They put out their own surf instrumentals and appeared on 45s and EPs by pop singers The Sheratons and Lew Pryme and country music newcomer Ken Lemon in the early part of the 1960s before splitting a few years later.
Rudy & The Crystals grew out of Bill Sevesi’s bands at the end of the 1950s and two of them recorded with Sevesi as The Samoan Surf Riders as well as backing local teen idol Ronnie Sundin on his records as part of Sevesi’s Will Jess and His Jesters.
Rudy & The Crystals grew out of Bill Sevesi’s bands at the end of the 1950s.
Rudy Spemann was the firstborn of German Samoan parents in Samoa in 1934 and his brother, Hugo, was born there four years later. The boys and their sister, Mina, learned to play several instruments on the island before the family left for New Zealand in May 1952.
Roping in friend Malu Natapu and calling themselves The Black And White Trio, the Spemann brothers’ first steps in the music scene were as talent quest entrants. Bill Sevesi took them under his wing and – renamed The Samoan Surf Riders – Rudy, Hugo and Eddy Eves, along with Sevesi, backed Māori vocalist Daphne Walker as she sang in Tahitian on the Tahiti Records EP Eddie Lund Presents... Reka-Reka.
By the late 1950s, Hugo had joined Sevesi and His Islanders as a pianist or guitarist. Rudy was a sometime drummer with the band and they both appeared with Will Jess and His Jesters (the alter ego of Sevesi and His Islanders) on Ronnie Sundin’s Viking Records LP Ronnie.
“It was Elvis’s era, so we thought, ‘Oh, bugger it, we’ll have a band as well,’” Rudy Spemann told AudioCulture. With Rudy on piano and Hugo on guitar, they recruited bass player Neil Johnson, rhythm guitarist Jason Hiko, drummer Bruce Fuller and second guitarist Brian Prout. Johnson and Hiko were Rudy Spemann’s brothers-in-law, Fuller was a mate of Johnson, and Prout was a friend of Fuller.
The band needed a vocalist, so Rudy hit upon an idea. “I had a tape recorder and I said, ‘The best way to do it is for all of us to sing a song each and tape it and play it back.’ So we did that, and of course, ‘Ew, hell, that’s terrible, terrible,’ until we got to Jason Hiko and, ‘Yeah, that’s him, he’s our vocalist.’”
They soon caught the eye of occasional fellow member of the St Chads Church of England in Sandringham, John Ewan, who had started a record company called Octagon. Their first appearance on the label was in 1960 as backing band for expat Englishman Vince Callaher on his single ‘(The World Of) Suzy Wong’.
Callaher had left Phil Warren’s Prestige label, where he had been recording with Will Jess and His Jesters, to try his luck in Australia. While there he’d co-written ‘(The World Of) Suzy Wong’ – hoping to cash in on the William Holden romantic drama The World Of Suzie Wong – and sought to have it as his next single.
He recorded the vocals only in Australia and sent the tape and a flip side, ‘Six Little Candles’, to John Ewan in Auckland, where he had the Spemann brothers’ band provide the backing. ‘(The World Of) Suzy Wong’ was one of the earliest Octagon offerings and unfortunately didn’t manage to ride the success of the movie.
Rudy had to come up with a name quickly and opted for Rudy’s Reindeer Rhythm. The name wasn’t destined to last.
It was Ewan’s habit to credit the musicians on the label, so Rudy had to come up with a name quickly and opted for Rudy’s Reindeer Rhythm. The name wasn’t destined to last. “It was too corny a name to be used for a whole band,” Rudy Spemann recalled.
“We didn’t have a PA system, so I went and bought ourselves a brand-new crystal microphone. It sat in a box on top of the piano one rehearsal night and I said to the boys, ‘Hey, look at this! How about Rudy & The Crystals?’” The vote was unanimous.
Rudy & The Crystals practised for a year before taking part in an open audition at the Point Chevalier Sailing Club. While the other bands played Presley song after Presley song, they announced foxtrots and waltzes as well as rock and roll numbers and had the entire audience dancing. Unsurprisingly, they got the gig, appearing there every Saturday night.
Their act featured very little rock and roll music. “In those days, rock and roll was classed by the management as bad for the young people,” Rudy Spemann said. “We were allowed to play rock and roll only once during the evening, which was only three or four songs, then it was strictly back to ballroom-type music. They had a guy walking the floor to make sure nobody was dancing rock and roll. After about a year, rock and roll slowly crept in.”
Rudy & The Crystals were there at the forefront, appearing on further Octagon singles during the early 1960s by solo singers Mike Buckler, Del Stanton, Lew Pryme, Ken Lemon and vocal group The Sheratons, as well as the latter’s 1963 EP Where Are You Going Little Boy?
They also released surf instrumental singles under their own name. A cover of Australian band The Joy Boys’ ‘Southern Rora’ b/w Hugo’s arrangement of the Josif Ivanovici waltz ‘Danube Waves’ in 1962, was followed by ‘Raincloud’ b/w ‘Limbo Minstrel’ in 1963 and ‘Pickled Penguins’ b/w ‘Robby’ in 1964 – all written by Hugo.
There were occasional sessions at Eldred Stebbing’s studio, but recordings were mainly done at Bruce Barton’s, where it wasn’t uncommon to have a take break down after angry shouting from Barton. “The singer was put in a room away from the band and you could see him through a window,” Rudy Spemann said.
“The studio had only one or two microphones and now and again we’d be yelled at, ‘You bastards are too loud!’ We were too loud for his equipment, you see, and he couldn’t balance the singer out with the band. But can you imagine trying to keep the drummer quiet? You can’t play the drums softly.”
Besides their time in the studio, Rudy & The Crystals played around Auckland, including a couple of concerts at the Town Hall, and ventured as far as Te Kuiti, Hamilton, Dargaville and Whangarei. After a two-hour set in a Whangarei dance hall one night, the band raced off to the toilet to be confronted by a crowd of girls with bottles of alcohol. “We all had a quick drink and rushed back. It was a bit scary,” Rudy Spemann laughed.
It all came to an end in the mid-1960s when Rudy started a printing business and left music behind. The Crystals collapsed and the members joined other bands. Hugo formed Hugo Spemann & The Ensigns, playing dances at the Orange Hall in Auckland and the sailing clubs on the North Shore. The Hugo Spemann Singers accompanied Bill Sevesi and His Islanders on at least one of their LPs on Sevesi’s Armar label.
During the lifetime of Rudy & The Crystals, the Spemann brothers and Eddy Eves (later replaced by Horst Stunzner) recorded as vocal group The Samoan Surf Riders on the albums Aloha Samoa and Let Me Hear You Whisper and EPs Goin’ Samoan and My Samoan Maiden for Viking and Octagon – sometimes backed by Bill Sevesi and His Islanders, sometimes by Rudy & The Crystals. The Surf Riders were mainly a recording outfit but did appear live in Rotorua, Hamilton and the Auckland Town Hall.
Hugo Spemann passed away in 2005, guitarist Brian Prout died around the same time and bass player Neil Johnson recently suffered a stroke. Rudy Spemann and rhythm guitarist Jason Hiko still live in Auckland and drummer Bruce Fuller lives in Australia.
When Rudy & The Crystals formed, they were short one guitar and didn’t have the resources to buy one. Undeterred, Rudy Spemann built one.
Rudy Spemann sold the printing business he left Rudy & The Crystals to start, True Print, after only three years and ended up going back to work there for the new owner.
Rudy Spemann - piano
Hugo Spemann - guitar
Neil Johnson - bass
Jason Hiko - vocals, guitar
Brian Prout - guitar
Bruce Fuller - drums