Sevesi was then 76, still playing every day and using his home studio to record himself or some young talent he was nurturing. He had earned his status as the godfather of the lap steel guitar in New Zealand through hard work, longevity and generosity.
Sevesi was born in Nuku‘alofa, Tonga, in 1923, to a Tongan mother and a Liverpudlian father. He was called Wilfred Jeffs after his father, but he preferred its Tongan transliteration – Sevesi – and it became his stage name.
He came to New Zealand to attend high school in Auckland, and during the late 1930s heard his first taste of Hawaiian-style pop on radio station 1ZM. He was captivated by the sound of the electric steel guitar, and the Hawaiian genre was booming internationally during the 1930s through the work of musicians such as Dick and Lani McIntire, Sol Ho'opi'i, Felix Mendelssohn, as well as many films set in Hawaii.
Leaving school, he started an apprenticeship at an inner city radio factory where he made his own steel guitar, using photographs of famous players as his guide. He described his first instrument as “Terrible, you never heard a cat meowing so badly in your life.” His second attempt, using a slab of kahikatea, became a two-necked instrument that he used for many years.
After playing along to records at home, he introduced himself to Epi Shalfoon, who led a very popular band at the Crystal Palace in Mt Eden for many years. “One night he said to me, ‘You come every night, you don't dance, you just sit there – what are you doing?' I said, 'I’m listening to your band, I want to learn to play in a band'.” When Sevesi told him he was learning steel guitar and only knew two songs – ‘Isa Lei’ and ‘In The Royal Hawaiian Hotel’ – Shalfoon invited him to sit in with his famous band. “So I went up and I played ‘Isa Lei’ with him. That really pushed me. I learned a lot from Epi just by watching his playing and the way he walked around the floor. He was a great musician.” Sevesi would emulate the lessons learnt from Shalfoon during his long residency at the Orange Ballroom.
"I learned a lot from Epi just by watching his playing and the way he walked around the floor. He was a great musician."
– Bill Sevesi
In 1940, Sevesi formed a dance band, which was gigging regularly until he joined the army in 1944. Returning after two years’ service, Sevesi and his band the Islanders became regulars on the busy Auckland dance circuit. He also began recording, first of all as a backing musician for Tex Morton’s 1949 sessions in Auckland. Sevesi replaced Tommy Kahi, who walked out on the sessions claiming Morton was drunk. Backing Morton as a member of the Rough Riders, Sevesi played steel guitar on five tracks. He also backed the Auckland-based Canadian-born country singer Luke Simmonds. Many recording sessions would follow, mostly at Astor studio on Shortland Street, where the Auckland sessions for Tanza Records took place, with Noel Peach as engineer.
Sevesi’s long residency at the Orange Coronation Hall – also known as the Orange Ballroom – began in 1954, and would last nearly 15 years. The hall, on Newton Road near Symonds Street, was such a popular venue that it was immortalised in Peter Cape’s song ‘Down The Hall On Saturday Night’.
In 1999 Sevesi described the scene: “Man alive, I’ve never seen anything like it. We didn’t have TV, and the hotels were six o’clock closing, so after six o’clock people who wanted to go dancing did not have clubs like they have today. The people, they wanted to meet one another at a dance hall where the boy can get to the girl. You can’t go up to a girl in the picture theatre or something like that, you have got to go down to the dance floor. So the Orange Hall was ideal. It was very central, it had a beautiful floor, and all the roads seemed to lead to the Orange Hall.”
After playing there for about year, Sevesi and his band were so popular that on Saturday nights people were sitting on the steps at 7pm waiting to get in. By 8.30pm the doors were shut. Although it was supposed to hold only 499 people – the square footage wasn’t quite enough to legally permit 500 – by using a loophole of hiring a fireman, they sometimes squeezed 1700 people into the two-storey building.
In the summer, Sevesi and His Islanders also performed often at Waihi Beach and at the Holiday Inn on Waiheke Island. By the late 1950s however, musical fashions had changed: rock and roll was what dancers now demanded.
"You have got to give the public what they want. I am a firm believer in that.”
– Bill Sevesi
“When we first started, we played some very peculiar music,” Sevesi recalled, listing the dance styles they need to play: “'Hands, Knees and Bompsadaisy', statue waltzes, the Maxina, Valeta, Gypsy Tap – all that fashion. And then of course the pop music came out, and rock and roll: Chubby Checker, Elvis Presley and The Beatles came out, and we followed them all the way through. It was no good playing the wrong music at the wrong time. You have got to give the public what they want. I am a firm believer in that.”
During the late 1950s Sevesi backed many Auckland artists live and on record. Among the most prominent was ‘Bye Bye Baby Goodbye’, recorded with Vince Callaher, an expatriate English singer. Billed as Will Jess and His Jesters, Sevesi and his band also backed local teen idol Ronnie Sundin on his massive 1959 hit ‘Sea of Love’ and its follow-up album. They also backed Māori trio The Deuces (including a Rolf Harris parody, ‘Scratch Me Horse From The Race, Mate’), and his eight-year-old nephew Dougie Jeffs.
Sevesi’s own catalogue was extensive, starting with a version of the Māori standard ‘Manu Rere’, released as a Tanza 78 in 1953. There were many releases on Tanza and Viking, as well as EPs and albums on his own label, Armar, founded in 1965. Many tracks featured guest vocalists such as Daphne Walker, Morgan Clarke, Lin Peyroux and George Tumahai. There were also steel guitar duets with Trevor Edmondson.
Sea Breeze, an album released on Viking in 1961, is regarded as the most significant of his recordings with the Islanders. It features many of Sevesi’s own songs, and Polynesian and Hawaiian songs. But Sevesi was still recording 40 years later; in the late 1990s he entered the Stebbing studio to record Thank You For Making My Day, released on Rajon in 2002. It was a lively and moving mix of Hawaiian, Polynesian, Māori and country favourites.
During his long career, Sevesi fostered many other talents, including the Yandall Sisters and Annie Crummer. His efforts for bringing music to the community were acknowledged with many awards, and two that were very special to him were the Creative New Zealand Pacific Islands Artist Award in 1997, and the Gerry Byrd Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998 for his contribution to the steel guitar.
In September 2015 Bill Sevesi was inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame.
Bill Sevesi passed away in April, 2016.