Johnny Tahu Cooper, QSM, (1929-2014)

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Blog post prepared by Amanda Mills, Liaison Librarian – Music and AV

Johnny Cooper (the ‘Maori Cowboy’) was a local rock’n’roll hero.

Cooper grew up on a Te Reinga farm in the 1930s, becoming a fan of Gene Autry during his childhood. While living with his aunt and uncle, he listened to their 78rpm disc collection, his favourites being Autry, Tex Morton, and Wilf Carter. Cooper learnt to play the ukulele along with the records, soon performing to shearing gangs.

After gaining a scholarship and attending Te Aute College for two years, he went to Wellington and found work as a gravedigger. Not long after, he formed a country and western band with Will Lloyd-Jones on slap bass, Ron James on piano accordion, Don Aldridge on steel guitar, and later, Jim Gatfield on guitar. They called themselves Johnny Cooper and the Range Riders.


Johnny Cooper Rock and Sing

Rock and Sing With Johnny Cooper and his Range Riders. His Masters Voice, 1956. Hocken Sound Recordings. HRec-M 697

The band entered talent competitions, coming first in the talent quest at Wellington’s Paramount Theatre, winning £20, and an audition with HMV. In 1954 Cooper went to Korea to entertain the New Zealand troops, and on returning, HMV asked the band to record with the label. This resulted in their first hit, a duet with Margaret Francis of a cover of One by One, backed with Cooper’s own song Look What You’ve Done – a song that found another life 40 years later when it featured in ‘Once Were Warriors’. HMV then approached Cooper about recording a new genre: rock’n’roll. HMV were keen for Cooper to cover Bill Haley and the Comet’s smash Rock Around the Clock, though Cooper was sceptical, and didn’t really like the genre. However, he recorded it (and the b-side Blackberry Boogie), and it became a hit. Interestingly, Cooper’s version was released locally before Bill Haley’s version.

In 1956, HMV released its first New Zealand rock album, ‘Rock and Sing with Johnny Cooper’, a 10” compilation that placed his country recordings with Rock Around the Clock, and Blackberry Boogie. Cooper also released a second rock’n’roll cover by Haley – See You Later Alligator in 1956 (this time on 45prm as well as 78rpm disc).

Cooper’s third single made him a significant name in local music history. Pie Cart Rock’n’Roll (1957) was (as the story goes) about the Whanganui pie cart, where Cooper and the band would get their ‘pea, pie, and pud’ meals. Pie Cart Rock’n’roll was considered the first locally written rock’n’roll song. However, this is thought to be incorrect – Sandy Tansley’s 1957 song Resuscitation Rock (according to researcher John Baker) was released a few weeks before Pie Cart Rock’n’roll in September 1957.

Cooper and the band kept their audiences broad by appearing in variety shows. In the late 1950s he began the ‘Give it a Go’ talent quest, with musicians such as Mike Nock, John Rowles, and Midge Marsden appearing. The talent shows ended in 1968, and Cooper released his last single, Break the World in Two / Cold Cold Heart on Impact. He continued to perform in the 1970s as The Johnny Cooper Sound, and in the 1980s as part of the Original Ruamahanga River Band. He retired in the 1990s.

Johnny Cooper was 85 when he passed away last week at his home in Naenae.

This entry was posted in Entertainment, Maori Music, Music, Obituary, Popular culture by Anna Blackman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Anna Blackman

I'm Head Curator Archives here at the Hocken Collections and one of my tasks is to maintain this blog.

7 thoughts on “Johnny Tahu Cooper, QSM, (1929-2014)

  1. Johnny Cooper (Tahu) was my mum’s brother who often visited us in Wairoa when he was performing around the Hawkes Bay area. I was often asked to guest star on the Johnny Cooper talent shows, anywhere from Napier to Eastbourne. It was heartbreaking to hear he had passed away with no family in attendance. Over the years I had asked my siblings if they knew where he was – my last sighting of our uncle was in Masterton in the early nineties. Our father kept in contact with Tahu until his passing in 1979. My memories of him was a beautiful man – very humble person. So so sad.

    • Hi Charmaine
      Thank you for sharing your family memories of Johnny Cooper, and I’m very sorry to hear that he passed without his family around him. The material we have that features your uncle is valued within our music collections, and you are most welcome to come and view it if you are in Dunedin.
      Best regards.
      Amanda Mills,
      Hocken Collections

      • Thank you so much for the invite to view the collection you have of Johnny Cooper and I would be honoured to do so when next we are in the South Island.

    • Kia Ora Charmaine,

      This is longshot seeing is that your comment was posted in 2016, but we are trying to get in contact with the whanau of Johnny Tahu Cooper.

      If this message gets to you are you please able to email me…

      I hope to hear from you soon ( :

      nga mihi nui,


  2. He is my grandfather I never got to meet him I been looking for him for years or Amy other family. I feel blessed to have his talents of singing and would have loved to have met him.

  3. Hi i live in Christchurch and i just came across a copy of Johnny Coopers Rock and sing album, it seems in pretty condition, do you have any idea of value? Thanks Eugene

    • Hi Eugene, for various reasons and like most GLAM (Gallery Library Archive Museum) organisations the Hocken doesn’t do valuations. You could try asking at a local second hand record store, or an auction house, or try the marketplace website
      Anna Blackman
      Hocken Collections

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