Tumahai’s father, Francois, came to Auckland from Tahiti with a local band in the 1920s. He fell in love with Pori, a Ngāti Whātua woman from Ōrākei, and never left. George was born and raised on “Boot Hill”, the Māori community in Ōrākei, near Bastion Point. He had five siblings, Charlie, Danny, Freda, Frank, and Tamaki. (Charlie Tumahai of Herbs fame was the son of Charlie Sr and George’s nephew.)
Born on 9 January 1932, Tumahai began singing at the age of six. He was one of the Sunbeams in the 1ZB radio show, Thea and Her Sunbeams. He also had a stint in that other great Auckland radio institution, Uncle Tom’s Choir.
Tumahai’s teenage days saw him singing in Auckland’s leading dance halls such as the Polynesian Club, in the last years of World War II and the immediate post-war years.
His contemporaries in the late 1950s and early 60s included such entertainers as the Howard Morrison Quartet, Lou and Simon and the Māori Hi-Five. Performances on radio included shows such as Wally Ransom’s Around the Town and Spotlight on the Bands. The latter saw him singing with a band led by Bernie Allen.
There were also road shows, in which Tumahai toured with variety artists Noel McKay and George Tollerton.
George started recording with Eddie Lund and his Tahitians. Asked to sing backing vocals on a record, he formed a trio, The Deuces, accompanied by Johnny Nelson on guitar. When Nelson temporarily left New Zealand to join the Māori Volcanics, he was replaced by Johnny Bradfield, and Tumahai eventually had a long association with both guitarists.
Tumahai recorded many tracks with Bill Sevesi and Daphne Walker
Besides appearing on many recordings by Walker and Sevesi, Tumahai released solo discs for Viking (two EPs, and the albums Queen of the Islands, 1963, and Meet Me in Hawaii, 1965) and a 1967 album for Salem, Welcome to Hawaii.
When the Deuces broke up Tumahai stayed in Auckland to support his family, working primarily as a taxi driver and a qualified fitter and turner. He enjoyed driving taxis “because I like meeting people,” he said in 1974. “I give them a bit of a burst of a song in the car.”
Going solo in the 1960s, Tumahai recorded many tracks with Bill Sevesi and Daphne Walker and, with Bradfield, played most of the Auckland nightclubs in the late 50s and 60s, including the Gourmet, Pinesong, Montmartre, and the El Cortez. He appeared with Ricky May on AKTV2 light entertainment show, Note For Note. By the mid-60s he secured long-running engagements in Tahiti, New Caledonia, Fiji, and Australia. But these long overseas jaunts were never to his liking.
“I like home. I just get homesick when I’m away. My ambition is simple. I just like doing what I am doing now. If I can make people happy, that’s enough. If I entertain a couple of hundred people and they come up after and say they enjoyed it, that’s enough.”
Later in the 60s he toured with Maria Dallas and Allison Durbin. Gore country singer Max McCauley recalled how Tumahai helped him when they were on a mid-60s package tour, with Dallas topping the bill. “George was the compere and he also sang,” he told Chris Bourke in 2006. “He was very good performer, a lovely man, I liked him very much: a brilliant man with a very quick mind.
“I can remember we were performing in the hall at Balclutha, and there was a fellow interjecting and George was compere and he just said really quietly, ‘There doesn’t happen to be a plumber in the house, does there?’ and somebody said yes. And George said, ‘Will you go down to fix that drip there?’ and that was the end of him for the night.”
On the Maria Dallas tour in 1967, however, Playdate editor Des Dubbelt was unimpressed by Tumahai’s “non-funny stage Māori bit ... made worse by non-funny blue jokes.”
In one of his last TV appearances, Tumahai played one of Billy T James’s “cuzzies” in a TV news segment of The Billy T James Show. “He was one of the most underrated performers of his time,” James said in 1991. “Along with Uncle Howie [Howard Morrison] he was probably the most frequently working solo artist of the time.”
James said he “stole bits” of Tumahai’s act when he worked for him as a backing artist before launching his solo career. “I learned from him how to make funny faces and how to use one’s size in an act. I used to do Dean Martin impressions when we were on a Rothman’s Star Quest Show and he would make me do them for the hotel managers afterwards. I think it was just to keep the house bar open.”
Promoter Phil Warren, who booked Tumahai regularly when he ran Fuller’s Entertainment Bureau, said the sunny-natured singer was a rare entertainer. “He made you laugh and he made you cry. He was always in big demand.” Promoter Benny Levin said Tumahai was an immaculate all-round entertainer, a star of television and the club circuit.
In a 1981 interview – when he guested on the TV2 show Blankety Blank – Tumahai said it had been the slowest year he had ever experienced. He had been told that you could count on one hand the number of people earning a living by entertaining fulltime. Even taxi operators were finding work slower. But Tumahai had just finished four nights in Rotorua and had work lined up in Gisborne and Wellington for the next month.
His funeral was a massive event, with 600 friends and family attending
In 1990 Tumahai had an operation for cancer, and he died on 26 May the following year. His funeral was a massive event, with 600 friends and family attending; he is buried at Ōrākei marae. Lou Clauson and Ben Tawhiti were the head pallbearers along with two taxi drivers and two elders. Other entertainers at the funeral were Les Andrews, Johnnie and Betty Bond, George Bennett, Johnny and Millie Bradfield, Daphne Walker, Bill Sevesi, Johnny Watson, Elaine Bracey, Jon Zealando, Joe Dewey, Silvio De Pra, Spencer Sylby, Tricia Rose, Warren McMillan, Rufus Rehu, Buddy Wilson and Ronnie Sundin.
Keith Leggett reminisced, “My eternal memory of George was a ball night at Trillo’s downtown when we were clearing up and George was on the stage, not realising the night was over and eyes closed singing romantically to anyone, ‘Feelings’.”
Tumahai received the Variety Artists’ Club Scroll of Honour in 1977 and the prestigious Benny award in 1978; he was vice-president from 1980 to 1984.
He had five children – Diane, Francis, Marshall, Taina and Glen – and adopted two with his second wife Barbara.