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?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003