Okay, the word "legend" is over-used, but at the least, Lawrence was larger than life, and one of those characters about whom stories run rife.
Born David Lawrence in 1941 in Sussex, England, his family migrated to New Zealand in 1946. By the age of 14 he had a amassed a complete drum kit, along with an obsession for jazz, and he was soon treading the boards with some of NZ’s finest musicians, appearing on records by the likes of Peter Posa and Tommy Adderley. In 1965, as Bruno, he released the single ‘Bruno Do That Thing’/'He's Got That’ on HMV. The single was a cover of Willie Bobo’s US hit ‘Bobo Do That Thing’ and was a finalist in the Loxene Gold Disc Awards.
Lawrence moved to Sydney in October 1966 where he performed with Ricky May and Claude Papesch, and more famously, Max Merritt and The Meteors (1966-67). Lawrence was fired from that band after a crazed skirmish on a cruise ship; the first major sign of a reputation for drink and drug-fuelled behaviour that would, over time, make him infamous. On his return to Wellington in 1967, he released a single as David Lawrence, ‘Mandy Jones’/‘I Don't Care’.
In mid-1971 he formed the madcap ensemble that would forever bear his name: BLERTA.
His next major role was drumming for Quincy Conserve, Malcolm Hayman’s band of jazz/groove sessioneers, for whom he wrote out-of-the-blue New Zealand classic ‘Ride The Rain’ in 1970. His ride with that band was short-lived. In mid-1971 he formed the madcap ensemble that would forever bear his name: BLERTA (Bruno Lawrence’s Electric Revelation And Travelling Apparition). This project lasted an astonishing (for Bruno) four years and consisted of an ever-evolving multi-disciplinary cast of musicians, actors, filmmakers and technicians (and assorted extended family) driving around in an old red bus, performing wherever and whenever.
Bruno’s BLERTA project gave the world a distinctive hit with ‘Dance All Around The World’ and featured major talents like singer-songwriter Corben Simpson, singer Beaver and trumpeter Geoff Murphy, who ended up directing classic New Zealand movies including Goodbye Pork Pie.
Although briefly returning to rock and roll drumming in 1980 with The Crocodiles, after BLERTA life was mostly about acting and the resolute, slightly-mad-but-sensitive macho men he played in a succession of NZ movies in the 1980s made his domed head impossible to avoid.
While enjoying success in Australian TV satire Frontline in 1994, Bruno learned he had terminal lung cancer. He died on 10 June, 1995.
Read: ‘Bruno Did His Thing’, an obituary by Nick Bollinger, 1995
In 1970 HMV banned Bruno from their studios, thus preventing him drumming on Shane Hales' Straight, Straight, Straight album. Producer Alan Galbraith used Richard Burgess instead.