NZ music legend Gray Bartlett has a new album – and a wild past

by Donna Chisholm / 16 November, 2018

Gray Bartlett has a new album out, called Platinum!. Photo/Supplied

If “youth is a gift of nature, age a work of art”, they’ve coalesced nicely on Gray Bartlett’s new album Platinum!.

At 76, Bartlett is a grandee of the New Zealand music industry whose guitar chops show no sign of wearying.

Platinum! is the first album he's released since he underwent a series of operations on both hands which have enabled him to continue to play.

In this 2016 profile, Donna Chisholm talked to Bartlett who shared some jaw-dropping memories from a wilder past.

Left: The cover shot used for Bartlett’s country and gospel album Two Shades of Gray, which was released in 1985 and went platinum. Right: Bartlett (left) with Brendan Dugan, his touring partner in the 70s and 80s.

Face to face: Gray Bartlett

Among the string of testimonials on Gray Bartlett’s website is a message from the now-disgraced entertainer Rolf Harris, who refers to him as “Old Handsome Bonce”.

“Gray and I go back a long, long way,” wrote Harris. “We worked together every night for six weeks at the Talk of the Town in London’s West End in 1968. He played virtuoso guitar to accompany my vocals on Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Gypsy”: and [he] regularly got a tremendous standing ovation at the end of the piece. We’ve remained firm friends ever since. Long may his wondrous guitar playing grace our ears!”

It’s the sort of tribute any performer might have been proud to publicise… until around March 2013, when Harris was arrested and charged with indecent assaults dating back 30 years. At which point, most former friends might have quietly and hastily removed the post as at best unhelpful and, at worst, tainted love.

Not Bartlett. Nearly three years on, it’s still there. He says he “hasn’t got around” to removing it, but the reality is, despite it all, he remains fiercely, if perhaps misguidedly, loyal to his fallen friend. It’s one of the enduring characteristics of his nearly 60 years in a famously fractious industry – he remembers those he met on the way up. “In every aspect of any business I always believe in one word and that’s loyalty.”

Even now, he’ll remember someone he worked with in the 60s; he’ll Google their name and phone them up out of the blue just to say hi. It’s why he knows who’s still around and who’s dead and how they died.

Bartlett has survived by being the master of his own reinvention – from rock’n’roller to king of country and talent-spotting Svengali – but he’s never forgotten where he came from: a self-taught kid from a family of 10 whose parents couldn’t afford to buy him shoes in winter.

What has never changed, though, is the talent. As Simon Sweetman put it in 2014, in a review of a release of Bartlett’s 60s instrumentals: “Though he all too quickly turned into the Kiwi version of some Nashville-meets-Vegas shiny-shoe-wearing smiley guy, he had some chops. Okay, so there was Peter Posa first and foremost, but the young Graeme Bartlett – then to become Gray – had decent skills. And was able to work across country and rock’n’roll, easily interpolating the surf music craze to his mix of rockabilly licks.”

For now, Bartlett has shelved his role as musical mentor and, at 73, is launching a new album, Private Conversations – the first since his 50th anniversary release went gold in 2008 – and a national tour in April.

North & South: Was music a big part of your childhood?

Gray Bartlett: It became a big part. My brother Barry had an old Tex Morton guitar and I can remember hearing him play and I liked the sound of it. But what really switched me on was listening to 1YA at seven o’clock at night when it had local artists on. There was a guy called Mark Kahi playing “In the Still of the Night” on guitar and I got a vision of what he was doing… I imagined myself floating on the clouds playing this stuff and suddenly, it was, “I’ve got to do that – how do I do that?” It was the 1950s and I was 12 or 13.

N&S: So how did you get from there to becoming a professional guitarist?

GB: I taught myself from the Mel Bay books. I became a good player and the first thing I ever did was answer an ad in the local paper for a guitarist for a skiffle group. I was 16 or 17. I walked from where I lived on The Drive, Epsom, to the audition in Onehunga. I got the job. I think they liked me. The band was called the Phantoms. There was Garry Macdonald, Graham Bint, Monty Williams, Dave and Des Morrison, and Chas Sturt [who would later become director of the Serious Fraud Office] on drums. They were all Catholic boys from Onehunga. The first thing we did was enter Have a Shot at the old 1ZB [Radio] Theatre, and we came third. That kicked us off; we got a lot of dances and gigs.

N&S: Did you have groupies?

GB: Of a sort: it was for fun, not like later on when it became sexual. In those days, I was more interested in my music – until I got to 18 or 19.

N&S: You famously played your first big gig in the Auckland Town Hall in 1961 at 19, as part of the Graeme Bartlett combo supporting Connie Francis, Johnny Burnette and Bobby Vee. How did that go?

GB: At that stage, I couldn’t read music and they put all this sheet music in front of me. I was bullshitting my way through it in front of a full house. There was a moment of truth. I was backing Johnny Burnette. Johnny passed away a few years later. He was knocked overboard and he drowned. We were going into the lead to one of his songs and he turned around to me and went, “One, two, three, four” and I couldn’t remember the song.

Of course, the crowd thought it was a joke, part of the deal. I’m going, “Help me!” Johnny went, “Ahh!” and suddenly it all came back to me and we were into it. [Promoter] Harry Miller refused to pay us. He told us we were a bunch of bloody amateurs. I remember he had an office near the Town Hall. When he finished telling me we wouldn’t be paid, and “I’m not gonna hire ya again”, he slammed the door and his name fell off it. I laughed, and the girl who was his secretary laughed, too. I ended up going out with her. But we never got paid the £6. We didn’t play badly at all; he didn’t want to pay and I just had to accept it. It was a lesson, but for me it was the best lesson of all – that’s when I made the decision to learn to read music.

N&S: The 60s must have been a huge decade to be part of that scene. What are the things you’ll take to your grave from that era?

GB: The 60s were just a blitz. Everything was full on, it was new and fresh, colourful. Gene Vincent and Elvis and the Beatles were happening and the Perry Comos and Louis Armstrongs started to fall off. It was a mad time. You’ve only got to look at some of the things that went on. You’d do gigs and girls would line up and they’d want to have sex with you. I mean, let’s be honest about it. We were young guys. It was a time and now it doesn’t exist because now I think we’ve gone the other way, PC, and in fact now it detracts from natural human behaviour. I don’t care whether you are a girl and a guy, or two guys or two girls, what’s wrong with affection?

N&S: So it was all sex, drugs and rock’n’roll? Were you lucky to escape intact?

GB: Shit, yeah! I don’t think any of us are immune. I think the drugs are the worst of the lot. I’ve smoked the odd joint, but I didn’t find it had any effect on me at all. I watched people getting silly, but I didn’t drink a lot or do drugs. I liked the outdoors, running on the beach, feeling really good about just being healthy.

N&S: The women were your weakness then?

GB: They were definitely a weakness. Like for a lot of men. I still have one very important thing about that. I don’t believe in anything to do with violence towards women or anyone at all. And there’s something about my brain, I could never tell someone I loved them if they wanted me to say it. They’d say, “Do you love me?” And I’d never say that. I’d say, “I like you a lot.” I’ve always believed if you marry someone you believe you love them and you can tell them, but it was a sacred thing for me.

N&S: So the women you married – Jan, Cathy and Trish – are the only people you’ve told that you’ve loved?

GB: That’s exactly right, I can vouch for that. But lots of women have tried to force me into saying it. Maybe for security, I don’t know why. I know a lot of women liked me.

N&S: Did you ever have your heart broken?

GB: Um... I don’t think so. I think I could have done, with [1972 Miss World] Belinda Green, but it never went anywhere. When I toured with her for the Miss New Zealand pageant we had a pretty wild affair, but I was married at the time to Cathy and I don’t feel very good about that. I married Cathy in 1971, so it was only about a year later. Often they all went out to have a drink somewhere and Belinda used to ask me to come with them.

One night, she said, “You’ve got to come out.” I had a dance with her. The next day, she came in with a silky dressing gown on wanting to borrow an ironing board. I was bloody naive when I think about it. Sure, she was Miss World, but I didn’t think of her like that. But then it was all on, hiding in places, pretending to be going somewhere else, a quick liaison, people knocking on the door… we’d correspond after she left.

I went to meet her in Wellington later when she was on a cruise and some guy took photos of us meeting down there. He took a series of shots; I don’t know how he knew. All I know was he rang me up and said, “I’ve got these, I’ll drop you the proofs.” I immediately destroyed the proofs, but he told me he had copies. I had to put money in an envelope and leave it in one of those red telephone booths.

We agreed on an amount, it was about $150 or $200. Then nothing happened for ages and, bugger me days, he tried again. Luckily for me, Cathy had already found me out and wanted me to go.

N&S: Did you fall for Belinda?

GB: I did, but I realised at a crucial moment – I was performing at a hotel in Kawerau and I remember I had all these letters from her that I had to hide in a touring bag – that it was never going to go anywhere. I’m thinking, “This is crazy, I’ve got to sort myself out, she doesn’t want to marry me, we are worlds apart and I don’t want that anyway.” In the Kawerau hotel they had a big fireplace, so I put all the letters in a blazing fire and burnt the lot and that was it.

From left: Bill Kane, Bartlett, Jodi Vaughan, Brendan Dugan and Ross Sutton.

N&S: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, you toured with Tom Jones and Herman’s Hermits, and worked in the UK with Rolf Harris. What did you make of Harris’s arrest and the charges?

GB: I saw it how most people in the industry saw it – that the police stuffed up with the Jimmy Savile investigation initially and then they decided, “Well, we have to show we are going to be hard on this,” and they were given the okay to be hard on it so they investigated everybody. Some of the allegations were true, but a lot of the ones who were bad bastards are dead. In their trawling they made some horrible errors, especially with people like Cliff Richard who are probably going to end up suing them.

I’ve had a call from London from a lawyer working on Rolf’s behalf, asking about dates. He was accused of putting his hand down a girl’s top when they were having a photo taken. He always used to like to pose for a funny photo. I reckon I must have brushed a few girls’ boobs not even knowing it. What we’ve got to try to do is deflect the time from now to then. It was all in front of cameras and no one thought a bloody thing about it. It’s just like in Italy – are you going to fine every Italian for grabbing some girl’s bum? I don’t agree with it either, but that’s Italy and that was the 70s. It was a mad time.

I had a seven-year relationship with Rolf. Actually, that’s not a good word. He was a fantastic guy, one of the most caring guys I’ve ever met. He’d ring me once a year before this. He always used to say, “Hi, Grayballs.”

N&S: What about the relationship with his daughter’s friend?

GB: Well, that is probably not good, but his daughter has forgiven him.

N&S: You’ve been with your third wife, Trish, for more than 30 years now. How did you two meet?

GB: She was working on the McPhail and Gadsby show and That’s Country in Christchurch. She did makeup for them – she made McPhail look like Muldoon – and for movies. She was very, very good. We met in 1980. I was convinced I wouldn’t get married again!

N&S: You are one of the few Kiwis to be renowned as an instrumentalist rather than a singer. How would you describe your style?

GB: It’s very melodic. One reviewer said I made the guitar sound like a voice and I think that’s a pretty accurate description of how I interpret songs.

N&S: Can you sing?

GB: I do a lot of harmonies but not as lead vocalist. I can do it if I’m forced to, but I’m wanting to make something great and if I’m not good enough at singing then I won’t do it. I’ve written a lot of my own tunes – “The Ballad of Robbie Muldoon” [in 1975] was a big hit for me.

N&S: That was pretty political.

GB: It wasn’t intended that way. I wrote it when Brendan Dugan and I were doing some shows in Rotorua. I’d met Muldoon and George Gair and I found Muldoon to be totally different to how the media portrayed him. What I liked about him was that he was more like the ordinary guy down at the RSA than the Labour guy, who was more from university.

I lived in the Tamaki electorate but I wasn’t politically active then. I was talked into standing for Panmure in 1990 – on the night, I was only 880 behind Judith Tizard. It went out to about 1500 or 2000 on the final count. No one got that close again. I worked my butt off.

N&S: You served on the Auckland City Council, too. Were you politicised by events or people?

GB: My whole cause was to create a better environment for arts and artists.

N&S: But that’s quite a narrow platform and politically you’d be out of step in the arts world as a National supporter?

GB: Of course, which is crazy because I’m sort of a National supporter, but not really. You tend to get that Remmers establishment type. And that’s not me. There are some bloody good people who are part of that, like Rosie Horton, but there are others who are boring as shit. I like what John Key has done, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I like the National Party.

N&S: You’re extraordinarily popular in China and Japan, but how many records have you sold here?

GB: I think there was a book out in the late 1990s on the industry which listed me as the eighth best-selling New Zealand artist. That was pre-Lorde, of course! And Sol3 Mio are the biggest grossing now. But if our Highway of Legends tours with me, Patsy Riggir, Brendan Dugan, the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band and Jodi Vaughan were translated into today’s ticket prices, we’d probably be bigger grossing. We sold out shows in half a day. We did three and the first two were monsters.

N&S: You’ve been involved in discovering or nurturing a lot of new talent, from Hayley Westenra to Lizzie Marvelly. Do you have a favourite?

GB: Yes, the Irish girl Margaret Keys, who’s performed for the Pope in Philadelphia last year. I helped her go from a $500-a-night performer to $20,000 and more a night.

N&S: What’s your advice to young performers now?

GB: That you don’t need a record label – I wouldn’t touch one. The only reason they’re interested is for the X Factor-type approach where you are a name for a year and discarded when the next one comes along. That’s the business, but it’s not going to last much longer, it’s going to have to have new branding, a new way of doing it.

N&S: Are you glad you aren’t starting off in the industry today?

GB: God, yeah. However, in saying that, there’s enormous talent around. There’s just not enough money. You get a hit on iTunes and you’re lucky to earn a few thousand dollars. You can’t make a living on that. The answer is clear: you need to develop a really great live show if you can afford to get the right machinery and get a great bunch of musicians. The money is definitely in the touring and the live stuff and merchandise and sponsorship. All these people who want to be pure artists, it doesn’t really exist.

N&S: Does the end feel in sight for you?

GB: Not at all. I don’t believe in beginnings and ends – there’s always something left. We have to leave something that I think is good for other people to follow. I want to leave my music.

This article was first published in North & South.

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