Musician and writer Gavin Burgess came to know Gary Wahrlich, the drummer from legendary Māori showband The Quin Tikis later in his life, long after his journey around the stages of world had ended – and has written about it for AudioCulture. It's a warm, often very moving, tale of a man who was a key part of one of the great stories of New Zealand popular music, that of the troupes of young, often rural, usually Māori men and woman who moulded themselves into perhaps the most seasoned all round entertainers New Zealand has ever exported to the rest of the world.
Meeting Gary Wahrlich
The following is my experience of a man, his stories, and his personality – a small part of the remarkable story of Gary Wahrlich.
My initial meeting with Gary in 1992 is a suitably turbulent and convoluted story in its own right. At the time Gary was flatting and working with a self-proclaimed music entrepreneur who had promised to bankroll a totally new and updated New Zealand showband. Gary, having a commission and hearing my demos through a mutual acquaintance, invited me to join the growing community of young artists and musicians sharing their rented North Shore home, my role defined as songwriter and bass player. Gigs in New Zealand, Australia and the USA were offered as incentive.
Subsequently the “entrepreneur” was exposed as a con-man/ predator who was filling his apartment with young and attractive “potential stars” for a much more sinister reason. Turned out he’d also misappropriated the money he was offering as funding. Various people named Officer and Inspector then became involved and Gary and I exited smartly – with myself, as newcomer, totally untarnished and Gary willingly becoming a witness for the prosecution.
By then irreversibly committed to my move to Auckland, I set up flat with my sister in Beach Haven and we invited Gary to join us. Over the next two years I had a unique opportunity to learn about an intriguing part of New Zealand music and film history, gain an insight into the man himself, and play and record with one of New Zealand’s most original drummers.
My primary recollection of Gary is of his indefatigable sense of fun. He could become quite laddish when the opportunity for mischief presented itself. He was intensely proud of his achievements in music and film, and also of his children – from whom, paradoxically, he was largely estranged. Gary had been married multiple times, and at the end of each marriage he’d put his past behind him and moved on, maintaining little or no contact with the family he’d left. Despite this he would watch from afar, glean information when he could, and report proudly on his sons and daughters. Photographs of his progeny were regularly presented with great ceremony.
Adept at holding down a solid groove or executing complex fills in a variety of genres, he also had an instinctive understanding of dynamics and an impressive set of stunts.
Gary held a variety of jobs post Quin Tikis. At one stage he’d even been a school janitor – of which he gleefully informed us on the evening he happily plunged elbow deep into our blocked toilet. It was also Gary’s night to cook. I and all other flatmates universally decided to go out for dinner that evening – an uncanny synchronicity!
At this stage Gary’s performing career was largely over. But by nature an optimist, he continued to plan opportunities to get back behind the kit or otherwise involve himself in music. He brought a borrowed kit into our shared rehearsal room and launched several abortive efforts to get himself into a working band. There were a handful of gigs with former Quin Tikis bandmate Rufus Rehu. There was also a showband reunion gig I accompanied him to. He guested for a song and blew the room away.
Gary was a left-handed drummer – but this wasn’t the only thing that made his playing different. Adept at holding down a solid groove or executing complex fills in a variety of genres, he also had an instinctive understanding of dynamics and an impressive set of stunts. Of his days in the Quin Tikis he said, “We all had to be able to play one song on every instrument in the band. We didn’t need to know how to play the instrument. We just needed to know how to play that song.” He was also an impressive vocalist and hearing his rendition of Mack The Knife was an experience that can’t be forgotten.
At the aforementioned showband gig in 1993, guesting with former band mates and various ring-ins, Gary started his solo with an impressive demonstration of virtuosity, then passed his hand under his leg to play the snare, added some timekeeping with his stick held in his teeth, and then nodded to the band, gave them their cue, and brought them back into the tune in perfect time.
Gary was drummer for The Quin Tikis from their early years until their breakup in the early 80s. Sometimes credited as Gary Wallace (Promoters claimed the name Wahrlich sounded too German) he played on both of their albums The Fantastic Maori Quintikis Showband and Make Friends With The Quin Tikis.
In film Gary played the part of the hero next to Howard Morrison in New Zealand’s first feature movie Don’t Let It Get You. Decades later, when Morrison became Sir Howard, Gary scoffed: “Sir Howard? Well, I could tell you some stories.” Gary did in fact tell me “some stories” but they are hearsay and even if true are best left unrepeated. The movie has since achieved cult status as New Zealand’s first motion picture. It’s certainly more than valid as a time-stamp and includes some great scenes of Gary hamming it up, as well as impressive demonstrations of his showmanship. I watched it for the first time when Gary, having caught up with an old film acquaintance, triumphantly brought a VHS copy home. I marvelled at the blowfly stuck in Lew Pryme’s hair.
Gary’s stories went further than dishing the dirt on former rivals. He had recollections of gigs in Thailand entertaining “The Troops” on leave from Vietnam, of turning down the chance to purchase a cheap piece of desert which is now part of Las Vegas, of his abandoned families in New Zealand and America, and of the people he had met along the way. One of his favourite rants was the allegation that a prominent Star Trek actor had slept with his former wife. The stories were disjointed, sometimes hard to follow, and possibly exaggerated, but they were his favoured recollections – which became increasingly important to him over a time during which he must have realised that his dreams of one last great musical endeavour had passed him by.
Now permanently estranged from his wife and children in the US and struggling to make ends meet, his memories of his glory years became his greatest solace – along with any chance to play his borrowed drum kit or listen to jazz oriented rock. He owned beaten up copies of the Quin Tikis albums but his copy of the Chicago Transit Authority double LP was one of his favourite things and he could often be heard from my adjacent room exclaiming in glee over the parts that most impressed him.
In 1993 I recorded a set of demos in our shared rehearsal room with Gary on drums. Being, as they are, proto-songs of a fledgling composer recorded on old analogue reel-to-reel machines, the only remarkable thing about these is that they are possibly the last recordings Gary ever played on.
In subsequent years Gary taught drums at a local high school. In 2004, while living overseas, I learnt that Gary been left partially paralysed by a stroke.
My final visit with Gary was shortly before his passing at the Auckland nursing home where he was resident – scheduled as a must-do during one of my fleeting visits to New Zealand. Although struggling with his circumstances and not always lucid, he was still enthusiastic about music; his main concerns being celebrating his past, finding ways to hear the music he loved, and obtaining “decent” food (he loathed the food provided by the home).
A message from Keri
At the time of Gary’s illness and passing I had contact with other members of The Quin Tikis and, due to its historical significance, included here in its entirety, is an email I received from Keri Northover (Keri Summers). Keri omits reference to Gary throughout her email – possibly due to an assumption that I already knew his history:
Those were the good ole days. We were a lot younger, a lot slimmer etc etc. But boy, did we have so much fun those days. The group that left New Zealand 1970 was Weazel, Sam Mateparae ( now deceased), Kevin Rongonui (resides in El Paso, Texas), Phil Rivers (lives in El Paso also), Fred Whittaker (lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico) and of course, myself. We do keep in touch with each other every now and then. We live not too far from each other.
Well, the group remained together from 1970 till 1981. Travelled all over the United States. We were home-based out of Las Vegas, Nevada for a number of years and then New Mexico and El Paso, Texas became our permanent homes.
During the early part of the 70s we gigged in Canada until our visas were approved for the USA. From 1968-1970 we toured the Orient and Vietnam, quite an experience. There used to be a nice nightclub in Thailand called The Bunny Club that we played at. Also Bob Hope and his troupe were there and a bunch of other famous entertainers. It was the plushest nightclub in those days. I'm talking the late 60s.
Today, Weazel and I are still in the music business on a regular basis. We play quite frequently, at the Inn of the Mtn. Gods, a world famous resort, now torn down and is in the process of being rebuilt and supposed to be completed by November 2004. It will be unbelievably plush and twice the size it was. Looking forward to working there. Likewise with Weazel. Kevin plays on the El Paso circuit, the plush country clubs and Steakhouses and Phil gigs weekends with his group also in El Paso. Fred Whittaker is still in the music business. He helps book big groups in Albuquerque with a very well-known booking agency and entertains locally.
Weazel does a single and I wish I had a video to send you. You would be so proud of him as I am. Who would have thought a bloody Maori could teach himself the fiddle opposite way to his guitar. Weazel is very popular with the Texans and he draws quite a crowd when he is in town. He resides in Lubbock, Texas, cowboy country. But as you well know, he is capable of playing anything. Kevin also does a single, his main instrument being the keyboards and is very popular in his own right. The El Pasoans love him.
I too am doing a single gig, but being that I am not quite as inclined as the boys on the instruments, I have a karaoke set up. I do all the lead vocals. The machine does the rest. There is a demand for this kind of set-up especially in the smaller rooms. Large groups are very rare anymore unless concerts prevail for the likes of the Eagles, name groups like them Chicago etc.. The money is very good too in the single-kind of format. We have been in this area for so long that the local bars and showrooms are quite familiar with our entertainment that it is very hard for outside entertainment to come in and take over. Their first choice is either Weazel or me. A nice feeling needless to say. With the new hotel going up now is going to bring in big-name acts which will be nice for the area. Looking forward to that.
I am also in the antique and collectible business. Been in it since 1994 and love it immensely. This relaxes me from the pressures of the music business sometimes, vice versa. The Country Club I am presently working, Weazel will be playing there the whole Summer through. I will be concentrating on my business those months which are best for my business then I will be back at the Club during the Winter months. Works out perfect for me too. Every now and then, I will join him with our show duets we use to do in the Group. The people who have seen us over the years, just love it.
Keri Northover (Summers)
The albums and liner notes
Make Friends With The Quin Tikis
If you’ve already got a copy of that great Sunshine L.P. by the Rhodesians, then you’ll know that to hear groups like this at their swinginest you’ve got to BE there man. Right on location, and that means you can’t just sit there sipping iced water, much to the inner frustrations of any image conscious chiefs of staff. So it happened again. I was in Siddley see. Steve said-“We’ve gotta catch the Tikis”. I said “where?” and he got this look of grim determination and said “well they’re not featuring in Hyde Park baby”. So to the Manly Vale to gas up a little.
And the surprising thing (to me) is this L.P. sounds exactly as we heard that night. All the verve fire and guts of this very polished combo and you ask anyone – ANYONE just how easy this is to do, How many times have you been knocked over by the live sound of a group, only to be a bit disappointed by their recorded sound. Well she’s all here. You’ve done a stretch or two at the Manly Vale have you? O.K. then you (1) buy this L.P. and (2) play it right through, and you might hear a few things that maybe circumstances didn’t permit you to catch live-like the bird at the next table screaming her head off.
So it’s the complete floor show with fanfare-intro and then pow! Oh-on your way home from buying this lot, you might want to stock up on the old home supplies-you know- a more authentic atmosphere or something when you play it. So set yourself to Make Friends with the Quin Tikis. Easiest thing in the world to do.
Quintikis Show Band…
Undoubtedly the greatest showband ever to leave New Zealand shores are the Maori Quintikis Show Band. This band has toured extensively in New Zealand, Mainly with the Miss New Zealand Show, each year. They have toured the Pacific Islands and have played exclusively at Sydney Hotels and nightclub circuits. They toured the East, playing at Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and at American bases throughout Thailand. They performed for royalty in Malaysia, and gave a two and a half hour non stop show to the most highly decorated squadron “The Jolly Green Giants”, at Nakomphanom base in Thailand.
Every member of this talented Maori musical group is an outstanding artist in his own right. Garry Wallace, drummer and comedian, is in world class. Vivacious Keri Summers is known to thousands of New Zealanders as the Queen of Song. Fred Summers plays piano and saxophone, while Sam Matapare, leader, plays saxophone, guitar, piano, organ and is also a vocalist. Weasel Taiaroa is a guitarist of outstanding ability, and also plays violin, organ, piano, and banjo. Eddie Low is known to New Zealanders as the boy with the golden voice and he is also an outstanding musician, playing trumpet, guitar, violin, piano, and organ. Great credit goes to the blind institute, where Eddie grew up and from where he was taught his music.
The combined musical talents and voices of this fantastic Maori group, presenting a good selection of twelve popular songs and instrumentals, could make this long play record – mono or stereo – a collectors item.
Joe Brown is proud and privileged to have the opportunity of presenting this talented and outstanding musical Maori group “The Fantastic Quintikis Show Band”, on the Joe Brown Label.