Garth Young was everywhere in the 1960s and 1970s, as our music industry came to life, amped by the black-and-white TV sets flickering in a quarter of a million lounges. The TV sound studio later became his second home. Wellington was the hub: the showbiz scene was then mostly headquartered in the capital.
Young’s happy place, however, was The Pines, a stylish cabaret situated on a windy rock above Cook Strait, where he presided over the Hammond organ, flanked by the cream of local performers: Tommy Adderley, Yolande Gibson, Paul Walden and Bruno Lawrence.
He was just hitting 24 in 1956 when the rock’n’roll brushfire scorched New Zealand
He was just hitting 24 in 1956 when the rock’n’roll brushfire scorched New Zealand: a witness to the youthquake as Little Richard’s hard-centred ‘Tutti Frutti’ elbowed aside the swoony “easy listening” ditties of Doris Day, Perry Como and Jim Reeves. He dug the backbeat. Yet, as a gifted musical arranger, he understood – and walked in – both worlds.
So how did Young get to be the hardest working man in New Zealand showbiz? Raw talent and graft, really. And the little white amphetamine pills helped, but we’ll get to that.
His story begins in 1932, in Depression-era Paremata, by a salty inlet outside Wellington, where, as in many households, a piano dominated the parlour.
“I was an only child,” Young told Chris Bourke in a 2015 interview on another inlet, in Rarotonga, where he has lived since 1980. “Our headmistress boarded with us. I recall her picking out ‘God Save the King’. My parents decided I should learn the piano. And during the war, a little Scotsman travelled out by train every week to teach me.’
As the Second World War ended, Young – already competent at the keyboard – was dispatched to boarding school. “I went to Wellington College, where I learned from Gordon Short, a good, rather eccentric teacher. He taught me to be a good reader. There were four pianos at school, so we’d sit around and sing. That’s how it started.”
Up the hill at Victoria University – a welcome break after boarding school – Young threw himself into music, not lectures. “The annual musical ‘extravaganza’ [student revue] was my first arranging experience. I met people there like [jazz saxophonist] Bart Stokes who later went to England and became Shirley Bassey’s musical director and arranger.”
At Victoria University, Young threw himself into music, not lectures
Around 1952, Young quit university for a day job at Begg’s music store, and played his first professional piano gigs on Sundays at the Centennial Inn at Paekakariki on the Kapiti Coast. He was on his way.
Then came an offer to to lead the five piece band at the Saturday night dance at the Rio Grande nightclub above the service station in Miramar. The place was packed. In an era when hotels shut at 6pm, fun was what you made it. Apart from the cinema, there were few opportunities to spruce up, hit the dance floor, and meet new people. For a while in the mid-50s, square-dancing in plaid shirts was popular.
American “cool” was coming. Teens on bikes roared in from Wairarapa to Miramar to “jitterbug” and “bunny hop”. The same youngsters would soon be leaping to rock’n’roll. But the Rio Grande proved no picnic for the young bandleader: “I got £6 as band leader [about $300 in 2017 money], plus a dozen beer. But there was a snag: the owner insisted I sack the trumpet player, a nice guy with a disabled wife. I was 20 and this guy was 40 and needed the money. It was a steep learning curve.”
Young was easily enticed to a more regular gig at the Trades Hall in central city Vivian Street. It was a boisterous venue, visiting sailors fighting over girls in the dancehall, police throwing the stroppier ones down the marble stairs.
The prosperous 1950s ushered in new leisure opportunities. He came to prefer the more appreciative – and better behaved – “dine and dance” crowd at swept-up joints like Central Park Cabaret below Brooklyn Hill. He formed strong and enduring musical relationships with some of the town’s best players: bassist Slim Dorward, drummer Dave Fraser and jazz trumpeter Tony Noorts. They would continue playing together for decades.
Young’s quartet at the Featured Tommy Adderley, an English singer fresh from jumping ship.
Then came 1956, the year of Rock Around the Clock, the film bringing rock’n’roll into the country, one of the big box office hits of the day. For Young, too, the new sounds were an epiphany: “I remember seeing the film at the Regent Theatre and it changed my life, I suppose because I was young, and it was exciting, rough as hell.”
It was also the year The Pines cabaret opened its sophisticated doors. And before long, Young and his band had established themselves as the Pines Quartet, featuring Tommy Adderley, a young English singer fresh from jumping ship.
Work was plentiful. There were the Sunday night sets at the Casa Fontana on Victoria Street, and three nights at Orsini’s, the flash restaurant on Cuba Street where the steaks were the size of a plate. Soon he was playing seven nights a week. And as his talent became widely recognised, he began to record for Viking Records, selling tens of thousands of copies of a dozen albums of piano medleys of pop favourites, old and new.
He also became a leading arranger and musical director for 1960s Kiwi pop, recording all the big names: Mr Lee Grant, Shane, Maria Dallas, Jay Epae, and especially Craig Scott. Oh, and he was teaching music by day to 80 students at a time.
By the mid 1970s, Wellington’s go-to Music Man was coralled by TV executives to lead the cheap and cheerful “light entertainment” shows that became a hallmark of its opening decades. But there were also endless, chiruppy like music programmes, as Garth recalled.
“We even did one for [English playwright] Noel Coward’s 70th birthday. There were ones like Hear the Hits, featuring the songs of World War Two, the cast standing in period uniforms around Young and his piano.”
His happy place was elsewhere. After a busy day in the sound studio, he’d drive along Wellington’s south coast, and take his seat at the piano at the Pines. He would later, much later, confess that a steady supply of amphetamine pills kept his crazy show on the road. Plus there was the drinking. In the end Young hit the wall, burnt out.
He tried to get away in the mid-1970s, buying a motel in Palmerston North with his wife Maurine and their kids. But the network executives came knocking, offering him lucrative work on the latest shows.
Young was “working like a maniac”. In 1980 he finally escaped ... to Rarotonga
Young would later tell the NZ Herald: “They needed 40 minutes of music to be arranged every week. The orchestra got bigger and bigger, and that meant more writing, and more copying for every part. In the end I was writing for 45 musos, or half of the NZSO. I’d start at 2am and write until 9am the next day, and get five hours sleep in between. I was working like a maniac. And that went on for months at a time.”
It was exhausting. In 1976 Young made his first visit to the Cook Islands, but it wasn’t until 1980 that he finally escaped the high-pressure world of television music for a relaxing life in Rarotonga with his wife Maurine. “I wouldn’t be alive if I’d stayed. I think the workload would have finished me off,” he recalled.
Quickly, Young established himself as a reliable pianist at most of the island’s venues – with an uncanny ability to converse with a guest while playing a standard immaculately – and in his mid-80s is still playing several nights of the week.
Garth Young was interviewed for AudioCulture by Chris Bourke in 2015. Read more about Young’s long and varied career at these links: