John Rowles on his prison blues

Book cover of John Rowles' autobiography, If I Only Had Time. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of John Rowles' autobiography, If I Only Had Time. Photo / Supplied

When I left Hawaii in 1979 I was broke. The big money was there at the beginning but Kimo [Wilder McVay, my manager] had been spending it and so had I, to be fair. I have always believed that when you make it you should enjoy it; don't put it away. That's been one of my big problems, and it is probably just a part of my DNA handed down from my dad: when you make it big, get something that you can live with and enjoy right now, because you're a long time gone.

What happens with a lot of entertainers is that when they strike it rich they commit themselves to huge mortgages they can't pay when their star begins to wane.

I am more businesslike in my thinking these days, but I have always had a way of making lump sums of money when I have been down. I always come up with something, figure out a way. I knew there were places that loved me so I could always fall back on them and put on some performances to build up the bank balance again.

I remember being broke in San Jose, California, looking for a recording contract and staying with a wealthy Chinese friend of mine, Suey Lee.

I was sitting at his piano, knowing that things would start to looking up if only I could come up with another hit song. I thought "what worked for me last time?" Well obviously, the main thing was using my sisters' names, putting Cheryl Moana with Tania Marie's middle name. I thought, "Well it worked last time, maybe it will work again." So I went to work on the name Tania, plonking away on the piano and singing along until I came up with: "Tania, our song will go on forever/Sweet Tania, this song is for you."

Tania was a hit in Australia and No. 1 in New Zealand for four weeks in April 1978. Then I toured New Zealand with it and made a big sum of money again. Tania did well in a very competitive pop environment too - the other No. 1 songs that year included Mull of Kintyre, Wuthering Heights, Emotion and Staying Alive by the Bee Gees, You're the One That I Want and Rivers of Babylon, all classics.

I also recorded an album of new material, This is My Life, to take advantage of the success of Tania, and it achieved gold status even before it went on sale in New Zealand.

Tania was in high school when the song came out. She had witnessed Cheryl getting teased about Cheryl Moana Marie when she was young, so she braced herself for a bit of a backlash, but the worst she got was a group of third formers following her around singing the song behind her.

I was on a roll, so, ever the gambler, I decided to head back to Hawaii to try my luck at some different venues. I was signed up by the C'est Si Bon nightclub. I used to do a lot of the Bee Gees' songs from Saturday Night Fever. One night, in the midst of my John Travolta dancing impersonation, I felt this tear and realised with horror that I had split my pants. The only other time I had seen an artist split his pants on stage was P.J. Proby, who was a big influence on me in Sydney back in the mid-60s. He went off stage and put on some dungarees. Unfortunately for me, I didn't have any spare clothes, so I just had to sit still on my stool for the rest of the show. These days I always have some spare pants, just in case.

The C'est Si Bon gig went really well, so I started making money again.

Around that time I also did a six-week stint at the famous Polynesian Nightclub in Anaheim, California. I went to get a haircut on my day off and afterwards I was pulled over by a cop because I had been overtaking when I shouldn't.

The cop had black glasses on and he told me to get out of the car and hand over my licence. I handed it over and he duly took it away to check in his car - then he came back with his gun.

At that time there was this massive manhunt because someone dressed as a policeman was putting handcuffs on people and taking them up to Sunset Hills and killing them. I was thinking, "God help me. Don't say this is that guy." He was at the back of me now, putting the handcuffs on and I was sweating like crazy.

A year before this I had been on my way to Suey Lee's place in San Jose when I had been caught speeding ... I neglected to pay the fine. So, when the cop went back to his car and checked my licence, the unpaid fine came up. So he took me into jail but all the time he was driving I was waiting to see if he was going to detour towards the hills. If he had headed for Sunset Hills I would have freaked out. This serial killer was raping his victims and then doing away with them. So when the cop turned toward jail I was like, "phew". I was actually relieved to be taken to jail!

Once he had me in, they made me take off all my clothes, handed me some soap and said I had to have a wash.

But I'd just had a bubble bath and my hair was perfect. I said to the warden, "Look at me. I've just paid $200 to have my hair done." But they made me take a shower anyway and then they handed me some prison clothes. I asked him what he was doing this for and he told me that I was on their system listed as a criminal because of the unpaid fine.

With all the processing out of the way, they put me in a cell with a couple of guys. I was on the top bunk and I was stuck there overnight. One of the guys said to me, "What are you in here for man?"

I said, "Buggered if I know. Just a speeding ticket."

He said, "Aw man, I'm in for murder. I killed three people." The other guy said, "I'm in here for smuggling drugs across the border."

Eventually I heard them both snoring and I relaxed slightly, but I still didn't sleep all night.
AS I approach the latter half of my life, I look back and think, "Wow! Did I do all that? Did I go to all those cities and perform in all those venues?" It's hard to believe the answer is yes. I made a few wrong decisions along the way, but I made the crucial, right decision: to follow my dream, to follow music.

I have a lot to be grateful for. I'm still performing, still singing and writing. And I have two beautiful sons, Dane and Blake. Like me, they love music and I'm keen to pass on to them all I've learned.

My sons are now a big part of my future and they have given me, at the age of 65, a new lease on life.

Timing is everything, and you have to accept that you are getting older. I would love to do all that again but it's not possible. My career and lifestyle were wonderful. I was spotted as a talented guy with great potential; and I did have the magic, charisma and voice, plus everything else that goes with it to make it happen.

At the same time, I think about the great, great time I had, unlike anything ever done in New Zealand. Few New Zealand artists have done what I have done.

I have performed in the "mecca places" in the world, meeting up with people like Elvis Presley and Tom Jones, Bob Hope and Marlon Brando.

What can I say about being an entertainer? Sinatra, accompanied by Don Costa's arrangement, perhaps said it for me: I Did It My Way.

I know there have been times in my life when any normal person would have thrown their hands in the air and got themselves a day job, just to pay a few bills. But I am a stubborn person and, most importantly, I am an entertainer. It is a hard and sometimes cursed vocation, but it is also a noble one.

It is almost as if it chose me at birth and I have grown into it.

If I Only Had Time, by John Rowles with Angus Gillies (New Holland $49.99), is out now. John Rowles: If I Only Had Time, The Anthology (Universal $24.95) is out later this month.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a2 at 02 Aug 2014 02:22:43 Processing Time: 400ms