When a local version of Elvis was needed, Johnny Devlin stepped forward; when the fashion shifted to teen idols, someone a little less confronting was needed. In 1960, the chosen one was Ronnie Sundin, a 16-year-old from Auckland.
Sundin was still at Avondale Technical College and about to sit School Certificate when Viking Records released his debut single in September 1959. In the USA, the original version of ‘Sea of Love’ had yet to reach No.1 in the R&B charts when Sundin recorded it, with ‘Waltzing Matilda’ on the B-side.
Providing the backing was Will Jess and the Jesters, ie. Bill Sevesi and his band. This local version was soon played on radio’s Lever Hit Parade and quickly became a local phenomenon. Both sides were popular, and the disc sold 15,000 copies in four months. Viking had a teen star on its hands.
Within weeks of leaving school, Sundin was a fulltime musician, topping the bill at the Auckland Town Hall. Cinema magazine – a predecessor of Playdate – reviewed the concert: “Looking like a young, slim Robert Mitchum onstage, and displaying a sensitive personality that keyed well with his winning voice, Sundin kept the excitement simmering. He sang everything with catching sincerity, making ‘Mr Blue’ sound as though it had been written for him.”
Several other Viking artists were also on the bill, which was aimed at an older crowd. Drag act Noel McKay played it relatively straight, performing “his celebrated sophisticated numbers” in a men’s suit, while the striking chanteuse Hiria Moffatt sang ‘That Old Black Magic’. The teenagers probably enjoyed the rock and roll band the Satellites, but what their parents thought of exotic nightclub entertainer “Levita” performing “a sinuous Cuban dance” – while wearing a bikini with a feather duster attached to her bum – we can only speculate.
Afterwards, to avoid being over-run by fans, he took refuge under a parked van.
On January 24 1960, Sundin appeared in front of 20,000 teenagers at Western Springs; they paid 2/6 for a variety show topped by the Howard Morrison Quartet. Also on the bill were The Keil Isles, Vince Callaher, Kahu Pineaha, Noel McKay and Merv Thomas and His Dixielanders. According to Cinema, Sundin had the bobbysoxers swooning to his “high-octane delivery of such swinging items as ‘Waltzing Matilda’.” Afterwards, to avoid being over-run by fans, he took refuge under a parked van.
Throughout 1960 Viking seized the moment, flooding the market with releases by Sundin – six singles, an EP called Heartbeat, and an album, Ronnie With Will Jess and His Jesters. Most of the album was a compilation of the earlier singles, a mix of light, rock and roll and blues (‘Mean Woman Blues’, ‘Moo Cow Boogie’, ‘Bye Bye Baby Goodbye'), pop and standards. ‘Teenage Beat’ was written by Sevesi; not on the album was Sundin’s duet with Daphne Walker, ‘Best Wishes’.
The cover versions were safe bets for the record company, but Sundin was dubious. Playdate wrote: “Imitations never get an artist anywhere, Sundin believes. He likes to give his own interpretation to a song and looks forward to putting on record some of the originals of Gene O’Leary, a local songwriter.” Sundin told the magazine: “Pop ballads are what I like doing best, and I suppose Bobby Darin is my favourite. I know it’s just about out in America now but” (with a flash of defiance) “I like rock and roll!”
Sundin began at the age of 12, learning a few ukulele chords from his mother, then forming a skiffle band called the Barnyarders. He was later discovered by Sevesi, who lived across the road, and heard the band rehearsing for eight hours one Sunday. According to the Evening Post, Sevesi chided him for not giving his voice enough rest. “It’s only just coming right,” Sundin replied, and Sevesi recruited the band to perform that night at a charity talent quest. Soon he hired Sundin to be a permanent soloist with the Jesters, and gave him voice and stage training.
In a 1992 interview with Gordon Spittle, Viking boss Murdoch Riley described Sundin’s music as “soft rock and roll, not heavy. The fact that we put Will Jeffs behind him rather than a solid rock band gives you an idea. With his soft voice, he had to have a soft backing. He had a Pat Boone sound, but certain numbers suited him very well.”
Viking decided to pull out the promotional stops, taking him around radio stations and organising a promotional tour of the North Island, giving in-store appearances and playing cinemas. “It was a bit scary,” said Riley. “He couldn’t survive it. He was being mobbed – he was a good-looking kid – and it was my first experience of the mob, the love of the mob. We were doing both shows and store appearances and you would bring him out … we were not used to having to control the crowds and we got a much better response than we expected – masses of teenagers.”
In New Plymouth, his shirt was torn off. in Wanganui, fans undid his shoes while he was singing, then suddenly pulled them off and ran away.
In New Plymouth, his shirt was torn off; in Whanganui, fans undid his shoes while he was singing, then suddenly pulled them off and ran away. In Wellington, he had to escape from the DIC department store, and was chased down Lambton Quay.
Sundin’s handlers struggled to get him in and out of the car. The teenagers would jostle him, and inside the stores, knock the fixtures over. “They were not thieving things, they were just boisterous and hard to handle. We did not realise that emotions could play such a part, and that was the teenager of that time. It was all very innocent – okay they wanted to get hold of him and get his clothes off him, but only for a souvenir sort of thing.”
Shortly after this tour, Sundin spent three weeks in hospital, suffering from peritonitis; while there, he received 300 get-well cards.
Big things were predicted for Sundin, including a spot on a Lee Gordon package show in Australia, where ‘Waltzing Matilda’ was “tipped to sell out”. However, there were no releases after 1960, and after performing as part of the Al Paget Sextet in 1962-1964, Sundin slipped from the limelight.
Al Paget first played with Sundin when he was 21, and a member of Bill Sevesi’s group the Jesters; he was then called Alex Patchett.
‘Sea of Love’ was revived in 1989 for a hit film of that name, starring Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin. Besides the original 1959 version, the soundtrack featured Tom Waits singing the song.