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Monday, May 04, 2020

A New and Crazy Release: JOHNNY COOPER & The RANGE RIDERS The Sonic Recordings 1950 - 1953

As the smokey mist was still settling from Pixie William’s ‘Blue Smoke’, Johnny Cooper (also known as the 'Maori Cowboy')entered Wellington’s Sonic Recording Studios in Island Bay for the first time.

At this session Johnny recorded the 1944 Gene Autry song ‘Too Young’. Johnny would return to the Sonic Studio over the next few years with his band The Range Riders who included Will Lloyd-Jones ( bass), Don Aldridge (steel guitar), Jim Gatfield (guitar & vocals), Ron James (piano accordion).

These historic Sonic recordings feature Johnny’s complete output from this period before he was signed to HMV Records in 1954 where he was reluctantly groomed as a Rock & Roll singer while his heart stayed with country music.

Johnny Cooper (left) and his band the Range Riders
Highlights from these recordings include the first track ‘Ridin’ Along’ which would become his theme song throughout his long and illustrious career. ‘Chew Tobacco Rag’ is an impromptu recording with Johnny introducing the band members before breaking into song while barely able to contain his laughter throughout. ‘Poor Lonesome Cowboy’ is Johnny’s first recorded composition. ‘Hoot Owl Boogie’ sees Johnny and the band rocking out on New Zealand’s first example of pre Rock ‘n’ Roll rockabilly styled boogie.

The original Range Riders returned to the studio 25 years later and recorded a new backing track and is the version that is included on this collection.

New Zealand’s rock and roll pioneer was a cowboy at heart. Although in rock histories Johnny Cooper is praised for making NZ's first rock and roll recording, a cover of ‘Rock Around The Clock’, his most significant release was a self-penned country song, ‘Look What You've Done’. Cooper had a busy, varied career.

In the early 1950s, before he ever heard the words “rock and roll”, he recorded several country 78s. He toured Korea three times as an entertainer for the New Zealand troops. He wrote what is regarded as the first original New Zealand rock and roll song to be recorded, ‘Pie Cart Rock and Roll’. New Zealand music wouldn’t have been the same without Whanganui.

It was at a pie cart in this North Island town in 1957 that New Zealand rock ’n’ roll was born, at the hands of a country singer.

Country meets rock 'n' roll Johnny Cooper grew up on a farm in Wairoa where he played guitar to the shearing gangs. He became known as ‘the Maori cowboy’, crooning country ballads with his band, the Range Riders, which was formed in 1952.

Cooper made New Zealand’s first rock ’n’ roll recording in 1955 with a cover of Bill Haley's hit ‘Rock around the clock’. Unlike the country's teenagers, Cooper wasn't thrilled by this new sound. By all accounts, his version of the Haley hit wasn't the best rendition.

First New Zealand rock 'n' roll It was Cooper's third rock ’n’ roll recording – ‘Pie cart rock’n’roll’ (1957) – that took him into local music history. Cooper often had a meal at the Whanganui pie cart late at night after a talent quest or dance.

The menu was basic: pea, pie and pud, with a choice of takeaway or dining in by perching on the narrow seats in the hot and stuffy carts. It was there one night that Cooper told the pie cart proprietors, Arthur and Geraldine Dalley, that he’d write a song about their cart. ‘Pie cart rock’n’roll’ was born and, with it, New Zealand's first home-grown rock 'n' roll song. There’s a story that Cooper traded the song for free meals at the cart. Asked about the episode in 2007, Geraldine (who still lives in Whanganui although she has long given up the pie cart) has a different version. ‘Oh, no,’ she says, ‘it was only the police who got free feeds.’

Available of most platforms - from Frenzy Music


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