Johnny Cooper, ‘The Māori Cowboy’

Johnny Cooper, hero of early New Zealand rock’n’roll, died earlier this month in Lower Hutt, aged 85.

Born in 1929, Cooper grew up on an isolated farm near Wairoa. He was gifted a ukulele by his uncle, who played saxophone in a Gisborne dance band. He began playing along to 78s, and would play in woolsheds to entertain the shearing gangs.

Johnny Cooper in the early 1950s.
Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, Ref: PAColl-10069-18-08

Cooper won a scholarship to attend Hawkes Bay’s illustrious Te Aute college. After attending for a time, Cooper was desperate to leave. However, his elders were insistent that he stay in school. So Cooper boarded the train to return to school from Wairoa, and instead stayed on-board and ran away to Wellington. This resulted in Cooper being disowned by his parents: “They said, you’re on your own.”

Cooper stayed in a boarding house and got a job at Karori cemetery. On Sunday nights he sang at cinemas and suburban halls. He dug graves during the day, and met bass-player Willy Lloyd-Jones. In 1953 they formed The Ridge Riders with guitarist Ron James and Don Aldridge on steel. The group wore cowboy style outfits and became known at talent quests and live shows on radio, with appearances in Wanganui and at Linton and Waiouru.

On Sundays they recorded in Alan Dunnage’s Island Bay studio, inside an old shop. A duet by Cooper became the number one 78 of 1954; Look What You’ve Done produced a double-sided hit. Cooper had written most of the song in a day: “I heard someone say ‘look what you’ve done’ and thought that was a crazy thing to say, that it would be good to sing something like that.” The song became a continual request for The Ridge Riders: “Shearing shed or anywhere, every party you went to in that period that was all you heard them play.” The song became a well-known Kiwi party song and was famously sung by Jake and Beth Heke in ‘Once Were Warriors’.

In 1955 Cooper started a solo career in rock’n’roll at town hall jamborees. He made New Zealand music history by becoming the first singer outside of the United States to record a rock’n’roll song when he recorded Rock Around the Clock with a group of Wellington jazz men at HMV’s Lower Hutt studios in 1955. As a country singer, Cooper had originally balked at the idea of recording a rock’n’roll track, and had said “What’s this rubbish? I’m not singing that.” Within a year Cooper was touted as the “undisputed king of rock’n’roll whose record sales are now far in excess of a hundred thousand.” Cooper also recorded New Zealand’s first original rock’n’roll song, Pie Cart Rock’n’Roll in 1955.

F W Larcombe Ltd. Harry Fagin proudly presents New Zealand tour Variety round up, headed by Johnny Cooper, H.M.V. recording and television star. Johnny Cooper rocks ’em! Regent Theatre Greymouth, Wed Thurs Fri Oct 2, 3, 4. Larcombe Print [1957]. [Posters collected by Charles Cabot, for variety, comedy, and music-hall shows and performances in New Zealand. 1950-1959].. Ref: Eph-E-CABOT-Variety-1957-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Cooper’s musical talent saw him travel around the world, leading three concert tours during the 1950s to entertain Kiwi troops in Japan and Korea.

In 1957, The Ridge Riders drifted apart and Cooper started holding talent shows around small towns, including Give It A Go! Through this, he coached some of New Zealand music’s well-known names, including rock’n’roll idol Johnny Devlin, Midge Marsden (who played in Bari and the Breakaways) and the Formulya, whose song Nature was to be judged the greatest New Zealand rock song of all time.

Cooper moved into entertainment promotion in the 1960s. Good friend and fellow musician Midge Marsden says he did not so much fall from the limelight as ease himself into the shadows. “His private life was exactly that – private.”

Cooper, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, died at his home early in September.

Neighbours of Johnny Cooper knew him as a friendly pillar of the community, who tidied the area and mowed lawns for free. Friends knew him as a warm, modest and humble man, and hold many fond memories.

Syndetics book coverBlue smoke : the lost dawn of New Zealand popular music, 1918-1964 / Chris Bourke.
“Bringing to life the musical worlds of New Zealanders both at home and out on the town, this history chronicles the evolution of popular music in New Zealand during the 20th century. From the kiwi concert parties during World War I and the arrival of jazz to the rise of swing, country, the Hawaiian sound, and then rock’n’roll, this musical investigation brings to life the people, places, and sounds of a world that has disappeared and uncovers how music from the rest of the world was shaped by Maori and Pakeha New Zealanders into a melody, rhythm, and voice that made sense on these islands. The accompanying audio CD wonderfully brings to life the engaging text, underscoring seminal moments in New Zealand’s musical history.” (Syndetics summary)

Early rock & roll from New Zealand. Vol. 5 & 6.

Pie cart rock ‘n’ roll : New Zealand rock ‘n’ roll 1957-1962.

Waiata : Maori showbands, balladeers & pop stars.

Pure Glamour: New fashion and beauty books for February

I hope you’re all feeling glamorous!! Because our selection of new fashion and beauty books this month is nothing if not glamorous; we have a whole book dedicated to shoes (swoon), as well as big, beautiful books documenting Christian Dior, Paul Smith and the essence of French style. We also have your guide to gentlemen’s fashion, and an illustrated history of luxury fashion brands. We have Collette Dinnigan’s new book, and also an anthology of rock and roll fashion photographs that aren’t to be missed.

Syndetics book coverFor the love of shoes / edited by Patrice Farameh.
“Women have long realized that cool shoes do not only complement the outfit, they are the whole point. From Cinderella to Carrie, we have all fallen head over heels for the right pair-and to hell with cost or comfort! This book explores the outer realms of avant-garde shoe design. Unfettered by commercialism, these pioneering designers give full rein to their artistic visions. These zany pieces contain an array of extraordinary forms and materials. With influences ranging from Las Vegas pizzazz and arcane tribal relics to contemporary architecture, it may be difficult to distinguish between fun footwear and conceptual sculpture.” (

Syndetics book coverJohn Varvatos : rock in fashion / John Varvatos with Holly George-Warren.
“In John Varvatos, the legendary designer reveals his perspective on how rock & roll music and style have influenced his own designs and fashion worldwide. Varvatos’s personally curated collection of more than 250 images are some of the most provocative ever shot by top rock photographers from the late 1960s to today, from the Rolling Stones to the Kings of Leon. Also included are select images from Varvatos’s own advertising campaigns. Every chapter also contains numerous quotes from the musicians themselves, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Iggy Pop, Jack White, Pete Townshend, Robert Plant, Steven Tyler, and Patti Smith. An extraordinary anthology of some of the finest images in rock & roll and the most influential rock looks in fashion and popular culture.” (Provided by publisher)

Syndetics book coverDior glamour : photographs from 1952 to 1962 / Mark Shaw ; foreword by Lee Radziwill ; text by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni.
“A collection of the lavish and iconic gowns of Christian Dior, from the 1950s and 1960s, captured by the legendary photographer Mark Shaw. Iconic photographer Mark Shaw documented the ultra-exclusive Parisian fashion world, focusing on Paris’s long-standing top couturier Christian Dior. This lavish volume embodies the glamour of that time, from rare moments of Christian Dior during fittings to editorial-style photographs of models, socialites, and actresses posing in Dior’s ballgowns, day suits, and haute couture collections. With an eye for intimacy and opulence, this book features more than 200 color and black-and-white photographs, many never published before, having only recently been found in a secret vault by his estate.” (

Syndetics book coverHello, my name is Paul Smith : fashion and other stories / by Paul Smith, Deyan Sudjic and Donna Loveday ; edited by Alan Aboud.
“This handsome volume celebrates over forty years of the playful and trendsetting English fashion brand and retailer Paul Smith. Always in fashion, Paul Smith perfected a classic style that exudes a sense of English tradition combined with humor, playfulness, and mischief. This marriage of sophistication and the unexpected has given birth to a style and identity that forty years and many collections later remains charming, personable, and effortlessly hip. Using hand-drawn designs, archival photographs, gorgeous original photography, and engaging essays, this colorful catalog weaves together a compelling visual tale of Paul Smith s prestigious projects and creative processes from behind-the-scenes to on the streets that built this multifaceted empire of cool.” (Adapted from

Syndetics book coverObsessive creative / Collette Dinnigan.
“In this much-anticipated book, renowned fashion designer and icon Collette Dinnigan provides an intimate insight into her life and work. In this sumptuous volume jam-packed with hundreds of photographs of the clothes on and off the runway, sketches, watercolors, and images from the designers personal albums.” (

Syndetics book coverLuxury fashion : a global history of heritage brands / Caroline Cox ; foreword by Cameron Silver.
“Luxury brands are not about banal retro styling or taking refuge in past glories; they are brands with a heritage that still chimes with contemporary culture. Luxury Fashion is a unique tribute to the world’s most hallowed fashion brands. Glossy and highly informative, it provides in-depth feature portraits of fifty of the finest luxury fashion brands (renowned heritage labels and hidden gems) as well as an essential directory of a further 150 brands, which includes details of key items and where to find them. Each featured brand is beautifully illustrated, with historical and contemporary images, evoking the story of how artisans from all over the world have created objects of desire that have endured because of their superb quality, superior craftsmanship and timeless design appeal.” (Adapted from

Syndetics book coverThe art of being a woman : my mother, Schiaparelli, and me / Patricia Volk.
“Patricia Volk’s glittering memoir, written with charm, panache and wit, juxtaposes the lives of two women – the iconoclastic fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and the author’s own mother – to tell the story of how young Patricia fashioned herself into a woman. Patricia Volk’s mother Audrey was an upper-middle class New Yorker, a great beauty, a perfectionist, and a polished hostess who believed in women doing things the proper way. The iconoclastic Italian fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, on the other hand, never found a rule she didn’t want to break. For Patricia, who read Schiap’s ‘scandalous’ autobiography, Shocking Life, at a tender age, these two women offered fabulously contrasting lessons in everything from fashion, make-up, lingerie, family and entertaining, to love, sex, superstition and gambling – lessons that would stay with her for the rest of her life.” (

Syndetics book coverFrench style / Bérénice Vila Baudry.
“French Style Berenice Baudry was born in Argentina and raised in France. She was a fellow of the Ecole Normale Superieure where she studied French and Spanish literature, and received her doctorate from the University of Paris-Sorbonne. After living four years in Spain, she currently resides in New York and teaches at Columbia University.” (

Syndetics book coverQuintessentially gentleman / head of editorial and writer, Nathalie Bradbury.
“Quintessentially Gentleman is a luxury guidebook for the sartorially savvy man. This edition explores some of the biggest fashion brands as well as the most exclusive bespoke tailors and craftsmen and readers can discover the ‘do’s and don’ts’ of lifestyle etiquette. Be it the finest cut suit, a fashion-forward branded anorak or traditional tweeds for a country weekend, Quintessentially Gentleman will reveal surprising insights into the most respected and admired names in industry.” (Publisher’s website)