“I did start tuition,” he remembers, “but that’s all I did – start.” Rufus Rehu’s remarkable skills are self-taught, practical and theory. He was tinkling away at eight years old and the nearby Māori Community Centre furthered the education.
It was at the community centre that The Crescendoes formed in 1956/ 57 featuring Rehu on piano, saxophonist Toko Pompey, guitarists Solly Oai and Paul Williams, bassist Chuck Williams and drummer Wiki Pukeroa. Regulars at the community centre, they backed visiting singers and duos, and the Sunday night talent quest hopefuls.
In 1959 Rehu scored a late-night residency at the Picasso in a line-up that included guitarist Danny Robinson. “We didn’t really have a band name, not that I remember,” says Rehu. “We came on after midnight after Ronnie Smith’s trio finished. Ricky May was washing dishes there and would jump up to sing at every opportunity.”
In 1962 Rehu was offered the piano stool with The Quin Tikis for a national tour backing The Howard Morrison Quartet. Meanwhile, Australian promoter Des Cussins was travelling New Zealand, recruiting Māori musicians for his Sydney nightspot (Māori showbands were huge at the time in Australia). Cussins caught The Quin Tikis and, impressed with the pianist, Rehu got the nod, which reunited him with Crescendoes saxophonist Toko Pompey.
Sydney-based, The Maori Premiers had two residencies, the Petersham Inn and the late-night spot at Chequers. There were other performances; the Maori Premiers were in demand but they weren’t in the money. “Shit no, we didn’t see much in the way of money,” Rehu says, “No one did, did they?”
Fronted by the great Rim D. Paul, The Quin Tikis were soon regarded as the greatest of all the Māori showbands.
After 12 months or so, there were line-up changes including the arrival of the great Australian-Filipino vocalist Inez Imaya at the start of her career. In 1964, when The Quin Tikis themselves crossed the Tasman, Rehu was enticed back into the line-up.
Fronted by the great Rim D. Paul, The Quin Tikis were soon regarded as the greatest of all the Māori showbands – supper club superstars, playing the prestige gigs, recording two albums, entertaining troops in Vietnam and, back in New Zealand, appearing in John O’Shea’s 1966 movie Don’t Let It Get You. These were heady days for Rufus Rehu and they continued with his next band, Quincy Conserve.
Rufus Rehu was back in New Zealand when Malcolm Hayman was recruiting his “$6,000 band” ($6,000 being the budget he’d been given by Wellington nightclub owner Roy Young). Quincy Conserve debuted at the Downtown Club in February 1968, making an immediate impression in Wellington and further afield. They released five albums, became HMV’s in-house band, helped establish the Lion Breweries tour circuit and backed artists as diverse as Allison Durbin and Australian soul singer Jeff St John.
Departing Quincy Conserve in 1973 and now domiciled in Wellington, Rehu joined the resident band at a new Ray Johns’ nightspot, The Cabin. This band evolved into The Section: Rehu, singer-saxophonist Denys (Dennis) Mason, guitarist John O’Connor, bassist Frits Stigter and drummer Chris Fox. Something of a supergroup, with all members coming out of top successful bands, they became popular very quickly, establishing The Cabin as a nightclub, and also earning Wellington support slots to The Jackson Five, BB King and Osibisa. The Section didn’t actually last long, less than 12 months, before, minus Rehu, they evolved into Redeye. By then, Rufus Rehu had returned to Auckland.
Although his career has been relatively low-key since, Rufus Rehu has generally maintained a musical presence. There was a stint at Rotorua’s Tudor Towers in the 1970s but mostly it’s been Auckland-based – a Titirangi restaurant was followed by a residency throughout most of the 1980s at the Shakespeare Tavern, featuring vocalist Josie Rika. In 1989 Rufus Rehu began playing at Ponsonby’s Alhambra Garden Bar & Restaurant, the start of a 17-year relationship, through to the venue’s closure on New Year’s Eve 2006.
The Alhambra years saw Rehu teamed with Tommy Adderley, Sonny Day, Robbie Maxwell, Lenny Ormsby, and many others; his longest-serving sidekick was drummer Jimmy Gibb. Some nights Rehu would perform solo, others as a duo, full bands have included Rufus Rehu’s Side Effects and the wonderfully-named Rufus Rehu’s Raging Thirst, both regular additions to New Zealand jazz festivals.
Rufus Rehu’s career has been rarely captured on record, just the Quin Tikis and Quincy Conserve were recording acts, although there was 1970’s oddity, ‘Heya’, credited to Zonk!, which was Rehu, singer Shane Hales, guitarist Bruce Robinson, bassist Rick White and drummer Bruno Lawrence.
Rufus Rehu remains one of New Zealand’s great pianists, unique some would say. One evening, dining 10 feet away from Rehu at the Alhambra, an international entertainer leaned over to me and said with some disbelief, “This guy plays the piano like a fucking drummer!” (There’s some truth in that – the Alhambra had the in-house piano tuned monthly during Rehu’s tenure.)
Since the Alhambra’s closure, Rehu’s public appearances have been few, just the occasional one off performance.
After a short illness Rufus Rehu died on 21 November 2020.