Was it the cheeky grin set off by the jaunty hat? The unlikely name? Or the $1 price tag?
Who cares? I wanted The Best of Ken Lemon bad. I hadn't gone all the way to Invercargill to return empty handed, and besides, if I have a motto it's that want and need are the same thing.
Best of all, this album hinted at a back story, and I'm a sucker for a good yarn. My favourite part of buying old records is the anticipation that fills the gap between purchase and first listen.
Until it turns out be a dud, it's a potential classic worthy of the pool room, and I pour over every inch of the outer sleeve, the inner sleeve, the label and the scribbles in the run-off grooves. I'd never heard of Ken Lemon, and certainly had no idea he'd released enough stuff to have earned "best of" status. But he was on Viking, a perfectly respectable, if dead, New Zealand label.
According to the blurb on the back he had been a finalist in the 1966 Loxene Golden Disc awards, sold records in South Africa, England and the United States, and shared his backing band with Maria "Tumblin' Down" Dallas. Then there was the track listing which looked heavy on Roger Miller covers and country crooners, but kicked off with Lee Hazelwood's Houston, and that can't be a bad thing.
All of which suggested I'd just bought a record of deep-throated cowpoke stylings, but didn't explain why I'd never heard of the man. I like to think I have a reasonable knowledge of our musical history, yet this album suggested he had all the credentials to join the "legends" showcases that sweep the country every year.
So what happened to Ken? I own piles of dubious old records and there's probably a story like his lurking within every one of them. They represent a moment in the sun, a musician's best younger days when stardom was just one well-chosen single away ... So why not dig a few out and see what stories they hold?
Deane Waretini - The Bridge
It wasn't until his father had been dead for two years that Deane Waretini jnr saw what all the fuss had been about. Dad had sung with his cousin, Ana Hato, on the first Maori recording to be released commercially and popularised songs such as Pokarekare Ana, but it was a family story he barely understood. Music had hardly featured in their Horuhoru home.
Sure, his father used to sing them lullabies, but they didn't have any records and Adrian Waretini - he changed his name to Deane jnr after his father died - would dare to sing along to his radio only once parents were asleep. All he knew was that his father worked as a labourer; he couldn't figure out why other people reacted to his father with such deference.
"I didn't even know he could sing. So when I heard about it - I was about 12 - I couldn't believe it. I didn't even see Dad's record until I was 23, he'd been dead for two years. I just held it in my hands, staring at it. It was one of those really old, thick records ... I don't think it was ever something he wanted us to get into. Dad always said education would be best for us: 'You eat of that food," he'd say, "it will set you up for a better life'."
So it's hard to say what Deane snr would have thought if he had seen his son years later, inside a Henderson garage with a band he'd paid in chicken, recording a Maori language song called The Bridge.
Waretini always wanted to play guitar - he'd already learned a few chords to impress the girls - but this ambition was foiled when he auditioned for a band at the age of 14 and it was pointed out that he didn't own one. It was singing or nothing.
Luckily he knew a few songs from the radio and he won a spot in the newly dubbed band Tremeloes. They spent the next 18 months getting their act together before booking their first gig, a Friday night spot at the Ritz, a 600-odd capacity venue. They rocked up in their second-hand suits, played to a largely empty hall and got pulled off. "I didn't care, I was just happy to have played at all," says Waretini.
"The fellas didn't get that, they were just pissed off because we'd been booted." He was in Christchurch the day before his 21st - he had two children by then and was performing and working wherever he could - when he heard his father had died. It was at the funeral where he was taken under the wing of his cousin, George Tait, a Te Arawa elder. "He became my manager, but he was much more than that. He knew how much my father loved me, but I was a cocky little bugger and people didn't usually take any notice of me because I kept pushing myself forward.
But George had faith in me and he wanted to keep my father's name alive." It was Tait who suggested Adrian become Deane jnr, if only to stop venue owners from asking if he was related to the famous Maori singer. It also helped him get gigs.
In 1970, Tait, a war veteran on a pension, flew Waretini to Australia where he bumped into former Howard Morrison Quartet musician Wi Wharekura. After a quick audition and some market research he returned knowing he had to up his game, so he worked up a slick showcase act and joined promoter Joe Brown's talent stable.
Somewhere along the line Tait offered him a new song, The Bridge, essentially a reworking of Italian jazz musician Nini Rosso's Il Silencio, a trumpet track Prince Tui Teka used to play during the Maori Battalion Trilogy. It became Waretini's closing number, but he got little support for his plan to record it because Maori songs weren't seen as chart material.
So it's wasn't until 1980 that he got his backing band, The Rising Suns, formerly The Radars and mostly musicians from the Blind Institute, to meet him at a studio inside a country singer's garage. Also on hand was Kevin Furey, Quincy Conserve's trumpet player who was married to Tait's niece.
Waretini had little money, so the band did it for KFC. "We recorded it just as we played it in the hotels, with heart and soul and feel. We'd been playing it for a few years so we'd ironed out the rubbish, it had a real spirit to it." Waretini then spent $96 to get a stack of singles pressed and hit the streets. He sent a few copies to 1ZB before bombarding them with requests to play it, got it playlisted at the Civic as part of their intermission entertainment, and even recruited a curbside newspaper boy for $1 to sell them to passing people for 50c a pop. Whatever did the trick, people were soon walking into music shops asking for "that bridge song".
Next thing he knew the US label CBS Records was wanting to put it out. Then on April 3, 1981 his song took the number one spot away from John Lennon's Woman. Not only was it the first Maori language track to top the charts, beating Tui Teka's E Ipo by 15 months, it was also the first to go gold. Many doors then opened for Waretini, but he is bitter about how CBS treated him. All up, he received $27,000 while surrendering all rights to the song. "They gave me a cheque for the lot and I remember I was really frightened, I'd never seen that sort of money. I thought I might go crazy," says Waretini, now 64 and running a taxi company in Christchurch. Tait talked him into putting it on his mortgage after refusing to take a cut.
When Tait died, Waretini placed his gold record on his coffin. "I learned a lot from George, especially about giving. I'm a bit of a taker, but I think giving is much better, and that song he gave me, well, I think it brings out a sense of pride in the people of New Zealand. It really did bridge the cultural gap."
Ken Lemon - The Best of Ken Lemon
Ken Lemon had always wanted to sing - he never needed to be asked to get up and sing along to the pianist in his local pub and the resulting applause encouraged him to enter local talent quests: "But it was the same old story, it wasn't how good you were, it was how many mates you had and I didn't have enough mates."
Fresh off the boat from England in 1963, one of his first stops in Auckland was the old Shiralee on Customs St where he walked into another singing competition. It was halfway through, but they let him put his name down anyway. He won. Then he won the quarter final and the semi. At stake was a singing job in Noumea. "Oh I won it all right, but the guy with the job had his eye on the girl who came second, so I got stuff-all."
Never mind, the venue's owner was impressed and Lemon began a residency, playing Friday, Saturday and twice on Sundays. Pretty soon he was also performing his staple set of Elvis, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck material at various North Shore venues. He was at the Surfside Ballroom in Milford when Viking label boss Ron Dalton walked in. Once he'd finished, Dalton asked if he'd thought about recording and the next thing he knew he was in the Stebbings studio, recording China Doll and Pearly Shells with Peter "White Rabbit" Posa on guitar.
Lemon loved it, but Dalton was nonplussed. It wasn't the sound he was after, but he released it anyway as a 7" single. Later, Dalton went to hear Lemon again, just as he was kicking off Jim Reeves' He'll Have To Go. That was it, country was his style. He went to Wellington where he was teamed with Mike Perjanik's rising instrumental group, The Embers.
Lemon didn't know them and they didn't know country - it didn't sound promising - but they met at a studio with instructions to record a couple of tracks. "In the end I was just pulling song after song from my back pocket, 'how about this one?' And they'd say: 'Great, how does it go? What key is it in?' We'd have a run through then record it, it was great."
The result was The Hombre Called Lemon, his first album for Viking. It even got a US release on the Reprise label. "I was so proud when that came out," says Lemon. "It was totally unexpected. My family was rapt, they all went out and bought it." His mum was so protective of her copy that on her way back to England she refused to hand it over to the entertainment director who thought it good enough to play to passengers. "Yeah, thanks Mum, I could have ended up playing on cruise ships," says Lemon. His "best of" collection compiles tracks from this and his second album, aptly titled The Second Album.
He eventually recorded five albums for Viking. By 1970, Lemon was on the touring circuit, playing with the likes of Eddie Low and Maria Dallas, with whom he split an album called Face to Face. He also did two seasons of the Tex Morton-hosted television show Country Touch and joined the Miss New Zealand road show.
But his biggest exposure probably came in 1974 when he made the finals of the television song contest Studio One, won by Kamahl on a viewer vote. It was around that time he was approached by one of promoter Joe Brown's minions: "He came up to me and said Joe would like me to sign with him, but that he wouldn't touch me while I was under contract with Viking." He joined Brown, who pushed him into the big time, just he was starting to do with another country singer named John Hore. "It wasn't all that difficult to get out of my contract, but then Joe kept umm-ing and ahh-ing. It was pissing me off. I was stationary while John was going ahead."
Eventually Lemon realised his career was going nowhere, 10 years of touring were over. He tried to keep going, getting the odd club gig, but it wasn't long until he was singing in a restaurant and a drunk tore the mic from his hand to murder a Pat Boone song without realising the lead had fallen out. It was time to get out completely. "So that's more or less where it ended. I'd always put family first. I think I could have shot across to Oz and earned some money but I wasn't willing to risk by trying to start all over again. I've always worked in sheet metal and light engineering, so I just stuck with that. I retired just before Christmas."
Ces Steer - The Wondersound of the Electronic Accordion
It takes a special type of father to say "yeah, sure" when his 13-year-old son asks if he'd like to join his band. But any other response from Ces Steer's dad and it's unlikely I'd be here, 55 years later, in a Katikati rest home watching Steer crank his accordion before a clapping audience.
His father's willingness was all the licence Steer needed to borrow a drum kit and learn enough to teach his old man how to keep a beat. Once they were joined by a neighbour's keyboard-playing 9-year-old daughter they scared the cows until they were good enough to become a staple of the Te Puninga social scene. But Steer had even bigger plans in mind, and the following year, when he was 14, his unnamed trio entered a Hamilton talent quest.
The momentous thing here isn't so much that they came second to someone Steer can't remember, it was who they beat into third place: the Howard Morrison Quartet.
Fortunately for the quartet, the mental scars of being beaten by two kids and 35-year-old cow cockie weren't career killing. "I think that was their first ever public appearance," says Steer, "we didn't know who they were then, but when they started to get big we felt really proud to have beaten them. I've never met Sir Howard, but I did run into [late quartet member] Gerry Merito a while back at a function and I asked him if he remembered those two little kids. He did and he shook my hand. That was great."
For the next 10 years, Steer toured the Waikato with his Scottish dance band, the Highlanders, wearing out a track from Morrinsville to Matamata to Cambridge and back to Hamilton, with 300-strong crowds at each stop. "But the best thing for me was that about 200 would be teenagers," says Steer. Then he got wind of a new invention, the electronic accordion, and drove to Auckland to try one out. While it didn't provide quite the sound he was after, he managed to get Italian company Titano to customise one to his needs.
Steer was now cutting-edge, so it was time to go full-time. He got a new name, the Wondersound, a six-nights-a-week job at Gerrards licensed restaurant, and an image change after his barber encouraged him grow a goatee, despite the mate who started calling him James Last. One night, he was packing up when a diner came up to say hello. It was Garry Potts, a technician from a local recording studio and he had an idea.
Judy Collins' Amazing Grace was about to come out and he thought there might be a few bucks in pre-empting it with a local version. The tricky part was that he didn't have a copy of the song to follow but he did have the music, which was enough to convince Steer into recording it with some local musicians.
The resulting single was taken to Kiwi Records - which already boasted the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band, Rhonda, Kiri Te Kanawa and Inia Te Wiata - but they wanted an album. It was the opportunity of a lifetime; Steer was over the moon. A studio was booked and a band assembled, he's still tickled that he got Max Cleave to play piano: "He was well-known around the Waikato, we called him New Zealand's Elton John." It went on to sell 12,000 copies. "It was all quite a thrill really," says Steer.
"I was really proud of that record, and Max even played at my daughter's wedding three years ago." The album did enough to get him on to the pub circuit - just him, his accordion and a Yamaha drum machine - for up to four weeks at a time, four times a year. This lasted for another nine years and another album, but the lifestyle wore him down.
Steer wasn't enjoying the constant stress of winning over his audience: "Every time I went on there was a thought in the back of my mind that I wasn't going to be accepted. That kind of pressure was hard on the old body. But there were good times. I think getting standing ovations were the best, mostly for Amazing Grace." He also had two young kids and was missing his wife, so he tossed the accordion into the back room and did some building work until a back injury saw him take a job selling tractors.
Music was forgotten until about two years ago when a friend invited him to a jam session. With his mate alongside on keys, he now performs at rest homes throughout the Bay of Plenty and is a mainstay of an informal Tauranga accordion club.
Was it the cheeky grin set off by the jaunty hat? The unlikely name? Or the $1 price tag?