsal the girls all screamed. Jet Black was the school band, Shadows-type, and their guitarist was crying, after all the years they’d put in. They were good but the girls were screaming for us.

I was supposed to sit for UE but … I got School C, fucked if I know how and the teachers were amazed too. The trouble was I was playing six nights a week at the Bel Aire Coffee Lounge in Upper Queen Street. The Dark Ages and the Wild Cats also played there, Bruce Sontgen was in the Wild Cats, they played in glittery suits, I remember that. That lasted about a year and then I joined the Boddys, Bruce Sontgen was the singer. Tony Walton came with me and then we both joined the Underdogs.

And genuine stardom, you’d have to say, by New Zealand standards.

Well back then there was just one television station, which must be hard to comprehend these days. We played on C’mon five times. Kevan Moore used to tell the bands what to play but, apparently, we were the only band who chose our own songs. Which is interesting.

C’mon was a big deal, prime time, and the live shows replicated the television show and they did a really good job, I thought, with the sets and lights, and the go-go girls.

Sonny Day, by Louis Rawnsley: “New Zealand music legend, taken from an early pic.”

It was a six-week tour (C’mon ’68), sometimes doing two shows a day. We were the only band on the tour, and I don’t know why. Apart from Herma Keil and the Keil Isles, who backed all the soloists and The ChicksSonny Day, Sandy Edmonds, Lee Grant … he was the only one with his own dressing room, we hardly ever saw him. Peter Sinclair was the MC. 

The shows were the same most nights, lots of screaming, they screamed at everyone in those days. We’d get off the bus in every town and there’d be throngs of people to greet us.

The first show of the tour was in Christchurch and my amp stopped working and Roger Skinner came to the rescue and saved the day and got it working somehow. Roger was playing with the Keil Isles on tour. He’s a good sort too.

In Invercargill we played this bloody big room, the Agricultural Hall, and it was packed. When we came on we got pelted with tomatoes and cabbages. Cabbages! For fuck’s sake. How the fuck do you get a bag of cabbages past security? Neil [Edwards] was a bloody dag, playing the bass with one hand and eating the tomatoes. Neil was a shocker on that tour, a real character was Neil. Lots of mischief. He once blew whipped cream all over The Chicks just before they went on stage.

We didn’t know anybody on that tour. Most of them were a bit older than us. I think we’d met Sonny but Peter Sinclair was our biggest friend on tour. When we arrived in a town and go out drinking, he would always come out drinking with us. Yeah, Pete Sinclair was a good sort, a real good sort.

Apart from cabbages and tomatoes, did you ever receive the bash or threats of violence because of your appearance, the long hair and that?

Not really no, although I did get beaten up once in Queen Street but that was Neil Edwards. I think he told these guys to fuck off or something inappropriate. Neil and Murray ran off but one guy grabbed me and started punching the fucking daylights out of me. Apparently, Scruff [Peter Ralph] heard about it later and beat the shit out of this guy. Nah, I don’t know, really, I don’t recall much stuff like that. I know one thing – I never threw a cabbage at anybody.

Doug Thomas played with the Underdogs after Tony left. He was a great drummer, a really powerful drummer, he’d do power drumming with one hand, and he was also a real tough guy. One night we were out of town and there were these guys banging on the door downstairs and Doug took his shirt off and went down and said alright, who’s first? They all shut up. And I tell you what, he scared the shit out of the locals.

Life after The Underdogs, what was next?

After the Underdogs, I went overseas. I managed to save up 500 bucks. I sold my 1959 Les Paul for $300, mint condition, it would be priceless today. I stayed away for five months, travelling across Asia and India, ending up in France and then Rome, where I was repatriated home.

Back home I played in a couple of bands with Mike Donnelly, one was this great little quartet with Mike on drums and Billy Brothers on bass, I played nylon string guitar and the pianist was a blind lady named Gloria Stephens, who was great. She never had a piano at home but she just learned new songs off the radio at home. She would turn up at rehearsals and say she had a new song and play it on the piano. Amazing.

Oh and Smoko. That was a three-piece with Murray [Grindlay], me and Tony Pilcher. We only did two gigs, both supports – we did the [1973] support for Muddy Waters and just a few weeks later we did John Mayall’s Bluebreakers.

James Waerea, by Louis Rawnsley: “It’s hard to know what to say about James. Great guy, consummate artist, class musician. I miss James.”

The Mayall line-up was fantastic, two guitarists, Freddie Robinson and Hi Tide Harris. I think Aynsley Dunbar was on drums, Larry Taylor playing bass. I gave Hi Tide Harris a joint in the break, after we’d played, and he obviously smoked the whole thing himself, not a good idea. He was so stoned he couldn’t play and the band was sort of laughing at him. Halfway through the concert, Mayall called out his name. Hi Tide Harris! And he stood up and ripped off a fantastic solo and then he went back to tuning his guitar.

And then there was Momba, which was a project of Dave Calder, who’d been in the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band. Me and Billy Brothers joined it. It was a good band, we used to rehearse like crazy. And Momba had 10 singers. No – 10 singers. Yeah, 10 singers.

Momba performed at this festival in Sandy Bay and another band was Chappaqua and they were sort of falling apart. Two of the guys were Hamin Derus and Wayne Baird. A lot of my music from now on would often feature Wayne or Hamin, or both. Bamboo was the first band.

Bamboo struggled from the start. The punk/new wave thing was everywhere and reggae wasn’t really hot until after the Bob Marley concert, and I think we’d split up by then.

Reggae was the only original music to come out in such a long time because they dropped the ONE. The very English thing was to ONE two three four ONE two three four ONE … and reggae dropped the ONE. TWO three four TWO three four … Bob used to call it One Drop Music because reggae dropped the ONE. It’s a brilliant concept.

Later, much later, me, Hamin and Wayne were together in Mango Crazy. We even did an album called Sweet Reggae. And Hamin and I did an album too.

Hattie & The Hotshots – they had quite a rep around Auckland.

Yeah, they were a good band. We were resident at Jilly’s, Maurice Greer’s club, for about two years. We had two horns, Walter [Bianco] and Keith Ballantyne, Wayne was in it too. When he left he was replaced by that really great guitar player. He was a really hot guitarist, highly respected. Michael? Malcolm? Farrell! Mike Farrell! He died outside Neil’s place, seemed to follow Neil around, the Java Jive, he died outside the Java Jive. Fucking tragic, he was a fantastic player. But hey, Wayne was a great guitarist too. Mike Farrell had all the tricks, Wayne had great feel.

Hattie & The Hotshots won the Battle of the Bands at Mainstreet. 1980? Charley Gray was on the judging panel. The Newmatics came out and threatened us and said, “we should have won”. I said yeah, I thought so too. And I was serious, they should have won. They were a really sharp ska band.

Starting in 1983, you began 24 years at TVNZ, working as security. What happened, Lou?

Christine Rankin was on the Breakfast show. Remember that? And she made sweeping generalisations about Māori parenting and as she was leaving the building I told her that it was racist and over the top. The last thing she said was, “people like you are what is wrong with this country” and I said, “No, it is people like you who are what is wrong with this country.” I was sacked the next day. There was a petition at TVNZ, which was nice, and the union and Andrew Little went in to bat for me but I was made redundant anyway. I didn’t mind, I hated the fucking job. And I received compensation …

Did you learn anything from your years playing music? Anything you’d like to pass on?

Well I was always slightly apprehensive before a gig before I went to see a zen master who taught me how to play properly. He said to forget about the guitar, too much thinking will ruin it. This is you playing the guitar and this is God playing the guitar. And he didn’t even play the guitar. I was never nervous again after that. I was of the mindset that it didn’t matter whether I was playing for 10 people or 2000. I don’t think I played a bad gig.

And then I did a seven-day session in the Waitakeres, seven days without talking. That shuts the thinking down real quick!

You’ve been painting now for some years, in a number of styles. These paintings here – New Zealand musicians, singers and bands all – have been taken from existing photographs, colourised and brightened. Some of them are quite remarkable. Tell something us about each …


Tut Coltman’s Swing Band

I was initially attracted to this photograph because I knew Jim Gower, the [Tut Coltman] bassist, quite well. He was a good friend of my mother-in-law, Mary’s mum. Jim was a great raconteur. He played stand-up bass at a time when most dance bands were using two pianos to achieve the volume level, pre-war. He joined the Engineers in 1939 at age 27 and served in North Africa and Italy before joining the Concert Party in Cairo as bass player. The painting is from a photo taken in 1938 outside the Majestic Theatre in Wellington. Jim is at the right.

Early Underdogs

An unfinished painting featuring my brother Tony, Archie Bowie, Neil Edwards, Harvey Mann, and an unknown drummer. Circa 1964/65

Tony Walton

A painting I gifted to Tony. We were in primer one together in 1954. He was the drummer in my first band, the Founders, from where we joined the Boddys featuring  Bruce Sontgen and Gary Harvey, and then we both joined the Underdogs when they reformed, incorporating members of the Soul Agents and the Boddys.

Sue Donaldson and Yuk Harrison

A small painting of a photo taken on the Pretty Things tour bus. The Chicks ( Sue Donaldson) were on the C’mon tour, and Yuk was bass player for The Brew featuring Trix Willoughby, Tommy Ferguson, Bob Gillett, and Doug Jerebine. According to Yuk, the guitar featured in the painting was Doug’s. 

Paul Hewitt

Originally from the Cook Islands, played with Coconut Rough. Great drummer.

John and Millie Bradfield

Unfortunately, I never got to see John & Millie play live but I have seen a few videos. One thing that is clear is how much respect they had for each other, which is displayed in the photo supplied by John Dix.

Wayne Baird

I met Wayne at the Sandy Bay festival when I was playing with Momba and he was playing with Chappaqua. We formed Bamboo shortly afterwards. Later, I joined Hattie & the Havana Hotshots, with Wayne, shortly after returning from South America. After that we recorded several CDs with Mango Crazy. He was a master of chords and a master gardener. He gifted me the perennial rocoto chili plant featured in this painting.