Sir Howard Morrison: Singer, entertainer and Maori activist

With his rich tenor voice and easy-going, jocular stage manner, Howard Morrison forged a successful international career in light entertainment in an era when few New Zealanders even imagined such a thing was possible.

He found fame as the lead singer of the Howard Morrison Quartet, whose slick four-part harmonies combined contemporary pop and parody with Maori folklore, making them the leading home-grown entertainers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. During his subsequent solo career, he was awarded an OBE ("Outstanding Beige Entertainer" as he sometimes put it) and a knighthood. These were recognition not just for his five decades in show business, but also his role as a cultural ambassador, his community and charity work, and for fostering pride in Maoritanga (Maori culture).

"He was an inspiration to me, [he showed] that this was possible to do," Dame Kiri Te Kanawa said on hearing of his death. "The one time I sang with him in concert, his tenor voice was as fresh and full as I'd heard it on records. There was no artifice in his style. He was an absolute natural – engaging, elegant and funny."

Of Irish, Scottish and Maori (Te Arawa) ancestry, Morrison spent his early childhood in the Ohinemutu community of Rotorua, one of six children. His mother, Kahu (née Gertrude Harete Davidson), sang in "concert parties" that showcased Maori traditions while his father, Temuera Morrison, played rugby union for the New Zealand Maori All Blacks and worked for the Maori Affairs Department. This job took the family to the remote community of Ruatahuna, where Howard was mocked by schoolmates for his Pakeha (non-Maori) habit of wearing shoes and socks.

He sang from an early age, imitating the voices he heard on the radio while milking cows, and delighting in the Neapolitan songs his uncles had learned while stationed in Italy during the Second World War. Although he won a scholarship to the prestigious Te Aute College, he left without any formal qualifications and began working in an abattoir in Whakatu, Hawkes Bay. While there, he began singing with Te Awapuni Maori Concert Party, before forming The Clive Trio with Isobel and Virginia Whatarau.

Back in Rotorua by the age of 18, he formed the first line-up of the Howard Morrison Quartet, which then included his brother Laurie. After winning a talent contest they were spotted by local promoter Benny Levin, who arranged for them to make their first recordings in 1958. Among these was the Maori-language song "Hoki Mai", which became their first real success.

There followed a string of hits, including "The Battle of Waikato" and "My Old Man's An All Black", both based on songs by the British skiffle star Lonnie Donegan, whom the group supported on an early Australian tour. The latter song was a humorous protest against the decision to send an all-white national rugby team to South Africa in 1960, and was their biggest hit, selling around 60,000 copies despite being banned.

By 1964, the pressure of touring and Morrison's desire for a more stable family life prompted him to disband the group, but he soon started a solo career, involving frequent television appearances. Along with Kiri Te Kanawa, he starred in the film Don't Let it Get to You (1966), partly inspired by A Hard Day's Night. It lost money but led to a minor role for Morrison in Hawaii Five-O and invitations to perform in South-east Asia, although homesickness made Morrison decline an offer of work in Las Vegas.

His rendition of the hymn (and Elvis favourite) "How Great Thou Art" at a Royal Variety Performance revitalised his flagging career in 1981, topping the local charts. However, by then he was increasingly focused on activities outside the music industry – "giving a little bit back" as he recalled in the TVNZ documentary The Sir Howard Morrison Story (2002). This included his position, from 1979, as Director of Youth Development in Maori Affairs, using his skills in the Tu Tangata programme to encourage Maori youth to stay in school longer, and in 1990, his 45-day horseback Ride For Life campaign to raise money for mobile classrooms in rural areas.

Jon Lusk

Sir Howard Morrison, singer, entertainer and activist: born Rotorua, New Zealand 18 August 1935; OBE 1976, Kt 1990; married 1957 Rangiwhata Anne Manahi (two sons, one daughter); died Rotorua 24 September 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most