Tomorrow it will be 40 years since Hawke's Bay's golden-voiced Abe Phillips was killed in a car crash, while returning home to Hastings after a concert in Wellington. One of his old friends, researcher Dave Turnbull, and Roger Moroney look at the life of Abe.

On one of the meat chains of Whakatu, back in the Christmas of 1971, it would have been a silent day.

As there was no Silent Night - or any other carol that had once echoed beautifully through the air from the mouth of Abe Phillips, and accompanied by the harmonies of his workmates.

His voice, as many who heard him will readily attest, was simply exceptional.


The boys who worked on the chain with him knew that all too well. When Abe sang it was not simply a voice, it was magic.

He had a special spark and a very real future, nationally and almost certainly internationally, in the music business, but his life was cut short at just 32.

Those who knew him described him as an unassuming sort of bloke who never went seeking fame and fortune. Chirpy, fun and simply good company - and gifted with a golden voice for song.

Abe Phillips was born Abraham Raumano Phillips, in Patea on August 6, 1939, into the large family of Tarepa Phillips and Rita Manaena.

He arrived in Hastings, with his family, when he was a youngster and, as a young man, started work at Watties where he met Makere.

They married and had two children.

Makere still lives in Hastings and on the wall in her living room is a large framed portrait of her Abe, the memories still very strong.

Abe moved on to work at Whakatu and word got around about this unassuming man with the spellbinding voice.

Napier's Tony Kahaki was working at the Whakatu Post Office just across the road from the freezing works on Christmas.

"The lady at the post office made us a cup of tea and we sat outside and we listened to them singing. I will never forget it. It was just beautiful.

"People would arrive in their cars and park up just to hear the boys on the chain singing the Christmas carols ... when you get a hundred or more Maori boys together singing it is really something special."

Kepa Toa, who played with The Shadracks show band, became a good mate of Abe.

"I still think about Abe a lot."

Kepa, now happily retired in Napier but who still picks up the guitar for the occasional gig with a mate, said his old friend had a voice that was "extraordinary, just outstanding".

"He knew how to sing to hit straight at the heart - the ladies would cry."

They met on the marae.

"Hawke's Bay had a reputation for producing great music and musicians and it all went back to the maraes, the kapa haka."

Waipatu Marae was very active then, and Kepa seems to remember a young Abe Phillips being a part of that.

"The music was very strong everywhere but what came through above all was Abe - that dynamic voice."

Kepa joined The Shadracks in 1965, a year after they formed, and stayed with them until a short time after Abe's death.

"We lost a lot of oomph. It just went sort of flat after that."

The Shadracks were effectively the house band at the Mayfair Hotel in Hastings and they all knew Abe through the Whakatu Freezing Works.

He declined initial requests to join them.

"We all knew about his huge talent and, after a bit of encouragement, we eventually got him."

After Abe joined in 1968, the band sparked up big time.

The line-up was Abe, Tom Greening (who formed the band) on drums and vocals, Haromi Greening (vocals), Bill Prentice (tenor sax and rhythm guitar), Kepa Toa (lead guitar), Ricky Witoko (keyboards, sax) and Lambeth Bennett on bass guitar.

They created a huge following, yet despite the touring and enthusiastic audiences no one was exactly getting rich.

"When we toured, we weren't well off in the pocket, so we'd get to the bars where we were going to play a bit earlier and have a couple of jugs. We'd get the guitars out and then Abe would start to build that voice up ... and before long everyone else drifted over to listen. We had jugs appearing on the table and money ... we were indoor buskers," Kepa laughed.

He said Abe was a "real character".

"We never told him what we were going to do because he'd go and do something else," he said with a smile.

And of that bald head Abe bore, it was nothing to do with natural hair loss.

"He had really thick wavy hair but he decided to keep it all cut off - he created that image."

The power of his voice was so remarkable the band was forced to alter its shows when a big star "came down from Auckland" to sing as guest artist. Abe had to step back.

His bandmates knew, as did the modest Abe for that matter, that if BIG BAND: The Shadracks at the Mayfair Hotel in Hastings. Lambeth Bennett (left), Abe Phillips, Bill Prentice, Tom Greening, Kepa Toa, Haromi Greening and Ricki Witoko. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

When he sang everyone stopped and listened - spellbound.Dave Turnbull, friendhe went on first and did his set "no one in the world" could have followed him.

Another old mate, Dave Turnbull, said if you wanted to see Abe and The Shadracks at their peak you had to turn up at the Mayfair Hotel at 4pm to get a ticket for the 8pm show.

"I heard him at the Mayfair and the Cabana. When he sang Unchained Melody oh, that was his best. When he sang everyone stopped and listened, spellbound."

Dave also recalled the great singalongs after the social rugby matches. Abe played fullback for the Awatoto Fertiliser Work's side (where Dave worked) and on the bus trips to away games, and at the aftermatch parties at the works' canteen, Abe led the singing.

Abe soon caught the attention of record producer and songwriter Tony McCarthy, and he recorded him and The Shadracks while they were in Wellington to appear on a television talent show.

Abe sang Sing a Simple Song and United We Stand. They were eventually released as a 45 in 1972 after his death.

But his first release, which was actually recorded after he left the Shadracks in July 1971 to concentrate on a solo career, was the hauntingly beautiful Don't Think You Remember Me, in which he was backed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with musical arrangement by the noted Don Richardson.

While only two recordings were released, Dave has always been perplexed by their label markings - they were tagged 2a and 2b and 3a and 3b. He wonders if there was a 1a and 1b which were recorded but not released.

Like many, Dave was stunned when he heard of Abe's death.

"It still hurts to think about it."

Helen Karauria, whose late husband Aubrey managed Abe, said they too were shattered when the news of his death came through.

Aubrey, who had been spending a lot of time away with Abe as he hit the concert trails, agreed to allow Abe to go to the Wellington gig with a mate.

"He gave Abe strict instructions not to come straight back afterwards, but they decided to come home."

Even more devastating was that she and her husband were asked by police to formally identify him.

His death came at a time when Aubrey had just finalised a series of concerts in Europe.

"He would have been huge."

But Helen's face brightened when she recalled the "good times" when Abe trod the boards.

She first heard him singing at a party. "His voice, it was just so beautiful."

When Abe won the $2000 Schweppes Talent Quest, in front of more than 1500 people at the Thunderbird Valley Inn in Auckland, just 23 days before he died, his stunning version of My Way reduced several of the woman judges to tears, she said.

Before he joined The Shadracks, Abe often sang at the old Assembly Hall in Hastings.

"That was the place to go - they had all the bands there."

Helen said for all his enormous talent and onstage showmanship, Abe was a humble sort of bloke, a bit cheeky and always chirpy and always up for a spot of mischief.

Former entertainer and now author, Max Cryer, remembered the nobility of Abe.

"Onstage, Abe lit up like a lighthouse but offstage he could show great dignity and honesty."

Max recalled playing at the Mayfair Hotel in Hastings on one occasion, and was distraught at discovering his gold ring, with an insert of West Coast greenstone, had disappeared.

"I'd more or less resigned myself to never seeing it again, but a few weeks later Abe was in Auckland and went to a great deal of trouble to contact me. He had brought my greenstone ring back for me and told me with a glowering face that he'd discovered something that had happened and there had been a confrontation."

Abe told Max he found out where the ring was and went and got it.

"I was glad to have the precious piece back, and I still have it to this day but I wouldn't have it without Abe having proved himself formidable with some unknown thief."

Everything had been going so well for Abe but then that fateful decision to drive back after a Friday night gig just outside Wellington.

Abe had driven a fair chunk of the journey but decided, after they stopped at Waipukurau, to rest up and sleep in the back. Charles Gillies took over the wheel.

Shortly after their car slammed head-on into an aerial topdressing transporter truck on the road to Waipawa. Gillies and his wife were taken to Waipukurau Hospital with serious injuries. Abe died at the scene.

There was a huge turnout at his funeral at the Waipatu Marae. When another of the country's leading performers, and mate, Tui Teka, sang the song Abe had so popularised - Unchained Melody - many of his 400 workmates openly wept.

There is real poignancy to the title of Abe's first big single Don't Think You Remember Me. Far from it.

The band may have put down their instruments and that magnificent voice may have been silenced by tragedy, but the echoes will continue in the memories of those who saw, and heard, Abe Phillips.

Radio Kidnappers will play a tribute to Abe Phillips (featuring his recordings) tomorrow from 12.05pm on 1431am and 104.7fm.