He played an acoustic lap steel, learning from his father, and then from the veteran stringed-instrument teacher Walter Smith in the city. Bob was interested in the steel guitar music that was then in vogue, admiring overseas stars such as Sol Ho'opi'i and locals such as Bill Sevesi and Barry Slot.
When he was a young teen Paris began coming into Auckland on Friday nights to go to record shops, to listen to new discs and meet other musicians. Rock and roll was only occasionally featured on radio’s weekly pop show The Lever Hit Parade so jukeboxes in milk bars and film soundtracks were the outlets for teenagers to hear the exciting new music. “Once us young fellows heard Bill Haley’s band we were hooked,” Paris told Gordon Spittle in 1992.
Like Haley, Paris had a background in country, jazz and pop. While learning theory from the jazz saxophonist Bart Stokes, he briefly took up the vibraphone.
His first live appearance was at the Wellington Town Hall in 1957, playing steel guitar at one of Don Richardson’s jazz festivals. Rock and roll was making inroads into these regular events, and Paris’s steel guitar provided the Bill Haley sound. He formed the Bob Paris Combo, which included saxophonist Bill Fairs (later in the Keil Isles), Keith McMillan on drums, Gene Blazer on bass, Ian Lowe on guitar, and Paris on vibes and lead guitar. (Also in the band at various stages were drummer Don Branch, saxophonist Brian Smith and pianist Mike Nock.) At the Maori Community Centre in Freemans Bay, they played instrumental versions of rock and roll songs by Haley, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis.
In 1958, Johnny Devlin arrived from Wanganui and became The Jive Centre’s star attraction, with Paris and his cohorts as his backing group.
Auckland’s first dedicated rock and roll club was the Jive Centre, on Hobson Street. When the original band left – it was led by jazz drummer Frank Gibson Sr – Paris’s group got the job. As the Jive Centre band, the group became as much of a drawcard at the venue as the singers they backed. They emulated the look, sound and moves of Bill Haley’s Comets. In 1958, Johnny Devlin arrived from Wanganui and became the Jive Centre’s star attraction, with Paris and his cohorts as his backing group. Paris recalled that Devlin was the first vocalist at the Jive Centre who sounded like a genuine rock and roll singer and his popularity was almost instantaneous.
The Bob Paris Combo backed Devlin on some of his records, but not on his barnstorming 1958-59 tours of New Zealand. After Devlin left for Sydney, the Combo broke up, but not before recording several surf-rock style instrumentals for Zodiac, ‘Rebel Rouser’, ‘Rumble’, ‘Big Girl’ and ‘Time Bomb’. They also backed acts such as Eddie Howell and Ricky May on recordings.
After an 18-month stint in Sydney where – inevitably – Paris worked with Devlin, he returned to Auckland and began recording instrumentals for La Gloria and Philips under his own name. Among the singles were the timely ‘Walkin’ Back Twist’/'Paris Twist’, and covers of the Everly Brothers’ hit ‘Bird Dog’ and the jazz standard ‘Harlem Nocturne’. He backed the Everly Brothers during their tour of New Zealand, learning their arrangements quickly by ear after their charts went missing on route. He also worked on tours by Helen Shapiro and Eartha Kitt, plus the Showtime Spectacular tours with the Howard Morrison Quartet.
Paris was in constant demand, as an instrumentalist and later as a member of the Merseymen (a Beatlemania-era band that included drummer/TV journalist Dylan Taite, using his stage name Jet Rink). Many of these gigs came courtesy of the promoter Phil Warren. By day Paris worked at Warren’s record importing business, giving him access to material no one else heard.
Warren credited Paris with encouraging him to record local acts on his labels such as Prestige, and for these he often acted as backing musician, arranger and producer. Eldred Stebbing recalled his perfectionism in a 2004 interview: “Bob was very concentrated on the music side of it. He would be very particular on what he was playing, he would be particular who he had in the band, and that they would come up to the standard he required.”
In 1994 – after over 35 years as perhaps Auckland’s most sought-after guitarist, Paris was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died on 1 November 1994, just days before a planned tribute gig in his honour was scheduled at the Mandalay, Newmarket. The event went ahead anyway, and in his obituary, Phil Warren wrote, “I can assure you, Bob, the tribute was extraordinary and the turnout terrific. They were all there, mate, and they played and sang and danced just as they did in those days when were we in our 20s.”
Bob Paris worked for 18 months in the late 1950s as an assistant to Phil Warren, helping run his Prestige label.