Fronting acts such as Fair Sect and Cruise Lane at Nick Villard’s the Embers, and singing on many popular jingles of the era, Kaye moved permanently to Australia to pursue a solo career and came achingly close to mainstream success.
Daughter of legendary Hawaiian-style steel guitar player Bill Wolfgramm, Kaye was discovered at age 15 by Roger Skinner and The Motivation, who backed her during an Auckland Easter Show talent quest in the late 1960s. Skinner’s band, which included Bradley Coates on keyboard and Jerry Biggs on bass, immediately saw Kaye’s potential and she was soon doing vocal spots with them at the Embers, a venue that, as it did for so many of New Zealand’s musical artists, would forge many key connections that shaped Kaye’s career.
At the Embers, Kaye was approached by all-female pop group Fair Sect who needed a replacement for outgoing lead vocalist Mary Bradfield (who later joined Australia’s INXS as a backing vocalist). The four-piece girl band, led by bass guitarist Faye Reid, performed a repertoire of pop music covers from Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick, to Janis Joplin and John Lennon.
Kaye’s short stint with Fair Sect included a three-month tour of Canada.
Kaye’s short stint with Fair Sect included a three-month tour of Canada, organised by the management of iconic US vocal group The Platters. “We worked practically every night,” Kaye remembers. “I wasn’t old enough to drink in the clubs we were playing in. We did Montreal, Toronto and little towns in between, living on bread and jam. I got along with the girls and it was fun.”
Returning to Auckland after the Canadian tour, Kaye departed Fair Sect and joined Cruise Lane in 1971 after being invited to rehearse with the band by bass player Jerry Biggs, who was acquainted with Kaye from his days with The Motivation.
While Kaye’s two stints with Cruise Lane are well documented here on AudioCulture, one of her strongest memories of the group was their legendary support of Daddy Cool at Auckland’s Carlaw Park in 1971, when Cruise Lane blew Daddy Cool out of the water.
“The whole band was really firing that day,” Kaye recalls. “Everything we did, the audience loved. I remember singing ‘Natural Woman’ and the crowd was just so responsive and into it. It was an amazing feeling.”
In the buzz that followed the Carlaw Park gig, Cruise Lane released a debut single featuring Kaye on the A-side singing ‘Death Is In The Air’ to pre-recorded backing that wasn’t actually Cruise Lane (though the band did feature on the B-side track ‘Ego’).
In between gigs Kaye was also making a name for herself as a session singer for jingle writers, her voice appearing on television spots for brands like Lemon & Paeroa and Nescafé.
“She sang on quite a few ads for me,” recalls Murray Grindlay, New Zealand’s king of jingle writing and former Cruise Lane frontman.
“The best one was a television spot for Isotronic record players which she also appeared in. The ad was the first of its kind in New Zealand with a two-minute version, which was unheard of at the time.”
The Isotronic ad was shot in Stebbing Recording Studio with Geoff Dixon film directing and Grindlay composing, for the Colenso ad agency. “It got all sorts of rave reviews. I remember Kaye looking very beautiful in it and singing sooo well. She was the best female singer by a mile in her day.”
In late 1974 Kaye married long-time boyfriend and Cruise Lane guitarist Steve Wilson, changing her surname to Wilson. Both would depart the band to join Brown Street, a group that featured Lisle Kinney on bass, Chris Nielson on trumpet and keyboards, Greg Mayson on saxophone and Paul Dunningham on drums. The band focused on funk, covering bands like Tower Of Power and Rufus. They had a twice-weekly residency at the Great Northern Hotel by the Auckland wharves, and performed one television spot on Friday night rock show The Grunt Machine, performing Tower Of Power’s ‘Love’s Been Gone So Long’ and ‘Don’t Change Horses (In the Middle of a Stream)’.
But that was as far as they got. “We just couldn’t get it off the ground,” Kaye remembered. “In those days in Auckland it didn’t matter how good your band was, there just wasn’t much you could accomplish. That’s why so many New Zealand bands, when they hit their stride, went to Melbourne or Sydney because that’s where all the action was.”
In 1975 Kaye appeared as a solo act on New Zealand’s premier TV music show Ready To Roll, singing Louis Jordan’s ‘Let the Good Times Roll’ and the Pointer Sisters’ ‘Betcha Got A Chick On The Side’. While in the studio, Kaye ran into pop/ soul singer Mark Williams, who advised her to think about moving to Australia to pursue a solo career.
With this ambition in mind, Kaye departed for Melbourne in 1976 with husband Steve joining her a few months later. Peter Kershaw from Cruise Lane was based in Melbourne permanently by this stage, and put them up for a while in his East St Kilda apartment. Kaye and Steve struggled to find their groove in Melbourne, with gigs hard to come by, miserable weather, broke and living on cabbage soup. At the end of 1976 they relocated to Adelaide where there were more gigs and the weather was friendlier.
By early 1977 Kaye and Steve were gigging with funk and disco cover band Honky, led by keyboard player Jamie Rigg, who was Ricky May’s musical director. Honky had a residency at a popular Adelaide nightclub called Bogart’s, and it was there that Kaye’s vocal talent was "discovered" again, this time by drummer/ record producer Russell Dunlop and guitarist Mark Punch who were in Adelaide touring with soul diva Renee Geyer.
Dunlop had his own production company BAD (Brown and Dunlop) with business partner and audio engineer Bruce Brown, and they were producing records at Albert Studios, the legendary Sydney-based hit factory that produced a string of hit records in the mid-to-late 70s for the likes of AC/DC, The Angels and John Paul Young. BAD produced many hits over the years, for artists like Jon English, Mental As Anything and Doug Ashdown.
in 1977 kaye was flown to Sydney, put up in the Hyatt hotel and groomed to become a pop star.
Dunlop saw Kaye’s mainstream potential immediately, and it wasn’t long before she was flown to Sydney, put up in the Hyatt hotel and groomed to become a pop star.
“At that time Kaye was writing her own songs,” remembers ex-husband Steve Wilson. “Dunlop offered her this incredible opportunity to write, record and sing her own songs. Alberts was the best recording studio in the country at the time, and you had to be really good just to get your foot in the door. People don’t realise it now, but at the time it really was a big deal.”
Kaye recorded half a dozen tracks at Albert Studios for Dunlop in late 77, early 78, under the guidance of Dunlop and Punch. She co-wrote almost all the songs, including ‘Sidewalk Symphony’ and an uplifting soul/ disco anthem titled ‘Where Do You Think it Comes From?’ that was slated to be Kaye’s first single with a music video. Another song co-written by Kaye from these recording sessions, titled ‘Why Do I Break It Up?’ would be covered by Australian vocalist Daryl Braithwaite, released as a single in 1978 and chart respectably on the Australian and American pop charts.
To keep her afloat financially, Dunlop organised sessions for Kaye singing backing vocals on other artists’ records. She was also doing gigs in Sydney’s Kings Cross, briefly joining Paul Christie’s band Loose Booty who were performing at the Manzil Room. Christie later joined Australian rock band Mondo Rock with Daddy Cool’s Ross Wilson.
Kaye’s recordings were ultimately never released. After so much energy and enthusiasm from the production company, what went wrong? Some suggest her marriage struggles with Steve may have been a factor (the pair eventually split permanently in early 1979); others believe she had begun socialising with the “wrong” music crowd in Sydney and was gaining an unfair reputation for substance abuse; others think a decline in her mental health may have also contributed (Kaye was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1980). Regardless of why it happened, one sentiment is never disputed by anyone who was around Kaye in those days: that she had the vocal talent and star quality to go all the way.
After Sydney, Kaye relocated to Melbourne permanently, became a mother of two and wouldn’t sing professionally again for nearly six years, until joining 13-piece soul band The Reverend Blues And The Blues Messengers, led by trumpet player John Santos. Kaye was recommended to John by the band’s guitarist Graham Davidge (of early Little River Band and Goanna fame), who Kaye knew from her days living in Adelaide. Kaye became an integral part of the band’s four-piece vocal line-up throughout the mid-to-late 1980s. She appeared twice with the band on iconic Australian television variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday, and featured prominently on their eponymous EP released in 1985, including lead vocals on a cover of Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘Need An Understanding’, the album’s only single.
The pressure of maintaining a singer’s schedule while raising two children as a single mother eventually proved too much to juggle, with Kaye beginning to miss the odd gig due to kids being sick, or not being able to find babysitters. She left the band in 1989 to focus solely on motherhood. But as the kids became more independent in the 1990s, Kaye was again lured back to the stage with stints in local Melbourne bands Soul Reaction at the Rainbow Hotel in Fitzroy (featuring Les Stackpool on guitar), and reggae outfit Kia Kaha led by Kiwi drummer Dougie Macdonald. Kaye’s last professional gig was a funk night at iconic Melbourne venue The Night Cat on Johnston Street, Fitzroy, in 1998.
Kaye currently resides in Melbourne helping her kids out with her many grandchildren, and singing with the odd local choir. Any regrets about what could have been? “No regrets musically,” ponders Kaye. “I had my shot, and that’s something. As I’ve gotten older I realise not everybody gets their shot. But the thing I’m most proud of is bringing up my kids on my own.”
I am lucky enough to be one of those kids she brought up, and her efforts raising me and my sister on her own while battling a mental illness will inspire me forever. But it’s nice once in a while to remind myself that, once upon a time, our mother was a star.
On April 13th, 2020, five years after the publication of this article, Kaye passed from natural causes at her home in Melbourne. She is survived by her three children Lance, Joe and Georgia.
During her second stint in Cruise Lane, Kaye Wilson sang all three parts on the Andrews Sisters pastiche jingle ‘I’m Your Lovey-Dovey Butcher From Hellaby’s’, written by her bandmates Paul Hewson and Mike Wilson (no relation).
Kaye Wilson sang the first version of the Paul Hewson-written ‘Good Guys Never Die’ on a demo recording by Cruise Lane in 1974-75 that failed to score the band a recording deal. Dragon’s Marc Hunter released the song on his Big City Talk LP in 1981.