New Zealand music pioneer Bill Sevesi has died at the age of 92. Here's a look back at his musical life which was done when Sevesi was inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame last year.

Sitting in his cosy Mt Roskill living room, Bill Sevesi grins as we flick through a beautiful old suitcase full of photos, clippings and memories. There's the photos of him with old friends like Bill Wolfgramm, local lap steel specialist. Snapshots taken of live performances at parties and functions - there's even one of him with actor Sam Neill, who asked if he could have a picture with Sevesi.

And, of course, plenty of him with his band, The Islanders, looking dapper in suits or Hawaiian shirts, and, of course, their lei.

He actually asks his wife to go and get his favourite lei to wear while new photos are taken: "I always like a bit of decoration. It makes people pay attention, makes you look like a professional," the 92-year-old nods.

The wander down memory lane is because Sevesi is being inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame this year by APRA. But it's not the first great accolade he's received.


There was the Queen's Service Medal for public service in 1995; the Creative New Zealand Pacific Island award (1997); and America's Jerry Byrd Lifetime Achievement award for his contribution to steel guitar, among various others.

They recognise his wonderful contribution to our musical history and his remarkable story but every award has been a surprise to Sevesi.

"Well, you know, in my wildest dreams, I never ever thought it would get to this stage. It's the public who've made me what I am, they've put me in this position. It's down to them that I've got a QSM and a Lifetime Achievement award, not me."

Born in Tonga in 1923, with a Tongan mother and English father, Sevesi came to Auckland at age 9, and it wasn't long before he fell in love with the idea of playing music.

"I started out on the ukulele, in a house on Symonds St. I learned the ukulele there and then the steel guitar. There was a Samoan lady in the flat where I was staying and she played the ukulele. I learnt from her."

He loved hearing on the radio the music that reminded him of home, so he took a job in a radio factory.

"I was so keen on music that I took a job making radios, and they had a big powerful radio in there that I thought was great. So I bought the components and I brought them home and built my own one.

"It was so powerful I could listen to the radio in any part of the world -- Jamaica, Italy, anywhere. And I learned a lot of new songs coming out of America by listening to the radio. I'd record them so I could listen to them a few times over and learn them, and then I'd teach the songs to my band members so we could play them at the dance hall long before the songs were released in New Zealand."


His first foray into the world of dance halls was going to watch the hugely respected Epi Shalfoon perform at the Crystal Palace.

"I wanted to know, when I was first starting out in a band, who was the best band in New Zealand. I wanted to watch a professional, not an amateur. And I heard Epi Shalfoon was playing down at the Crystal Palace - the dance hall underneath the picture theatre on Mt Eden Rd. So I would go down and listen to him, and watch him."

The Bill Sevesi Group from 1959 with Sevesi second left (supplied)
The Bill Sevesi Group from 1959 with Sevesi second left (supplied)

Shalfoon eventually offered him the opportunity to join in with the band and Sevesi attributes much of what he learned about being a professional musician to Shalfoon. But soon he was starting his own band, building a reputation on the live circuit during the 40s and also working as a backing musician on local recordings.

His band became known as Bill Sevesi and The Islanders, and they began a residency at the Orange Ballroom on Newton Rd which would last for 23 years.

Bill Sevesi and his Islanders.
Bill Sevesi and his Islanders.

"We started out doing Tuesdays and Thursdays and then swapped Tuesdays for Saturdays, because we were really drawing a crowd."

That was because not only did they play beautifully (Sevesi always wanted to be the best band in Auckland), but they would play a wide variety of styles and genres, adapting to what was popular as the times changed.


"We had to" he smiles. "We played La Rinka, Ballet Glide, Gypsy Tap, Maxina ... all sorts of dances we played; we had to know all of them because that's what people wanted. And then when rock'n'roll came in, we learned that too. I was a firm believer in satisfying the people. So we took requests and we played what they wanted because when we started, we were nobody, so we had to make them happy so they'd come back."

He's got plenty of stories to tell about those days -- despite being 92, his memory is pretty sharp-- and he still gets a twinkle in his eye when he talks about the young women who would come up to him at the Orange Hall and flirt or ask for a dance.

Sevesi's cover of Sea Breeze drove the original off the radio.

"I think they all thought if they had children with me, their children would be great musicians," he laughs.

"But really we just practised a lot."

He ran different bands: for performing live, performing on TV, and working in the studio ("I always wanted to have the best musicians for the job") and released multiple songs that dominated The Hit Parade (an early weekly chart which was compiled by radio to indicate what was most popular).


Sevesi's favourite was a song called Sea Breeze which they released in 1961.

"It was originally recorded by a great Hawaiian band and I said to the guys, 'We have to do it better, we have to beat them!' So we practised it night and day, and we turned round and recorded it, and then it pushed the Hawaiian version off the air, and they replaced it with ours. It was great!"

Through his many recordings (he had a small studio out the back of his Mt Roskill home, but spent plenty of time in professional studios too) he brought new talent to light in New Zealand, including Annie Crummer, and the Yandall Sisters.

Bill Sevesi in his Mt Roskill recording studio in 1991 (NZ Herald)
Bill Sevesi in his Mt Roskill recording studio in 1991 (NZ Herald)

And he added his own flavour to the music of other icons too, performing alongside Neil and Tim Finn, Dave Dobbyn and Bic Runga at the 2002 Finn Brothers Hooley at the St James Theatre.

He no longer plays himself - arthritis has made that too difficult, but there's still a lap steel guitar next to his bed and he still teaches local kids the ukulele, and they phone him up to sing happy birthday.

"I started off at Mt Roskill Primary School in 2004, and the kids were enjoying the music so much, that lots of the other schools have all joined in, and the teachers have learned to play the ukulele too."

Bill Sevesi teaching kids the ukulele in 2004 at Mt Roskill primary as part of a programme he helped develop to get the instrument into schools.
Bill Sevesi teaching kids the ukulele in 2004 at Mt Roskill primary as part of a programme he helped develop to get the instrument into schools.

You can tell he's well-loved by the community where he lives; the local kids wave when they walk past his house.

Sevesi has one parting piece of advice for the budding young musicians who are keen on the kind of success that he has had:

"You have to practise and practise and practise to get to the top. If you don't practise, you're never going to get there. You have to be a professional."


Listen to: 25 Hawaiian Favourites (2013), Polynesia: The Very Best Of Bill Sevesi (2013), Sea Breeze (1961)

Here's Bill as he appeared on the cover of Weekend Magazine last year photographed by Dean Purcell