Later that year, 2ZC disc jockey Keith Richardson was asked to compere a show in Napier. His wife Sylvia took the booking, and was asked if she knew a suitable band. She said she did, though in fact she only knew Fred Neale. A few frantic phone calls were made to organise a band. After Keith told Fred and Athol about The Shadows in the UK, Fred became fascinated with Hank Marvin and wanted to emulate his guitar sound. The Hawke’s Bay band was renamed The Rockets because of the post-Sputnik interest in space travel; the musicians also wanted to include some covers by the British Shadows.
Keith and Sylvia had met in 1958 at the Napier Municipal Theatre where he was an actor and Sylvia was wardrobe mistress. The pair began mentoring The Rockets. Sylvia enjoyed the challenge of making clothes without patterns and, at her own expense, she created an effective stage costume for the band: distinguished blue shirts with gold rockets on the breast, complete with stovepipe trousers. They looked very professional, one of the best kitted-out bands in the land at the time. Seeing a picture of them in these outfits, Midge Marsden commented: “Who are these ultra cool hip cats? I want to be in that band! What a great pic, wish I had made a trip to Napier to see this band!”
On its opening night in September 1960 the group was greeted by thunderous applause. The original musicians were Athol Munro, 22, on keyboards; Fred Neale, 20, lead guitar; Leon Clapperton, 24, bass guitar; John Lindsay, 16, rhythm guitar; Craig Alexander, 16, drums: and Bob Catherill, 20, saxophone. The Rockets played many gigs in Hawke’s Bay and around the country, with Richardson regularly acting as MC. They also often appeared at the Oriental Ballroom in Auckland.
On its opening night in September 1960 the group was greeted by thunderous applause.
Hawke’s Bay produced some remarkable pop stars at this time, including singers such as Teddy Bennett, Des Gibson, and his sister Yolande Gibson. Ivan Tidswell – who owned Pacific Records out of Dannevirke – made a number of recordings of local pop singers and groups. Ivan was interested in recording The Rockets, so a few numbers were rehearsed and four instrumentals were recorded in 1961 in the Soundex Recording Studios in Hastings. (By day this served as the piano workshop behind the Sutcliffe’s Record Store.)
The Richardsons thought long and hard about what to release as the first single. They settled on ‘Gonzales’, a fast-driving Mexican number, backed with ‘Johnny Guitar’. The disc was purchased by the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, so it received some airplay and made a small impact on the local charts: No.16 on the Auckland Top 20, and No.30 on the Christchurch Hot 100. Two other tracks from that session, ‘Yellow Bird’ and ‘Nivram’, were never released.
Athol Munro left the group to form The Athol Munro Combo, which played hotel venues. Also departing were Leon Clapperton, who didn’t like the developing image, and saxophonist Bob Catherill. They were replaced by Rudy Pederson on bass, and saxophonist Grant Kamau. This revised group went into the studio again in 1962 to record ‘The Ruby and the Pearl’ and ‘Wonderful Land’ (this track featured Allison Gibson, Yolande’s older sister, on vocal over-dubs).
The Rockets also had a fan club newsletter that went out regularly. The October 1962 issue has survived, and includes a bio-sketch of one of members, drummer Craig Alexander:
Hi: Actually there is not much to tell you but as I have to start somewhere I’ll start by telling you I am, at sixteen the youngest in the Group. My birthday is December 13th. I have been interested in making a noise for as long as Mum can remember. I must mention the courage of my Mother as she has certainly had a lot to put up with (she still has for that matter). Believe it or not she is still quite sane.
I taught myself to play the drums but owe a lot to Hawke’s Bay’s greatest rock drummer Billy Nuku. About 18 months ago I had my own band, a three-piece dance, but it was never a great success. I first met the Rockets as the Shadows as they were then, in March 1961. We have been extremely lucky in having Fred with us as he has great ideas, fantastic arrangements and is a terrific musician.
Among my favourite musicians are: Pete Fountain, George Shearing, Joe Morello, Bill Black, Chet Atkins, The Shadows, Wes Montgomery, and the one and only Dave Brubeck, Brubeck, Brubeck.
I love progressive jazz, collecting jazz and musical magazines, stereophonic & Latin American rhythm, animals especially dogs, going to bed, most outdoor activities and steak and onions. Hate: travelling unless by rail, wet days or windy weather, and getting out of bed.
My ambitions are: to study and learn the theory of percussion, learn to play bass and vibes and to be the top drummer in New Zealand.
Well that is about my lot.
All the best, Craig Alexander
Sylvia also commented on a visit by the boys:
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have The Rockets come visiting all at once? Let me tell you.
The first indication that they have arrived is when the dog suddenly charges out, barking into the hall. Then … chaos!!! As he jumps excitedly at each of the boys in turn amid howls of “Go down, go down”.
Everyone straggles into the sitting room – all talking at once, of course. They sit themselves down, still talking 19 to the dozen. In fact the only way to make yourself heard is to bellow at the top of your voice “Listen to me”.
After the most interesting bits of news have been brought out and discussed, Fred’s nose starts wiffling at the teapot. That is my cue. “Who wants to make a cup of tea?” I ask. Strange. No one is thirsty. So I try again. “Who wants a cup of tea if I make it?” No dissenters this time, so out to the kitchen I have to go. About this time the records start to come out, with many an argument as to which will get played – Chet Atkins is usually a good bet. And no one seems to realise that the volume control is to control the volume not to increase it.
Now Fred finds the dog’s ball and starts to tease him. Then Rudi and Nana (Grant Kamau) join in and pretend to have the ball. This is a surefire way of causing a near riot as the dog bounces indiscriminately round the room, over furniture and human beings alike.
John and Craig will probably be arguing hotly about something. Then Craig spots the “Swear Box” and contributes a guilty coin. I’m sure he thinks that I deliberately place it so that it is right where he can’t miss it!!!
Now they all decide it’s time to leave, so out they troop shouting forgotten pieces of information as they go. Peace again and time to wash the cups and sort out the furniture.
Chaotic? Sure it is but such fun that they are welcome anytime.
The Rockets were popular at many venues. Eddie O’Strange recently recalled on Facebook: “For a summer season concert in January 1962 I was asked to produce/promote a hugely successful show by Australian ‘matinee idol’ Dig Richards (later known as Digby Richards). I pulled in my 2ZC colleague Keith Richardson (with Sylvia) to help and also to gain The Rockets as the backing band. Des Gibson (brother of Yolande) was a regular “guest star” singer with The Rockets, and they were also his recording group. They also traveled to Palmerston North with Mr Lee Grant.”
In the Keith Richardson memoir Never a Dull Moment, Sylvia explains: “Mr Lee Grant started singing in Palmerston North. We were very interested in the developing New Zealand pop scene, and were able to introduce him into Hawke's Bay with the local bands there. It was very obvious to us here was an extremely talented young man.”
Before the “Mr” was added, Lee Grant and The Rockets performed around Palmerston North, Hawke’s Bay and further afield.
In early 1963 it was time to go into the studio again. I engineered the recording sessions for ‘Gold In California’ and ‘Besame Mucho’. Members of the Ernie Rouse Trad Band were co-opted to overdub horns on ‘Gold In California’, and ‘Besame Mucho’ was unusual in that the bass took over the melody line, and was then overdubbed by Fred Neale on lead guitar. John Lindsay (my younger brother) recalls that “A few musos of the day couldn’t work out what had been done to the recording.” Also, at the beginning of the song, The Rockets chanted a few vocals.
There was also another session with Tidswell early in 1963, at Soundex in Hastings. ‘The Breeze and I’ and ‘Road Runner’ were recorded but never released, and some ideas for an LP were explored. It was to have a theme of instrumentals from around the world, and work began on a possible title tune, ‘To the Ends of the Earth’, but it wasn’t recorded.
Lindsay and Alexander left in mid-1963 to join Johnny and The Contacts, which had formed in 1960 to become the resident band at the Top Hat, a new Napier venue. Their replacements in The Rockets were Des McLoughlin on rhythm guitar and Noel Henderson on drums.
The Rockets traveled to Auckland later in 1963 to stand in for The Keil Isles at the Oriental Ballroom. While in Auckland, Tidswell arranged for the band to record four tracks at Viking’s new studio at Newton: the band’s first chance to work in a purpose-built recording studio.
The tracks recorded – ‘Nashville Boogie’, ‘Journey to Midnight’, ‘Sioux Serenade’ and ‘Niana’ – were offered to HMV, whose Dennis Bull wrote back on 27 September 1963 and said the company was interesting in coupling ‘Journey to Midnight’ with ‘Nashville Boogie’ for a single. He thought the latter was an excellent number and had far more sales potential than ‘Sioux Serenade’, which must have been suggested. He also enclosed their contract for Richardson to sign as the band’s manager.
On 26 November Bull wrote again to Richardson, advising that they still had no firm date for the disc. This was due to a hold-up with the Australian publishers regarding their rights to the tunes. “We have sent them another urgent letter.” On 27 January 1964 HMV advised that the disc had finally been issued and had been submitted to the NZBC Selection Committee for consideration. Still unreleased are the other two tracks recorded in Auckland, ‘Sioux Serenade’ and ‘Niana’. Keith Richardson supplied the male vocals overdubbed on the latter.
And that is where the story of The Rockets ends. Fred Neale later put down a few unreleased solo tracks, including ‘Centipede Boogie’ and ‘Exodus’, and is believed to be living in Australia. Rudy Pederson went to The Yes Men, which had been formed by Craig Alexander (who had been in both The Rockets and The Contacts). Grant Kamau passed away on 1 April 2019.
David Lindsay spent 44 years in radio broadcasting, starting in 1953 as a technician at 2YZ Napier, in the days when the technician played the 78rpm discs and the announcer just announced. He helped wire up 2ZC a couple of years later when it became first commercial radio station in Hawke’s Bay. One of his tasks at 2ZC was engineering The Fabulous Fifty hosted by Keith Richardson. Lindsay also recorded several pop groups in the studio and engineered two live broadcasts of The Contacts from the Top Hat ballroom. He transferred to Wellington in 1967, working again with Keith Richardson as engineer of the weekly Top Twenty programme on 2ZB, which was also broadcast nationwide on the ZB and ZC network.
Thanks to the estate of Keith Richardson (Kent Richardson)
Athol Munro - keyboards
Fred Neale - lead guitar
Leon Clapperton - bass
John Lindsay - rhythm guitar
Craig Alexander - drums
Bob Catherill - saxophone
Rudy Pederson - bass
Grant Kamau - saxophone
Noel Henderson - drums
Des Hall - guitar
Des McLoughlin - rhythm guitar