It was 1978. Elvis Presley had been gone a year, the Grease movie was a box-office smash, Happy Days and Sha Na Na were TV ratings successes, and Tom Sharplin and The Rockets were riding a wave of 1950s nostalgia that had seen them become one of the biggest draws in New Zealand.
When they broke up a couple of years later, Sharplin created the Tom Sharplin and The Cadillacs brand that would serve him well for the next four decades. They were resident at Sharplin’s own King Creoles nightclub in Auckland at the same time he was the star of the TVNZ show Rock Around The Clock.
One of the band’s biggest fans was a teenaged Russell Crowe who admitted responsibility for the spray-painted “Sharplin is God” graffiti that once adorned the Elliott Street car park behind Smith & Caughey’s in downtown Auckland. Recorded under the name Russ le Roq, Crowe’s ‘I Just Wanna Be Like Marlon Brando’ was originally titled ‘I Just Wanna Be Like Tom Sharplin’.
Sharplin’s initial success was the big ballad ‘Love Is A Beautiful Song’ in 1971.
But it wasn’t always rock’n’roll. Sharplin’s initial success was the big ballad ‘Love Is A Beautiful Song’ in 1971. He broke free of the MOR shackles in Hastings two years later when he introduced some rock’n’roll into his repertoire. The transformation had begun.
Thomas Richard Sharplin was born in Auckland on 5 May 1949, but the family moved to Tauranga in 1955. At the age of six, Sharplin was thrown from his uncle’s tractor when it hit a tree stump. A plough disc sliced through his right foot and took the top off a finger. Six years later the leg was amputated 15cm below the knee to enable a better prosthesis attachment.
Winning an art contest in the mid-60s, Sharplin’s prize was a ticket to see The Kinks in Hamilton, supported by Tommy Adderley and The Merseymen. At Tauranga Boys’ College he joined Five To Go before auditioning to be the singer in Arms and Legs. He sang The Rolling Stones’ ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ and ‘Get Off My Cloud’ and got the gig.
He remained with Arms and Legs even after moving to Auckland in 1967 to study graphic art at the Auckland Technical Institute, travelling back to Tauranga at the weekends. The band broke up in 1969 and Sharplin scored a Monday night spot with The Arthur Skelton Orchestra at the Orange Ballroom.
He stayed with Skelton for about 18 months, also performing with The Latin Quarter at the Hotel Intercontinental. In March 1970, he appeared alongside the likes of Larry Morris and Lew Pryme at Super Pop 70 at Western Springs for Prince Charles and Princess Anne.
In 1971, Sharplin got hold of an obscure South African single by English singer Dave Mills called ‘Love Is A Beautiful Song’ and self-financed his own recording of it. It cost him $300 for the studio and engineer and $300 for musicians’ wages. Produced by Tony Baker and released on Pye, hold-ups at the pressing plant meant the impetus was lost and Mills’ version came out first in New Zealand.
However, the exposure from the single and earlier appearances on TV show Happen Inn brought Sharplin to the attention of the newly established Johnny Devlin Enterprises and promoter Dave McKee, who became Sharplin’s manager. Sharplin hit the road supporting the likes of Nash Chase, Maria Dallas and Jay Epae and performing his own floorshows.
‘Love Is A River’, another big ballad under the musical directorship of Mike Harvey, was released on McKee’s Kontact Records in 1973. But Sharplin was soon to have a musical revelation that would see the likes of ‘Baby, Don’t Get Hooked On Me’ and ‘Quando, Quando, Quando’ banished from his set lists forever.
Sharplin saw a chance to establish himself as a rock’n’roll specialist.
Appearing as a floorshow act at the Angus Inn in Hastings, Sharplin was asked by the resident band’s guitarist Kipa Royal if he knew any rock’n’roll songs. Sharplin said he knew Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be The Day’, so they rehearsed it and performed it that night. The energy from the audience was contagious and Royal spent the next day teaching Sharplin another half a dozen rockers. It was an eye-opener. Sharplin saw a chance to establish himself as a rock’n’roll specialist.
At the end of 1973, Hamilton promoter Dennis Paul booked Sharplin for a couple of nights at the Kawhia Hall with a young throw-together band from Hamilton calling themselves Axis. The line-up consisted of rock’n’roll revivalists Glenn White (guitar) and Ritchie Pickett (bass), with pianist John Budge and drummer Mike Abbott. Abbott wasn’t a fan of the music and sent his brother Larry to do the second night.
The combination worked and Sharplin, White and Pickett discussed forming a permanent unit. Pickett moved to guitar and piano and he and White enlisted bass player Bill Wilson and drummer Steve Osborne. Their audition for Dave McKee in Auckland didn’t go well; the band was nervous, but Sharplin was insistent – even despite his manager’s reaction of “Shithouse, shithouse, shithouse!” McKee relented and christened them Graffiti.
For the next year or so, Tom Sharplin and Graffiti were ever-present on the New Zealand Breweries circuit. Word of their manic rock’n’roll shows spread down south and promoter Trevor Spitz brought them to Christchurch. Work in Timaru and Dunedin followed.
An anomaly of the time was a schmaltzy woodwind-heavy cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Heart Beat’ released by Sharplin on Kontact Records. Just when Sharplin had found a rewarding new direction, the Tony Mihaljevich-produced 45 had him planted back in the middle of the road. Ties with Dave McKee and Kontact were severed not long after.
Guitarist Dave Walker briefly replaced Glenn White, who was himself replaced by Geoff Martin by the time Tom Sharplin and Graffiti played for the last time, at the Terminus Hotel in Timaru. The band was interviewed on the radio and in the newspaper about the demise of the group, and for the final gig the musicians carried Sharplin the length of the bar to the stage in a loaned coffin.
With the demise of Graffiti, Sharplin and White came together to establish a more authentic, professional rock’n’roll show under the name Tom Sharplin and The Rockets. Ritchie Pickett briefly joined Hot Ash before resurrecting the Graffiti name with a new line-up.
Tom Sharplin and The Rockets were an instant hit. One of their first gigs was the New Zealand premiere of the George Lucas movie American Graffiti, which initiated a new surge of rock’n’roll nostalgia.
Besides Sharplin and White, the band consisted of Malcolm Smith on keyboards, Jeff Clayton on bass and Paul Fenton on drums. Fenton didn’t last long before Dave Lovini became the permanent drummer. They played seven nights a week, and once a week would tape their shows to listen where improvements could be made. It kept them tight.
The Rockets would open in matching suits with two sets of the likes of The Fatback Band’s ‘(Do The) Spanish Hustle’ and The Edgar Winter Group’s ‘Frankenstein’, then they’d change into greaser punk get-up and be joined from the back of the room by Sharplin for the final hour. It became a common gripe in the provinces that if Sharplin and The Rockets were in town there was no point in any other hotelier putting on entertainment because everybody would be at Sharplin’s show.
In the days before they headed to Australia in August 1978, Mi-Sex turned up backstage at Sharplin’s Westown show because nobody had gone to see them at the Bellblock Hotel. Sharplin had worked a couple of concerts with Mi-Sex precursor Freeway and knew Steve Gilpin from the circuit. Years later, bassist Don Martin told Sharplin he had been considered to fill the late Gilpin’s shoes in a proposed Mi-Sex reunion.
Also in 1978, Christchurch impresario Hoghton Hughes offered to record Sharplin and The Rockets and release an LP on his Music World label. The band went into Tandem Studios and played the bulk of their live repertoire, from Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ to Little Richard’s ‘Rip It Up’ to the Nick Lowe-penned ‘I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock’n’Roll)’.
The record was released under Sharplin’s own name as Rock’n’Roll and was followed by singles on Hughes’ trendier Mirage label – ‘Blue Moon’ b/w ‘Three Steps To Heaven’ in 1978, ‘Pretty Blue Eyes’ b/w ‘I Knew The Bride’ in 1979.
Sharplin knew the importance of a brand and labelled his next line-up Tom Sharplin and The Cadillacs.
Named NEBOA Group of the Year the following year, Sharplin and The Rockets parted ways; the band wanting to get away from rock’n’roll and be their own entity. With a diploma in design and some knowledge in marketing, Sharplin knew the importance of a brand and labelled his next line-up Tom Sharplin and The Cadillacs. The moniker has stuck with him since.
Musicians in the early days were somewhat interchangeable. Guitarists included Rob Magnus, Mike Myers, Al Dawson, John Kristian and Brian Hatcher; drummers included Dave O’Connor and Steve Edgar. Even former Rockets Glenn White and Dave Lovini served stints as Cadillacs. The only constant was bass guitarist Ray Eade.
Sharplin met Eade in Dunedin in the final days of The Rockets. The rest of the band had seen Eade with his band at the Captain Cook and suggested he might be a good recruit for Sharplin’s new group. Sharplin checked him out the next night and offered him the gig. When The Rockets left town they took Eade’s gear with them and he flew to Auckland the following week.
With Sharplin pulling consistently good crowds at Aladdin’s in Queen Street, club owner Johnny Tabla offered Sharplin a partnership in a club under The Civic they called King Creoles. Once the booze was paid for, Tabla and Sharplin split the take 50-50; Tabla paid the rent, cleaning and advertising, Sharplin paid the band.
For the next two to three years, Tom Sharplin and The Cadillacs were based at King Creoles. One visitor was Wellington-based TV producer Malcolm Kemp who loved the atmosphere and pitched a rock’n’roll variety show in which Sharplin and his band would receive the bulk of camera time.
Two seasons of Rock Around The Clock were filmed at Avalon and Sharplin’s profile exploded. The band for the first series were Myers, O’Connor, bassist Mike Parker and saxophonist Andrew Kimber, the second series featured Dawson, Edgar and Eade. Wellington-based pianist Bob Smith augmented the line-up in both series. Even Hoghton Hughes cashed in, re-releasing the Rock’n’Roll album on Music World as Rock Around The Clock. Sharplin was runner-up to Billy T James as 1981 Entertainer of the Year.
Back at King Creoles, Sharplin employed Russell Crowe as the between-sets DJ. The pair had met a few years earlier when Sharplin performed at the Potter’s Wheel in New Lynn, a pub managed by Crowe’s parents. Occasionally Crowe would roadie for The Cadillacs, and when Sharplin got the part of Danny in the New Independent Theatre’s production of Grease he got Crowe the part of a T-Bird.
With their popularity soaring, the band released Tom Sharplin and The Cadillacs on RCA Victor in 1982. It was recorded at Mandrill under the watchful eyes of Glyn Tucker Jr, Graeme Myhre and Tim Field, with contributions from session players Red McKelvie, Stuart Pearce and Bob Smith.
Another RCA Victor album followed in 1984 financed by former Viscount label owner, composer and producer Gary Daverne. Nothing’s Better Than Rock’n’Roll was largely a vehicle for getting the title track, written by Daverne and John Reynolds, into a songwriting competition, but it also included ‘Hey Paula’, a duet with country star Jodi Vaughan that earned them Top Country Duet at the 1985 professional country music awards.
King Creoles closed down in the aftermath of the Queen Street Riot and the rest of the country finally got to see Sharplin and The Cadillacs in person as they took their show on the road. As the band had rarely ventured south since the club had opened, demand was huge.
Sharplin fronted his own TV special called Bless My Soul It’s Rock and Roll for producer David McPhail in October 1985 that was filmed at the James Hay Theatre in Christchurch. He got to choose his own guests, including Midge Marsden and Sharplin’s old Graffiti cohort Ritchie Pickett, who had latterly reinvented himself as a country rock singer/songwriter.
During the late 1980s and 1990s, Sharplin, Walters and Pickett undertook more than a dozen national tours.
A one-off single of Buddy Holly’s ‘Maybe Baby’, produced by Glyn Tucker Jr, was put out on Reaction Records in 1986 before the Billy Kristian-produced Rockulator was released on RCA in 1989. By then The Cadillacs were Eade, O’Connor, guitarist Brian Hatcher and pianist Keith Clark. Session players included guitarist Mike Farrell, American pedal steel guitarist Glenn R Campbell, Tommy Adderley on harmonica, and singers Chris Thompson and Bunny Walters.
During the late 1980s and 1990s, Sharplin, Walters and Pickett undertook more than a dozen tours through New Zealand. Sharplin had to be in top form closing the show after Pickett and Walters. He also became quite adept at keeping reins on his two notoriously wild companions.
Sharplin was awarded the Variety Artist Club of New Zealand’s Scroll of Honour in 1991 and their ultimate award, The Benny, in 2002. He has been a member of the VAC committee as well as serving periods as its vice-president and president.
In 2010, he released the sing-along album Let’s Sing In The Sunshine. Produced by former Ardijah member and Stebbing Recording Centre mastering engineer Simon Lynch, it features Kiwi party favourites and te reo waiata, with Sharplin being joined by friends Eddie Low, Ray Woolf, Gerry Merito, Shona Laing, Toni Williams, Gray Bartlett, Larry Morris and Suzanne.
Ex-BMG NZ managing director Morrie Smith got behind the album and bought advertising on the Newstalk ZB network. Sharplin did interviews on various programmes and Let’s Sing In The Sunshine spent four weeks in the NZ Top 20.
Tom Sharplin is still performing in the 2020s and the Cadillacs brand is still going strong. As Sharplin likes to joke, the Cadillacs name has carried on – just with different models. Pianist Peter Woods, drummers Gordon Joll, Bruce King, Mike Abbott and Scott Rogers, guitarists Rick Poole and Steve Hubbard, and saxophonist Bruce French are just some who have taken the ride.