Sir Howard Morrison's obituary

By Arnold Pickmere

Sir Howard Leslie Morrison KBE, OBE. Entertainer. Died aged 74 (born 18.8. 1935.)

During the decades since the 1950s Howard Morrison became virtually an icon of the New Zealand entertainment industry, a polished, poised performer.

The sort of almost ambassadorial person you could get to sing at the opening of a Commonwealth Games or go to an Expo in Spain.

But if there was a really compelling reason that New Zealanders always retained an affection for him it was because in the early days of rock'n'roll there was a group of four young Maori boys from Rotorua called the Howard Morrison Quartet.

They were musical, slick and fun and their popularity was such that they were among the very first New Zealand-based pop musicians able to become fully professional.

It didn't start like that and their fame was hard-earned. And it is a curiosity now that the Howard Morrison Quartet's heyday lasted only about five years before they disbanded in 1964, rather than go professional overseas.

By that time, as well as their popularity at home, they were doing a lot of work in Australia at league clubs, cabarets and hotels and the touring pressures and absences from families were beginning to tell.

Today several CDs of their music are still available. And it is a safe bet that on most you will find their biggest hit My Old Man's an All Black. This number was a cutting musical criticism of the decision that no Maori players would go with the 1960 All Blacks to racially segregated South Africa.

Howard was born in Rotorua and grew up there and in remote Ruatahuna near Waikaremoana where his father Temuera Morrison, a Maori All Black, was working for the Maori Affairs Department.

Howard's secondary schooling was at Te Aute College and later Rotorua High School. He left without School Certificate and worked as a storeman in the Hawkes Bay and at the Whakatu freezing works.

Howard had been singing since his childhood while milking the cows at Ruatahuna and listening intently on the battery radio to the Lifebuoy Hit Parade. "I used to get so into it I would mimic whoever was singing, male or female. I knew all the hit parade songs by heart," he recalled in his biography Howard, written with John Costello.

In the Hawkes Bay he sang with the Whatarau sisters (Virginia and Isobel) as The Clive Trio. Out of such things came the Ohinemutu Quartet - the forerunner of the Howard Morrison Quartet. The first recording session actually featured Howard, his cousin John, brother Laurie and Gerry Merito.

Meantime Howard was courting a Rotorua nurse called Kuia Manahi who by his own account did not think much of him at first. Kuia's father was a great friend of his own father, who died young, at 45, before they married in 1957. Howard was 21, she was 19.

The Howard Morrison Quartet in its most famous form included Howard, Merito and two other Rotorua boys, Wi Wharekura and Noel Kingi. After the quartet broke up Howard found that at first audiences expected him to do the group's favourite numbers on his own.

In 1966 he won the title of NZ Entertainer of the Year. He spent years touring Asia and the Pacific, often appearing for New Zealand trade commissioners, helping spearhead export drives. This work was part of the reason for his OBE in 1976.

Over the years his career was dotted with peaks such as a couple of Royal Command Performances, awards and This is Your Life on television, which was something of a surprise. He had been out of favour with television tyros for some years after offering them some trenchant criticism. And there was the Ride for Life Education ride around New Zealand on horseback ($1.5 million raised).

It was not all golden. There was a triple heart bypass in 1991, a gall bladder operation, bleeding on the brain in 1993. And a collapse from exhaustion after doing 13 shows in 17 days during his 40th anniversary tour in 1995.

When he was knighted in 1990 at his Rotorua marae there was a joyous haka, although both Howard and Kuia had trouble keeping emotional tears at bay. He described it as the "most extreme thing in my life ... I didn't know how to handle it. People will ask if I deserve it, but then I have arthritis too, and I don't deserve that".

Sir Howard is survived by Lady Kuia, daughter Donna and sons Howard Junior and Richard.

- NZ Herald

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