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.

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