Johnny Cooper

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New Zealand's first recorded rock & roller, Johnny Cooper opened the floodgates for all of the Kiwi artists to follow in the years to come. Born in Wairoa in 1928, he began playing guitar at a young age,…
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New Zealand's first recorded rock & roller, Johnny Cooper opened the floodgates for all of the Kiwi artists to follow in the years to come. Born in Wairoa in 1928, he began playing guitar at a young age, performing for the sheep shearers on his father's farm; influenced by American cowboy stars including Gene Autry and Tex Ritter, he initially leaned towards country music, and after relocating to Wellington in 1948 became a fixture on the area club circuit under the guise "The Maori Cowboy." In 1952, Cooper recruited a backing band he dubbed the Range Riders, and soon landed a recording contract with HMV; over the next several years he included a number of hit singles, including "One by One," a duet with singer Margaret Francis which became the best-selling release in the history of the New Zealand music industry.

In mid-1955, Cooper was summoned to HMV's offices, where he was given a copy of Bill Haley's smash "Rock Around the Clock" and told that a cover version was to be his next record; baffled by the lyrics as well as the sound of the new music dubbed rock & roll, Cooper nevertheless approximated Haley's style as closely as possible, and backed by a local jazz group called Ken Avery and His Rockin' Rhythm, he cut New Zealand's very first rock record (probably also the first ever cut outside of the U.S.). Released in October 1955, Cooper's rendition of "Rock Around the Clock" fared poorly; when issued in New Zealand a year later, however, Haley's original was a blockbuster. At the command of HMV, Cooper continued his tentative move into rock, and with a new backing band called the Fabulous Flamingos soon recorded his hit original composition "Pie Cart Rock'n'roll." Still, he was never truly comfortable with the new music, and soon turned to hosting the talent quest Give It a Go.