Lynne and Celine Toner already had solo LPs on Music World at the start of the 1980s and several appearances as a duo on TV show That’s Country before releasing their single ‘Crying In The Rain’ on CBS in 1983.
For the flip side, ‘Pokarekare Ana’, their father and manager Jim Toner had taken them to a Hawke’s Bay kaumātua to ensure they had the pronunciation correct. At ensuing shows, older Māori audience members would listen intently and often come and compliment the singers afterwards on their Te Reo.
The single was to have been a springboard for live work and more recording as a duo for Lynne and Celine, but real life got in the way and it was the last thing they did together.
Jim and Evelyn Toner were married in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1960. Their eldest daughter Lynne was born a year later and Celine in 1962, followed by two sons and another daughter. Lynne would be coaxed into singing such fare as ‘Paddy McGinty’s Goat’ at family gatherings.
Besides singing and playing guitar in a skiffle band, Jim was managing rock bands on the side. The Stoics used to hire the Toners’ Commer van for gigs before their lead singer Frankie Miller moved to London in 1971 and scored a UK Top 10 hit with ‘Darlin’’ in 1978. But the Toner family had a new life in New Zealand by then.
After years of enduring his brother Michael singing the praises of his wonderful life in Napier, Jim and Evelyn scrimped and saved and the family reunited with him there in June 1974.
During their first summer in Napier, Jim entered himself and Evelyn, Lynne and six-year-old Adrienne in various sections of the annual family talent quest at the Soundshell on the Marine Parade and they scooped the prizes. Celine was too shy to sing in public while the boys, Peter and Richard, couldn’t have cared less.
Jim had also discovered the Hawke’s Bay Country & Western Club, which held regular gatherings at a barn in Hastings. In 1975, he accosted Napier’s longstanding public relations officer Brian Cotter: “Have you no’ got a country music club in Napier?” Jim swiftly established the Napier City Country Music Club.
So began a routine of entering country club awards around the North Island. Lynne had quite a bit of success at the end of the decade, winning the overall titles at the Rotorua Golden Clef Awards and the Tauranga Star Awards in 1978 and the Napier New Year Awards and the inaugural New Zealand Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year in 1979.
During that year she was runner-up to Derek Metzger on the televised New Zealand round of the Singer For Asia contest, winning through to the Asian final in Hong Kong where she finished ninth. She also appeared on TV on Opportunity Knocks and at the Fan Fair Convention in Nashville.
Music World record label chief Hoghton Hughes always kept an eye on the talent coming through the amateur awards circuit and would sometimes be a judge at the events. With all of Lynne Toner’s accolades in 1979 he offered her a contract.
Produced by Gray Bartlett, her debut album Here’s Lynne Toner was recorded at Mandrill Studios in Auckland and released in 1980.
Produced by Gray Bartlett, her debut album Here’s Lynne Toner was recorded at Mandrill Studios in Auckland and released in 1980. It included Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat Of Many Colours’, which she had sung at the Entertainer of the Year, Nicolette Larson’s recent hit ‘Lotta Love’ (written by Neil Young) and Tanya Tucker’s 1976 country No.1 ‘Here’s Some Love’. Because Hughes insisted on at least one original song and Lynne didn’t write, they included ‘Wallflower Waltz’ by awards circuit friend Kerrie Beeston.
When the album came out, Hughes suggested Lynne go on tour, but as the oldest of five and having started a job at the Department of Social Welfare less than a year earlier, she thought it would be irresponsible to deprive the family of her board. Her parents were all for her taking the opportunity to promote the record, but there was no persuading her.
In the meantime, the shy and unassuming Celine Toner was coming out of her shell on stage. She was runner-up overall in the Tauranga Star Awards in 1979, overall winner there in 1980 and overall winner at the Napier New Year Awards in 1981.
Soon she too was signed to Music World. Jim Toner approached newly appointed NZCMA musical director Ritchie Pickett to produce the LP. With a background in rock and roll, pop, prog rock and country, Pickett opened Celine’s eyes to all sorts of possibilities for her music outside of her father’s devotion to country.
And it suited Hoghton Hughes’ plans to make Celine more of a country rock act for the label. When her You’ll Remember Me was released in 1981, even the racy cover photo was in stark contrast to the wholesome picture on Here’s Lynne Toner, taken in the reserve across the road from the Toner family home.
Also recorded at Mandrill were Pickett’s ‘Long Distance Lovin’’ and Celine’s own ‘(Sam) You’ll Remember Me’, ‘I’m Gonna Make It Tonight’ and ‘The River’s Too Wide’. At the following New Zealand Music Awards she was a finalist in the Most Promising Female Artist alongside The Crocodiles’ Jenny Morris and eventual winner Anne Dumont.
Jim Toner and Pickett had a falling out after the 1982 Napier New Year Awards where Pickett was employed as musical director. Jim sent Pickett a letter listing his misdemeanours – smoking and drinking on stage, removing and scoring the lid of the Municipal Theatre’s grand piano, using a spanner to detune the piano, spilling alcohol on its keys, dismantling the piano at another venue – which apparently hung on Pickett’s toilet wall for a number of years.
But Pickett’s musical influence had inspired Celine to join Napier pub band Abstract – Dave Atkin (piano), Joe Atkin (drums), Pat Mahoney (bass) and Richard Nicholson (guitar) – for a two-year residency at the Greenmeadows Tavern. Sister Lynne was singing MOR and jazz standards at the Travel Lodge Hotel Restaurant with pianist Eric Coumbe and then formed Stiletto for a residency upstairs at the Criterion with Pete Atkin (bass) and Gene Crarer (drums).
The sisters joined forces for appearances on That’s Country and won the national 1982 Country Quest in Auckland.
The sisters joined forces for appearances on That’s Country and won the national 1982 Country Quest in Auckland. The prize included a trip for two on Continental Airlines anywhere in the United States for 30 days and $400 of studio time and tape at Mandrill, with which they decided to record a single.
Seasoned session man Red McKelvie had played pedal steel and guitar on both of the Toners’ Music World LPs and was brought in as producer, and the women settled on the Everly Brothers song ‘Crying In The Rain’ – the only song written by Howard Greenfield and Carole King when the hit-making songwriting teams of Goffin-King and Greenfield-Keller swapped partners for a day.
The B-side was ‘Pokarekare Ana’, a Māori waiata dating from around the time of World War II, and was a calculated move on Jim Toner’s part as a heartfelt tribute to the family’s adopted home. He had even taken the time to ensure his daughters learnt the correct pronunciation from a Hawke’s Bay kaumātua.
A meeting was set up with CBS A&R director Gilbert Egdell, who agreed to release the single. Despite Lynne and Celine’s protests, Egdell and Jim Toner came up with the idea of putting their photo on the label of the 45, quite possibly a first in New Zealand.
With Lynne married and pregnant, Celine’s fiancé Barry Green bought out her half of the US trip. Through connections Jim Toner had with country music star George Hamilton IV, Celine appeared as his guest on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. That led to an appearance on the International Fan Fair concert there the following year.
Celine and Green married in 1984 and moved to Hamilton in 1985. The newlyweds travelled and there wasn’t much musical activity until Brendan Dugan began using Celine as cover when his regular duo partner Jodi Vaughan was unavailable. She also took up cabaret work.
In 1988, the producers of TVNZ’s new country program Dixie Chicken called to book Lynne and Celine for the show. By this time Lynne had remarried and moved around and was unable to participate, so Celine performed with little sister Adrienne. Celine and Adrienne later toured as backing vocalists to Tex-Mex star Freddy Fender.
Settling in Auckland in the late 1980s, Lynne introduced herself to musicians and reconnected with R&B singer Taisha, who was born in Napier and had come up through the country music scene. Lynne’s former drummer Gene Crarer was also in the city and they briefly resurrected the Stiletto name, drafting in bassist Mike Hill, before she returned to Napier.
When Jodi Vaughan was forming her own female trio in 1993, Brendan Dugan suggested she call Celine Toner. They added Barbie Davidson, who got her start as part of the Country Touch singers on the NZBC show when she was just 15, and called themself Girls Talk. Work began rolling in and Dugan found himself without Vaughan and Celine. Girls Talk worked constantly in the corporate world for the next seven years as well as opening for Kenny Rogers, Ricky Skaggs and The Little River Band.
As Girls Talk were winding down, Celine and guitarist Chet O’Connell were co-opted to be part of a New Zealand tourism display at Pacific Asia Travel Association expos throughout South America. They teamed up again in a Shania Twain tribute tour through New Zealand with Malcolm McCallum (keyboards) and Celine’s brother Pete Toner (bass). The show was Celine and Barry Green’s daughter Samantha’s introduction to the stage.
Moving back to Auckland in the late 1990s, Lynne took up jazz work with Ray Woolf’s pianist Mike Walker, bassist Pete McGregor and drummer Bruce King (The Mike Walker Trio) for three years. That led to the occasional job as fill-in lead vocalist with McGregor’s Prima Swing Riot. She sang lead vocals on two tracks and backing vocals on others for Phil Tilbury’s Swimming The Clutha CD on Kiwi Pacific Records.
Promoter Gray Bartlett put Celine together with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards for tours through New Zealand, Australia and California. There were a further 46 dates set up across the United States that had to be cancelled when the invasion of Iraq began and the Guards were called to action.
Celine and Barry Green set up Limelight Productions & Entertainment, producing shows throughout Australasia with New Zealand veterans Ray Columbus, Tom Sharplin and Shane. They also secured the support slot at Mission Estate Winery Concerts by Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie, Rod Stewart, Sting and Ronan Keating.
The Scottish Celtic niche took off too and Celine and daughter Samantha performed in China with the Royal New Zealand Air Force Band and at festivals in South-East Asia and Indonesia. They called the act Mo Ghra, Gaelic for “my love”, and released the album Alba To Aotearoa. More trips to China followed and Celine appeared at the Chinese National Theatre.
In 2002, she recorded the independent album Songs Of Home at Larry Killip’s studio, with sisters Lynne and Adrienne and her former Girls Talk partners Jodi Vaughan and Barbie Davidson featuring on backing vocals.
Lynne Toner returned to her country roots around 2008 when Brendan Dugan approached her to do some private function duo gigs. For the following years she did shows with Dugan, Gray Bartlett, Jodi Vaughan and Eddie Low until separating from her husband in 2012 and going to university.
During Christmas 2015, Lynne, Celine and Adrienne enjoyed an impromptu sing-along, which Green recorded on his iPhone. About six weeks later, Celine listened back and contacted her sisters with the idea of recording an EP and doing some shows. The response was a resounding yes.
So, more than three decades after recording ‘Pokarekare Ana’ as a salute to New Zealand, Lynne and Celine Toner will reunite in the studio, this time with their little sister and under the gaze of producer and guitarist Dave Maybee, and one couldn’t help but think that the late Jim Toner would be beaming from above.
The first country music song Lynne Toner sang in New Zealand was Slim Whitman’s ‘Bandera Waltz’ as a 12-year-old at the Hawke’s Bay Country & Western Music Club in 1974. She performed unaccompanied because her dad didn’t know the chords.
As well as managing his daughters Lynne and Celine in the early parts of their careers, Jim Toner also led his own Napier bands such as Ramrod and The Overtones. At one time he owned an independent musical instruments store and ran an Access Scheme for unemployed Hawke’s Bay musicians. He passed away in 2007.