Versatility was Kahu Pineaha’s calling card. In the late 1950s, when Auckland’s cabaret scene began to hum, he was constantly in demand for solo shows, which soon revealed him to be as multi-talented as Sammy Davis Jr.
A comedian as well as an accomplished singer and instrumentalist, in 1960 Pineaha recorded his only album – I Hear Music – then left for Las Vegas, by way of Australia.
Sadly, he never got to share a bill with the Rat Pack at its height, because the moment he got off the plane in Sydney, he found work in the nightclubs of Kings Cross. This detour became his destination.
Pineaha was born in Hawke’s Bay in 1934, one of 12 children. He was brought up by a grandmother who trained him in the Māori language and in crafts such as carving and poi dancing. He sang with a family band, and was featured on local radio at the age of nine. As a teenager, while at the Church College of the Latter Day Saints in Hamilton, he was invited to teach other Māori the haka and action songs. During his four years at the college, he began recording, and learnt Spanish, Mexican, Hawaiian and cowboy songs.
Pineaha first became known in the early 1950s as a member of the Clive Trio with the Whatarau sisters, Isobel and Virginia. His rendition of ‘Stormy Weather’ was on a B-side of the Clive Trio’s ‘I Don’t Know Why’, released on Tanza in 1952 when he was 18. When Pineaha left the trio in 1954 his replacement was a young Howard Morrison, making his first foray into show business.
WITH HIS LIGHT, FLUID VOICE HE COULD HANDLE ANY STYLE: HAWAIIAN, COUNTRY, JAZZ STANDARDS AND COMIC SONGS.
It was Mormon missionary work rather than the bright lights that drew Pineaha to the big city. After appearing at talent quests, within six months he had established himself on the Auckland nightclub scene. “No Auckland singer is creating more interest than a young carpenter called Kahu Pineaha,” long-serving Auckland entertainment reporter John Berry wrote in Te Ao Hou in June 1959. “He began singing in Hastings at the age of six and has scores of performances – and a lot of recordings – behind him. With his resonant tenor voice, Kahu has a wide-ranging repertoire which includes Māori songs, Calypso and classical ballads. His ambition is to take his talents to the United States next year.”
Pineaha would either accompany himself or use a small trio, and if a boisterous audience needed settling, he would sing very quietly until they had calmed down. John Berry described his act in 1959: “Just 5ft 3in tall, with that goatee beard and a roguish gleam in his eyes, he looks like a dusky leprechaun as he sways behind the microphone.”
Pineaha would only sing Māori songs if especially requested by tourists: “Nightclubs are not the right place to sing them.” He recorded an EP of popular Māori songs for Viking, and several pop songs for the Top Rank label.Because he performed a couple of Harry Belafonte songs, Pineaha was briefly labelled a calypso singer; wearing an island shirt and sailor’s cap didn’t help. With his light, fluid voice he could handle any style: Hawaiian, country, jazz standards and comic songs. He declined to sing rock and roll: “That’s crazy music,” he told Berry. “I don’t mind if the teenagers think I’m a square. I aim to please the middle-aged folk when I choose my songs. Rock and roll singers are a dime a dozen anyway.”
Pineaha had a vocal dexterity suitable for straight, heart-felt renditions or humorous impressions. A regular feature of his act was the song ‘The Little Fly’, in which he pretended a fly had got into his underwear, causing him to shriek. Although he was fond of risqué material, Pineaha was a strict Mormon who never drank tea or coffee. “The Mormon elders are not narrowed-minded,” he said in 1959. When a couple of elders came to witness his act, Pineaha told them “to be prepared for dynamite". "I kept glancing over to them as I sang. And when I saw them chuckle I knew everything was alright.”
THE Sydney CASINOS WERE BOOMING; HE WAS SOON WORKING SEVEN NIGHTS A WEEK.
In 1960 he topped the bill at a packed Auckland Town Hall, accompanied by Millie and Johnny Bradfield, with Crombie Murdoch on the piano. “I’ve never seen anyone like Kahu,” Millie Bradfield recalled. “He was so talented. Just one guy and he filled the Town Hall up. He sang like Belafonte and he was amazing.” Phil Warren recorded the show, hoping to release a live album, but just two tracks came out as a single on Top Rank: ‘Kiss of Fire’ b/w ‘Did You Hear About Jerry?’
In Sydney, Pineaha became an entertainer in Kings Cross and at rugby league clubs. The casinos in the clubs were booming and crying out for performers; he was soon working seven nights a week. Mahora Peters of the Māori Volcanics was in awe of his talent: “On his own Kahu could capture an audience and keep them spellbound for hours.” But she watched sadly as Pineaha was torn between his Mormon faith and his homosexuality. “He tried everything he could to remain ‘macho’,” said Peters, such as teaching martial arts and playing a lot of sport, “but it was obvious it was a losing battle.”
On his only album, I Hear Music (Top Rank, 1960) Pineaha sings jazz standards such as ‘How High the Moon’, ‘Mac the Knife’ and ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’. He had a small, swinging combo, led by New Zealand jazz pianist Judy Bailey, but he played it straight. Perhaps Warren’s entire recording of his 1960 farewell show at the Auckland Town Hall will emerge one day so that the breadth of his talent can be heard.
Update: in 2021, a digital compilation of Pineaha’s singles was released on Spotify, revealing his light tenor in many settings. Compared to the jazz standards of I Hear Music, the 12 tracks on Makin’ Whoopee show his diversity and give an idea of his cabaret act. Apart from the title track and a bravura, sensitive performance of ‘Summertime’, and his coy, always popular novelties ( ‘The Little Fly’ and ‘The Flea’), there are two intriguing R&B singles written by Jimmy Reed that show Pineaha knew his way around a blues scale. ‘The Sun is Shining’ is that rarity – a blues track with flute as lead instrument – while ‘You’ve Got Me Dizzy’ swings like Elvis in GI Blues. Produced by Prestige’s Fred Gebbie, who called the session players The Round Sound, ‘... Dizzy’ may be polite enough not to disturb the diners, but shows Pineaha letting his hair down after hours.
The ‘Kiss of Fire’ / ‘Did You Hear About Jerry?’ single was released all over the world, with copies turning up in Canada and various European countries.
In November 1959, Cashbox magazine reported "Kahu Pineaha, one of New Zealand’s leading club acts who sings and plays piano, bass, guitar and bongos, has received several offers to work in Hawaii and has also been approached to entertain on Matson Line vessels."
In July 1961 Billboard's NZ correspondent Fred Gebbie reported that Phil Warren would accompany Kahu Pineaha to Australia to fulfill contractual obligations, "then send him on to the US" where his album I Hear Music was out on Top Rank.