Versatility was Kahu Pineaha’s calling card. In the late 1950s, when Auckland’s cabaret scene began to hum, he was constantly in demand for solo shows, which soon revealed him to be as multi-talented as Sammy Davis Jr.
A comedian as well as an accomplished singer and instrumentalist, in 1960 Pineaha recorded his only album – I Hear Music – then left for Las Vegas, by way of Australia.
Sadly, he never got to share a bill with the Rat Pack at its height, because the moment he got off the plane in Sydney, he found work in the nightclubs of Kings Cross. This detour became his destination.
Pineaha was born in Hawke’s Bay in 1934, one of 12 children. He was brought up by a grandmother who trained him in the Māori language and in crafts such as carving and poi dancing. He sang with a family band, and was featured on local radio at the age of nine. As a teenager, while at the Church College of the Latter Day Saints in Hamilton, he was invited to teach other Māori the haka and action songs. During his four years at the college, he began recording, and learnt Spanish, Mexican, Hawaiian and cowboy songs.
Pineaha first became known in the early 1950s as a member of the Clive Trio with the Whatarau sisters, Isobel and Virginia. His rendition of ‘Stormy Weather’ was on a B-side of the Clive Trio’s ‘I Don’t Know Why’, released on Tanza in 1952 when he was 18. When Pineaha left the trio in 1954 his replacement was a young Howard Morrison, making his first foray into show business.
It was Mormon missionary work rather than the bright lights that drew Pineaha to the big city. After appearing at talent quests, within six months he had established himself on the Auckland nightclub scene. He would either accompany himself or use a small trio, and if a boisterous audience needed settling, he would sing very quietly until they had calmed down. John Berry, long-serving Auckland entertainment reporter, wrote in 1959: “Just 5ft 3in tall, with that goatee beard and a roguish gleam in his eyes, he looks like a dusky leprechaun as he sways behind the microphone.”
Pineaha had a vocal dexterity suitable for straight, heart-felt renditions or humorous impressions. A regular feature of his act was the song ‘The Little Fly’, in which he pretended a fly had got into his underwear, causing him to shriek. Although he was fond of risqué material, Pineaha was a strict Mormon who never drank tea or coffee. “The Mormon elders are not narrowed-minded,” he said in 1959. When a couple of elders came to witness his act, Pineaha told them “to be prepared for dynamite". "I kept glancing over to them as I sang. And when I saw them chuckle I knew everything was alright.”
With his light, fluid voice he could handle any style: Hawaiian, country, jazz standards and comic songs.
Because he performed a couple of Harry Belafonte songs, Pineaha was briefly labelled a calypso singer; wearing an island shirt and sailor’s cap didn’t help. With his light, fluid voice he could handle any style: Hawaiian, country, jazz standards and comic songs. He declined to sing rock and roll: “That’s crazy music,” he told Berry. “I don’t mind if the teenagers think I’m a square. I aim to please the middle-aged folk when I choose my songs. Rock and roll singers are a dime a dozen anyway.”
Pineaha would only sing Māori songs if especially requested by tourists: “Nightclubs are not the right place to sing them.” He recorded an EP of popular Māori songs for Viking, and several pop songs for the Top Rank label.
In 1960 he topped the bill at a packed Auckland Town Hall, accompanied by Millie and Johnny Bradfield, with Crombie Murdoch on the piano. “I’ve never seen anyone like Kahu,” Millie Bradfield recalled. “He was so talented. Just one guy and he filled the Town Hall up. He sang like Belafonte and he was amazing.” Phil Warren recorded the show, hoping to release a live album, but just two tracks came out as a single on Top Rank: ‘Kiss of Fire’ b/w ‘Did You Hear About Jerry?’
The casinos in the clubs were booming and crying out for performers; he was soon working seven nights a week.
In Sydney, Pineaha became an entertainer in Kings Cross and at rugby league clubs. The casinos in the clubs were booming and crying out for performers; he was soon working seven nights a week. Mahora Peters of the Maori Volcanics was in awe of his talent: “On his own Kahu could capture an audience and keep them spellbound for hours.” But she watched sadly as Pineaha was torn between his Mormon faith and his homosexuality. “He tried everything he could to remain 'macho',” said Peters, such as teaching martial arts and playing a lot of sport, “but it was obvious it was a losing battle.”
On his only album, I Hear Music (Top Rank, 1960) Pineaha sings jazz standards such as ‘How High the Moon’, ‘Mac the Knife’ and ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’. He had a small, swinging combo, led by New Zealand jazz pianist Judy Bailey, but he played it straight. Perhaps Warren’s entire recording of his 1960 farewell show at the Auckland Town Hall will emerge one day so that the breadth of his talent can be heard.