When Billy T James, the comedian with the cheeky chuckle and the yellow towel around his neck, first made it into the Herald the trademark "T" was yet to be added to his name.

That was in 1978 when the new cabaret act created by Billy T - who died on this day in 1991, aged 43 - was flourishing and he had been nominated for the Entertainer of the Year award.

Billy was different than overseas comedians or stars, he felt like part of us

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By the time of his second appearance in the paper six months later, the T had arrived in print.

Max Cryer's 1980 description, in the Herald, of the entertainer's earlier career credits the singer Prince Tui Teka with proposing the name-rearrangement - from William James Te Wehi Taitoko, to Billy T James.

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Early coverage of Billy T James in the Herald. Source: Herald archives
Early coverage of Billy T James in the Herald. Source: Herald archives

Magician Mick Peck, the Variety Artists Club's 2016 variety entertainer of the year, said Billy T's death had left "a huge gap in New Zealand culture ... Decades later there's still been no one like Billy T."

Cryer wrote that Tui Teka, who had like Billy T had been in the internationally successful band the Maori Volcanics, also urged him to go solo. He was in Surfers Paradise at the time.

"There, part of the amazing 'old-boy' network of Maori performers which is spread all over the world, rose to the surface, guided him and helped establish him."

From Cambridge, the town of his 1949 birth, Billy T moved at age 11 with his family to Whangarei. After school he studied at Elam art school in Auckland and served a five-year apprenticeship to become a commercial artist.

He returned to Whangarei to drive a truck until joining the Auckland band Radars and by the mid-1970s he had been asked to join the Volcanics.

A Herald obituary noted Billy T's time in the army before his truck-driving stint and that he was accepted into training as a traffic officer (at a time when policing traffic was not a police beat).

"The real-life Billy never made it into the traffic officer corp." But a "jodhpur-wearing cop" did become one of his best known characters.

The self-titled Billy T James Show hit television in 1981 and he was Entertainer of the Year within months.




"As he gathered accolades," the obituary continued, "Billy T James also gathered criticism for alleged racist jokes. His Maori characters were seen by some as demeaning. He was accused of using his Maori background to poke fun where others could not.

"The entertainer rejected the barbs. 'I have been called a racist, but I don't think I am. If they listen to what I do, the character always comes out on top'."

"His skits were, he said, 'ethnic portrayals'."

In 1985, the Herald tested his portrayal of Maori by seeking the views of six well-known Maori men, including District Court judge Mick Brown and Hato Petera College headmaster Toby Curtis.

Brown said: "... I can understand the sensitivity about the half-gallon jar type of humour, which is possibly a negative stereotype which is undesirable ... One of the sad things about many of those who are terribly indignant is that they lose their sense of humour ..."

Curtis said: "I think if he's just performing for a Maori audience it's fine. But I think a lot of people, particularly non-Maoris, don't understand the nuances and the intentions of his humour and they could readily misinterpret what he is on about."

Billy T's death - from heart failure, following a heart transplant in 1989 and before that a quadruple heart-artery bypass operation - precipitated a family feud over funeral arrangements.

His body was taken from his family home in Muriwai, to lie at the Waahi and Turangawaewae marae in Waikato. Following the tangi, he was buried at Taupiri Mountain as he had wanted, but the planned funeral that he had wanted in Auckland was cancelled and a memorial service was held later.

Billy T's grave was marked with a white wooden cross until 2000, when a stone likeness of him in a red "Top Gun" cap was placed at one end and, within weeks, a flower-like sculpture at the other.

The statue and sculpture that were placed at Billy T James' grave at Taupiri near Hamilton. Photo / Nicola Topping
The statue and sculpture that were placed at Billy T James' grave at Taupiri near Hamilton. Photo / Nicola Topping

Mick Peck called in at Taupiri in 2013 to pay tribute to Billy T and take some pictures.

"Growing up in New Zealand in the 1980s Billy was an absolute icon to me," says Peck.

"What really set him apart was his broad skill range. He had brilliant comedy timing, he was an incredible mimic and impersonator, a skilled musician, character actor and singer. Billy was a true variety artist in every sense of the word."

"I can still remember the day at school when news came through that he had died, it was a really strange day and for us and looking back was probably the first time we'd experienced an icon dying.

"Billy was different than overseas comedians or stars, he felt like part of us. Billy's charisma made him feel like a family friend."