The New Zealand entertainment industry has lost a great musician and a great man.

Alec Wishart, one of the founders and the distinctive voice behind Hogsnort Rupert, died in Hawke's Bay Hospital, surrounded by family, last Friday at the age of 76 after being diagnosed with advanced lung cancer last November.

Mr Wishart, who with wife Kaye settled in Napier in 1972, was always humble about his musical journey which saw the band reach the top of the charts in the early '70s and become something of a national sing-along icon.

At the height of their fame there was always time for a spot of fun - Alec (centre) took on the brass while Dave Luther (left) and John Reilly tuned up their way.
At the height of their fame there was always time for a spot of fun - Alec (centre) took on the brass while Dave Luther (left) and John Reilly tuned up their way.

As he once said of the band's success, and a popularity which saw them recognised even off-stage from one end of the country to the other, "we always kept our feet on the ground".

Advertisement

It was the way he was.

His life was devoted firstly to his family, Kaye and son Dean and daughter Gina, and secondly to making people smile.

And his devotion to friends was never more clear than what he did only a couple of weeks ago - when he was seriously ill and battling hard, but still keeping the smile in place.

He got up and sang two songs at a friend's birthday party.

"That was Alec all over," Mrs Wishart said.

"He was just a nice guy who was never rude to anyone and who was always smiling."

She said on the stage he was a character and a showman who loved to make people happy, but off the stage "he was very quiet and shy".

Kate, who was born in Blenheim, met Alec through a flatmate who was going out with one of his flatmates.

They became engaged and were married in Blenheim where her family were.

"But Alec did not have any family in New Zealand."

He had left the UK as a young man for a new life downunder and apart from enjoying the sounds of skiffle and jazz had never got into the music business there.

It was while living in Wellington that the musical notes had begun to emerge.

Mr Wishart, during an interview in 2010 as the band prepared to play a 40th anniversary concert, said it was pretty much an unplanned musical career.

A bunch of lads who had emigrated from England in 1966 and who enjoyed a game of football.

He was a member of the Wellington Diamond United club in 1967 when he struck up a friendship with a team-mate called Dave Luther.

They both enjoyed a tune so formed a skiffle-style band which began playing at the clubrooms under the name of Hogsnort Rupert's Original Flagon Band.

They also played at a couple of bars - "for free drinks".

Mr Luther said losing his old mate of 50 years had left a huge hole in his life, and the lives of all who knew him.

Mrs Wishart said Alec and Mr Luther were like brothers.

Mr Luther said he was struggling to take in the fact that a best friend and a "lovely person", had now gone.

Back in the early heady Hogsnort days the music was simple stuff.

Guitar, a washboard, a kazoo, a harmonica, some drums, a bit of bass.

It was in 1969 that the lads, then Alec, Dave Luther, Ian Terry, Frankie Boardman and Bill Such, decided to hire a studio to make a couple of recordings to send back home to England.

"Just a bit of a giggle really."

They recorded four songs and at the end of it all approached the sound engineer and asked how much they owed him.

He declined payment ... saying "just hang on, because I want someone at HMV to hear this."

The result was that 10 days later a five-year recording contract was on the table.

An album was put out but failed to ignite much interest and in 1970 they released a harmonica-driven foot-tapping single Gretel.

It reached a modest but satisfying 11 on the charts.

Then Dave Luther wrote a song called 'Pretty Girl' and it was released in the weeks leading in to the band's appearance on the New Faces television talent show.

It sold 400 copies over six weeks, but the day after their appearance the sales exploded.
HMV called to say they were selling 2000 a day.

Pretty Girl shot to number one on the charts and then came the equally popular Aubrey followed by Aunty Alice (Bought Us This) - and the rest, as they say, is history.

Albums, touring, more singles, a couple of personnel changes and instant recognition wherever they went.

But they only stayed professional for 18 months.

The constant touring and pressures took their toll, and they backed off - preferring to record and play at their own pace, and effectively went their own ways.

In the early '70s Mr Wishart was touring with Jim McNaught and took a break so he could get to daughter Gina's christening and as she hadn't seen him for a few weeks was not sure who he was and as Mrs Wishart said "she screamed the church down".

Her dad's response was not unexpected.

"He said 'that's it - I'm not going to tour any more."

Family simply came first.

In 1981 Mr Wishart and Mr Luther decided to get the Hogsnort train back on the rails, and called in ex-Bulldogs All Star Goodtime Band lads Kevin Findlater and Neil Warboys.

The band carried on doing shows, intermittently, through until 1988 when they again closed the guitar cases and put the harmonicas away.

But in 1995 they hit the stage at the Mission Concert - opening for The Beach Boys before the biggest crowd of their lives.

"In all those 40 years, that was the highlight," Mr Wishart said of it.

"To feel the warmth of that crowd - people were up and dancing halfway through the first song ... it was just amazing."

He said the recipe for the success they achieved, and in marking their place in Kiwi music history, was that they wrote and played their own songs.

After the hectic Hogsnort times he and Kaye settled in Napier and Alec worked for Wormald Vigilant and later Dominion Breweries.

The couple also leased the Tamatea Motor Inn for a time.

And all the while Alec would entertain through the years with the Frivs as well as being part of the local Hawke's Bay Jazz Club Big Band for 40 years.

Mrs Wishart said if they had stayed in Wellington Alec would have been assured of work on television, in radio and in advertising.

"But his priority was family life," she said.

"He was such a wonderful man and everyone loved him - he was devoted to his children and they were devoted to him," Mrs Wishart said.

"We have been so lucky."

- A celebration of Mr Wishart's life will be held at Waiapu St John's Cathedral, Napier, on Thursday at 2pm.