“Jazz is for fun,” said Nancy Harrie. “You earn your bread and butter in the commercial field.” Harrie’s brilliance at the keyboard was matched by a pragmatism and musical open-mindedness, which meant she was always sought after for recordings, live radio broadcasts and television shows. For her, the Astor studio became “like a second home,” she recalled to Nostalgia radio host Jim Sutton. “I was a professional – and I hope I behaved like one.”
Although performing in public made her nervous, Harrie also spent many years playing in nightclubs and hotels. Some of her first appearances were demonstrating sheet music, while working for Begg’s in Christchurch.
Born in Ngāruawāhia in 1919, Harrie grew up in Greymouth where she learnt music at the Mercy convent. Harrie collected her letters – ATCL, LTCL – but was especially lucky to find a teacher who didn’t mind her playing jazz. Sister Mary Anthony was “a splendid teacher who took no nonsense,” remembered Harrie. “There was no mercy on my bones. [But] I consider her responsible for my career.” At 16 she was performing both classical and jazz in Christchurch, and playing at the Mayfair and Wintergarden. “Nancy’s piano style is her own,” said the Australian Music Maker magazine, though an early influence was US pianist Teddy Wilson, and Carmen Cavallaro, Johnny Guarnieri and Nat King Cole were often mentioned.
By 1946 Harrie had moved to Auckland, and for over 30 years she was in demand for recording and broadcasting sessions. She was a rarity, a female musician in a male world, who survived through her talent and sense of humour. There wasn’t a radio band she didn’t perform with, as well as small combos, duets and accompanying singers such as Mavis Rivers, Marion Waite and Mary Feeney.
In 1950 she married Lee Humphreys, leader of the Knaves vocal quartet, and they often collaborated on disc and broadcasts. Also that year, for the NZBS radio series Easy to Remember, Harrie joined forces with Marion Waite – a Detroit-born singer and war bride, based in Wellington. The NZ Listener described their repertoire as “smash hits that lasted a month and then turned sour ... but the easy-paced ones that spring to mind gratefully, and don’t worry about their position on the hit parade.” In other words, standards such as ‘The Very Thought of You’ and ‘The Way You Look Tonight.’
In the recording sessions the NZBS Dance Section producer Bob Bothamley stood between the pair and “smoothed out the occasional contretemps that arose over key, introductions, tempi and microphone lacing,” said the Listener. “He reports that the girls had a fine time [and] that he was never quite clawed to death.” Harrie and Waite were supported by a trio that included Jim Carter on guitar.
Harrie played melodic pop rather than jazz. In 1951 she said to the NZ Women’s Weekly, “I’m pretty keen on ‘bop’ among modern piano styles, but I think it’s a thing women can’t play successfully.” Looking back almost 40 years later, she said, “I was never a jazz pianist, much as I would like to have been.” Her style could be romantic or rhythmic, in whatever genre was required, and she credited her ability to sight-read as the reason she was offered such diverse work.
Harrie was an eclectic soloist, with a virtuosic technique that could be florid or finger-busting.
As a soloist, Harrie was similarly eclectic, making use of her virtuosic technique, which could be florid (‘The World Outside’) or finger-busting (‘Jim-Jams’). Whatever was popular in the shows or on radio, she could transform into something suitable for the parlour: a medley from South Pacific, or Winifred Attwell’s ‘Black and White Rag’. With Lloyd Sly she recorded a double-sided disc for the crowning of a young Queen, ‘Coronation Medley’ b/w ‘Queen Elizabeth Waltz’. As an accompanist Harrie was equally happy providing the rhythm for a big swing band or a Latin combo as she was sliding grace notes behind a country and western tune.
Yet she described herself, to the NZ Women’s Weekly in 1951, as “lazy. I don’t practise much, and it takes me two months to make up my mind to do a recording.” But she was called upon when visiting artists such as Nat “King” Cole and June Christie performed in Auckland. Cole visited New Zealand in 1955, as a singer rather than jazz pianist. Leading the New Zealand band was pianist Crombie Murdoch, who found he couldn’t conduct and play at the same time. “They rang me because I could read,” Harrie told radio host Jim Sutton. “I didn’t get any rehearsal, I had to go straight in and do both shows. It was frightening. I had to go to the chemist and get a courage pill because I had to sight read the whole show.”
She released over a dozen 78s and 45s, on Tanza and Zodiac, in the 1950s and early 60s, including tunes such as ‘Oye Negra’ ‘Alley Cat’, and ‘Roulette’. The quintessential mainstream all-rounder, in 1965 she recorded a light piano album of standards The Colourful Piano of Nancy Harrie. In its review the NZ Herald said her ease at the piano made it “appear so simple that anyone could do it. Her execution of the tunes seems so casual that the listener almost forgets the years of experience and the natural aptitude that make her fingers coolly competent on the keys.” The familiar songs could be used for a party sing-song, for dancing, or simply for one’s listening pleasure. Among them were ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’, ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon’, ‘Never on Sunday’ and ‘Red, Red Robin’. “Miss Harrie does not attempt to dress them up in the modern fashion. She is content to present them as we have always known them, and the record is all the more pleasant for that.”
Also in 1965 she backed singers on TV’s Have a Shot programme. Of this endeavour, song publisher/ musician Wally Ransom said, “Faced with ‘Pagliacci’ on a nose flute, or ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ on an uncertain violin, her ‘simpatico’ accompaniment has immeasurably helped both artists and listeners.”
In 1970 Harrie recalled to the Herald that Have a Shot was “ghastly” and, like most television work, quickly forgotten. “For backing groups in television you call on the best musicians for the job, and in my circumstances this must mean people who can read music, because they can talk about it and iron out the rough spots. Often a backing group can protect an artist. Just because a singer is well known, it doesn’t follow that he keeps perfect time, or even perfect pitch.” Harrie was quick to add that this did not apply to Max Cryer, whom she had accompanied on the recent TV Series Do Re Max.
“I prefer to settle down, shake my shoes off and keep a cigarette close to hand. I just like playing the piano.”
Towards the end of her career, in 1981, she played in the revivalist big band – featuring top players such as Jim Warren, Merv Thomas, and Bruce King – that was the backbone to the Radio Times TV series which launched Billy T James to a wider audience.
Harrie, who died in 2000, was involved in many firsts, such as recording ‘You Can in Yucatan’ with Wally Ransom in 1949, HMV’s debut New Zealand release, and she was the first pianist on television, in a 1951 experimental broadcast. Also on the bill were Aunt Daisy, the Knaves, and a zookeeper with some animals. Although she was in demand as a light pianist providing dinner music at prestigious nightspots such as the Hi Diddle Griddle and the Hotel Intercontinental, of the latter she said, “All it had was money.” But accordionist Silvio De Pra was in the Intercontinental combo, and in 2000 he recalled, “I soon realised what an exceptionally talented musician she was. She was loved and respected by all musicians and the public at large.”
She loved performing, but chose to stay out of the spotlight. “I’m very nervous,” she explained. “I prefer to settle down, shake my shoes off and keep a cigarette close to hand. I just like playing the piano.”
An expanded version of a profile first published in Blue Smoke: the Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964, by Chris Bourke (AUP, 2010).