As Ebony took out the Best Band trophy at the 1974 RATA Awards in Christchurch, their performance was flanked by a giant papier-mâché effigy and huge get-well message to the hospitalised subject of the song, Prime Minister Norman Kirk.
Front-page news ensued when Kirk sent the boys a congratulatory telegram on the night direct from his hospital bed. It just didn’t get any better than this. But the next day, 31 August 1974, Kirk died.
Along with the rest of New Zealand Wilson and Brown were stunned. Few were aware of the severity of Kirk’s illness.
Brown: “Kirk’s death was an absolute tragedy. We had the greatest respect for him. To us the receiving of the telegram far outweighed the excitement of performing at the RATA Awards.”
Overnight, airplay vanished – playing the satirical song was now deemed inappropriate.
Stacey Grove had given their final performance on Boxing Day, 1970. Brown and Wilson kept in touch, regularly writing and performing together. Brown: “We performed both solo and as a duo, and with others. Steve Gilpin and I did a couple of residencies at Upper Hutt‘s Cobham Court restaurant under the name Deuce.”
Wilson and Brown came to the attention of local music business entrepreneur Edd Morris. They signed to his Goose Creek collective of artists that included Gilpin, Reece Kirk, Corben Simpson, and Desna Sisarich. Wilson: “It was a loose arrangement really, typical of the time. Edd was a little older than us, played piano, and had a great knowledge of the music business. He was very supportive, helping with everything from management to live gigs and record production. We released our first single as a duo – ‘Everything Has Come And Gone’ b/w ‘Colours Of The World’ – on his Strange label and played Goose Creek shows at Victoria University.”
In July 1972 Ebony successfully auditioned for TVNZ’s talent spotting show ‘New Faces’.
The duo decided to name themselves Ebony. Morris secured a one-off single release under the new name with Philips – ‘The Fool’ – with another Goose Creek band, Christchurch’s Sunday’s Problem, on the B-side.
In July 1972, under the guidance of mentor Rob Robinson, Ebony successfully auditioned for TVNZ’s talent spotting show New Faces. One of 30 finalists from over 1000 applicants, they performed ‘Everything Has Come And Gone’. Brown: “I seem to recall Phil Warren giving us a fairly negative appraisal!”
The following year saw Ebony back on TV, this time with the primetime show Studio One. Running from 1968 to 1974, Studio One provided a launch pad for numerous artists including Brendan Dugan, Split Enz, and Alastair Riddell. In the episodes in which they appeared, Ebony performed ‘The Fool’, and the unreleased ‘Winter Song’.
With their profile raised and now working in Wellington, Wilson and Brown left their homes in Upper Hutt. Via a succession of flats, they ended up at 37 Military Road, Northland. Brown: “Our flats were always something of a crash pad for musicians. Corben Simpson was a regular visitor, and many others spent a night or two on the couch.” Wilson: “I remember half the cast of Hair turning up one night after their show.”
Coincidentally both Brown and Wilson had scored jobs at record company Phonogram, in Wakefield Street – Wilson as warehouse manager, and Brown with the Philips Record Club. Wilson: “We worked hard in the warehouse, shipping out vinyl. When we had stacks of orders we often worked all night. With a little herbal assistance we always got the job done.” Brown: “I handled customer relations and packed up orders. Later, I worked for the rival World Record Club owned by EMI.” An appearance at Philips’s annual conference in Queenstown saw them perform alongside label mates Steve Gilpin [later frontman for Mi-Sex], Shona Laing and Anne Picone.
With Morris’s help the duo found plenty of work in the greater Wellington region, including a residency at Quinn’s Post in Upper Hutt. Photos of the time show the band wearing glitter makeup and Brown in a top hat.
Wilson: “It was the era of glam rock, though we could hardly categorise our music as such.” Brown: “We always liked to inject a bit of humour into the whole music business thing. We were fans of Bowie and just added our own take to the trend.”
when ebony got a record contract, “We both promptly handed in our notice and went down the pub to celebrate!”
Mid 1973 saw the evolution of the song that was to change their lives. Wilson: “Edd helped us write ‘Big Norm’. It was completed in one night flat around Edd’s kitchen table in Brooklyn. The next day we took our guitars in to work and knocked on the boss’s door.” A live rendition convinced John McCready of the song’s potential and he signed Ebony to a recording contract on the spot. Wilson: “We both promptly handed in our notice and went down the pub to celebrate!”
Released in late 1973, the single took off immediately and peaked in January 1974. Radio jumped on it and sales exploded. Wilson: “Record stores struggled to keep the single in stock – our mates at the label told us Phonogram was constantly running out.”
Press reports at the time claimed that the single was the fastest selling in New Zealand since ‘Hey Jude’ five years earlier. Phonogram presented the band with gold discs; sales topped 50,000. Despite this success Ebony were still playing to meagre crowds in small bars such as Wellington’s Royal Tiger. Wilson recalls a punter coming up to him one evening after their rendition of ‘Big Norm’, congratulating them on their remarkable version and stating confidently, “It’s nearly as good as the original band.”
Phonogram hired Morris to produce an album, allocating a budget of $900. Ebony was recorded at EMI Studios in Wakefield Street in 1974 with Michael Grafton-Green engineering. Barry McNeely photographed the cover at the monument on Wellington’s Mt Victoria. Wilson provided handwritten lyrics and drawings for the album’s insert.
Fans were somewhat surprised however, to find that neither ‘The Fool’ nor ‘Big Norm’ featured on the album. Wilson admits it was a huge mistake.
“We felt our first two singles were not really indicative of how we wanted to be seen. ‘The Fool’ turned out to be a bit of a novelty song. ‘Big Norm’ was poking fun, sure, but we genuinely respected Kirk and meant the song as a tribute. Our decision to exclude the singles undoubtedly led to the album’s less than stellar sales.”
Brown: “It was rather ironic really as other songs on the album such as ‘P-A R-T-Y’ (inspired by the kind of songs Dr Hook and the Medicine Show were releasing at the time) and ‘Elephants and Nonsense’ were in exactly the same vein.”
The success of ‘Big Norm’ changed everything for the band.
‘Big Norm’ did however make it on to the latest edition of the massive selling Solid Gold Hits series (Vol. 6), and a Norman Kirk tribute album also entitled Big Norm. ‘The Fool’ was included on the TV show spin-off album 20 Studio One Hits Vol. 2. Both ‘Big Norm’ and ‘The Fool’ are included as bonus tracks on the 2014 digital reissue of Ebony.
The success of ‘Big Norm’ changed everything for the band. Wilson: “Suddenly we were being flown to one-off gigs around the country, regularly in demand for TV appearances, and recognised in the street.”
A management deal was signed with Dave Luther, formerly of Hogsnort Rupert, who was overseeing regular chart success for his other client, Bulldogs Allstar Goodtime Band. Wilson: “Things really lifted with Dave. He was well respected and brought a new level of professionalism to the group. Prior to this we were ripped off regularly by unscrupulous agents and venue owners. One of the first things he did was to have ‘Big Norm’ transcribed and put on sale as sheet music – it proved a big seller.”
Luther organised a co-headlining South Island tour with the Bulldogs in June 1974 to promote the album. Wilson and Brown assembled a backing band that included some of the musicians who played on the album: Simon Morris on bass, Mike Conway on drums, and Neil Hammond on organ. Brown: “The tour was well run by Dave and great fun.” Wilson: “Dave was very strict on drug consumption, or even references to it during the shows we did. Apparently a close friend had died of a drug overdose. My regular onstage banter ‘Marijuana make those eyes at me for’ did not go down well with Dave!”
The expanded line-up worked well. Ebony developed from an acoustic duo to a full electric ensemble. Wilson: “Simon Morris was a big contributor to the album, helping with arranging and producing, and playing several instruments – it seemed natural to just expand the band. It was something of an informal arrangement and other musicians came and went depending on their availability at the time. These included guitarist Rob Winch, bassist Alan Brown, and drummers Kerry Jacobson and Vic Singe.”
The fuller lineup undertook many gigs, including residencies in Auckland. There was a strong focus on the Hawke’s Bay region where the band went down particularly well. As time wore on and with follow-up singles ‘Laze In The Morning Sun’ and ‘Everyone’s Heart Gets Broken’ not repeating the success of ‘Big Norm’, the surge from the smash hit started to fade. Brown: “Ultimately the song became something an albatross around our necks.” Wilson: “Sometimes we’d have to play the song three times in one night.” Brown: “Even today Don and I still get recognised and asked to play the song.”
‘Big Norm’ became an albatross; sometimes ebony were asked to play it three times in a night.
By late 1974 the band was treading water. Brown: ”It was the old story of musical differences. I was keen to move in a jazz and blues direction while Don was focusing on pop and rock. I was tiring of the rock and roll lifestyle and had adopted the Baha’i faith. There was certainly no ill feeling when I left the band.”
Eventually Wilson oversaw a combination of musicians that had played with Ebony evolve to become The Heartbreakers, perhaps the quintessential pub rock band of the late 70s. Brown took the opportunity to travel the world and formed his own record label, Troubador, in the early 80s. Both are still active in music today, Wilson as a solo performer and with Beatles tribute band The Silver Beatlez; Brown as both a solo performer and part of several other combos. Wilson and Brown remain great friends, and occasionally perform together.
Wilson recalls his days in Ebony with great fondness: “Looking back, what stands out for me was that it was a time of innocence and naivety. To be involved in a passionate goal with your best friends was amazing. Nothing seemed contrived; we just did what came naturally. We had a belief in ourselves and in the possibilities of being successful. We lived and breathed every aspect of the music scene, and 60s-70s culture – apart perhaps, from the business side! Our influences came from everywhere – folk, pop, rock, and psychedelia, and what came out of the pot was uniquely us. Above all, we sure had a lot of fun.”
Phonogram commissioned Ebony to record an Australian version of ‘Big Norm’ entitled ‘Big Gough’. A threatened lawsuit by Whitlam saw the single removed from the market almost upon release.
In 1982 Wilson recorded a tribute to David Lange with Wellington musician Paul Schreuder.
Kerry Jacobson would later drum for Dragon from 1976-1983. In the mid-2010s Vic Singe drummed for Wellington's Rag Poets, alongside Clinton Brown and Carl Evensen of Rockinghorse
Don Wilson - vocals, guitar
Stefan Brown - vocals, guitar