But for a phone call from a schoolmate in Auckland, Mike Walker might have remained a Thames baker. The call, from guitarist Ned Sutherland, led to a musical career which continues to this day.
“You could say I was the heir apparent to the family bakery business”, Walker says, “but that phone call changed everything.”
Born 1 April 1940, Mike Walker had been surrounded by music – his mother was a pianist and former music teacher, his father played sax and trumpet – but the bakery took precedence, with the central business in Thames and with outlets in the wider region. “I did a spell in the Air Force at sixteen,” Walker recalls. “I wanted to be a pilot but when I was told that they needed men like me on the ground, I was out of there.”
So there he was, 1959, working the bakery, tinkling on piano but with few actual gigs and then came that phone call. “Ned was in Auckland trying to crack it when he scored a national tour with Kahu Pineaha and Vince Callagher. Ned was on guitar, Rick Laird on bass and Barry Woods on drums. I told my old man about the offer and he just said, ‘bloody go for it.’”
Kahu Pineaha was a rising star (often billed as “NZ’s Calypso King”) and Irishman Vince Callagher was a recent arrival and, it turned out, a one-hit wonder (‘Bye Bye, Baby, Goodbye’). Both were managed by Phil Warren, who organised the tour, if that’s what you can call it, which lasted a remarkable eight months, playing the main centres and the smallest of small towns. At tour’s end, in February 1960, all four band members moved to Sydney.
“Sydney was a struggle, as it was for all of us.” Walker says, “I came home for a Christmas visit  and I was offered the residency at the Montmartre.”
The Montmartre, owned by Brian Taylor and Rainton Hastie, was Auckland’s premier jazz venue, and had recently been the second home to jazz maestro Ron Smith, who had moved to Wellington. The Montmartre was to remain Mike Walker’s main gig for the next six years. There were other gigs (Tony Hopkins’ jazz workshops at the Bali Hai Coffee Lounge), recording sessions and national tours playing behind Bo Diddley and Shirley Bassey, and regular radio engagements, both with big bands and with his own trio.
Mostly working as a trio at the Montmarte (plus other venues – The Colony, El Matador and The Embers), Walker’s accompanists included bassists Les Still and a very young Bruce Lynch, and drummers Frank Gibson Jr, Tony Hopkins and Bruno Lawrence. Guests players might include Brian Smith, Jimmie Sloggett, Murray Tanner and Merv Thomas; Tommy Adderley and Marlene Tong provided vocals.
“It was the era of floorshows, cabaret I suppose,” Walker recalls. “I didn’t mind cabaret in those days; I can’t stand it now.”
Like many of his peers, Walker singles out Bob Gillett as particularly influential. “I met Bob in Sydney in 1960 and again when he shifted to Auckland, where he became a regular player at the Sunday afternoon sessions. I think New Zealand had had a few pretty good alto players but Bob Gillett was the real thing with a big fat alto sound. I was fortunate to play regularly with Bob although he was a cynical bugger. He nicknamed me The Bossa Nova King, which was a put-down.” One nickname which did stick was Spike, coined by Jimmie Sloggett.
Spike Walker earned a reputation as a musical snob, something he denies. “We were a new generation of jazz musicians, we came behind the likes of Nancy Harrie and the Campbell brothers, but I’m a piano player, I like all sorts of music. I suppose I wasn’t a big fan of rock and roll initially but when The Beatles came along, I thought, hmm, that’s not bad.”
In 1971 Walker was resident at the Tainui Tavern in a band featuring guitarist Chris Thompson, bassist Billy Kristian and drummer Jimmy Hill. In 1973, Walker tried his hand in London, where Kristian and Thompson had relocated. He remained in Britain for nine years.
“It was very hard at the beginning,” he remembers. “It didn’t matter who you were in New Zealand, in London you were one of hundreds of piano players.”
Still, the work did come, on-call for fill-in gigs and the occasional recording and television engagement. For three years he was the accompanist of Will Gaines, the renowned London-based black American tap dancer who “danced the melody”.
Walker says, “Will Gaines was a real artist although he could be frustrating – he never rehearsed anything, everything had to be spontaneous, which was a challenge in itself. But he worked almost non-stop and I got to know the M1 [motorway] very well.”
Now married, Walker returned to Auckland in 1982, spending the next 18 months in Larry Morris’ band at The Foundry, his first real foray into rock and roll. “Man, that place was wild,” he says. “It was too packed, you couldn’t move. There’d be fights and blood amongst the mayhem and some nights there’d be security on stage watching out for the next bit of trouble.”
Walker’s next regular gig couldn’t be any more different, spending three years as Billy T James’ pianist and music arranger. “Working with Billy was just marvellous. So down-to-earth, so one-of-the-boys, a great talent and a fantastic human being.”
Following his Billy T James period, Spike Walker teamed up with Ray Woolf for the first time, a relationship which exists to this day. There have been other partnerships, most recently with chanteuse Jessie Bradshaw, and there was a decade of the corporate-friendly Prima Swings, a tribute show to Louis Prima.
Mike Walker is one of New Zealand’s finest pianists – some would say a well-kept secret – and he still plays regularly (bassist Pete McGregor is his most regular sideman, Bruce King his most frequent drummer) and he serves as president of the Auckland Jazz & Blues Club.
Read more: Mike Walker on gigs, venues and people. Memories of Tommy Adderley, Billy T James, Ray Columbus, Rainton Haistie, Phil Warren and many others