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Guitarist Bill Sevisi to be honoured

Monday 10 August 2015 | Published in Regional


AUCKLAND – The long career of legendary Tonga-born songwriter and guitarist Bill Sevesi will be honoured next month when he is inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame.

The 92-year-old Aucklander, who was born in the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa, is a renowned master of the steel guitar.

His band, Bill Sevesi and His Islanders, was a fixture of the Auckland music scene from the 1950s to the mid-1970s.

During his decades-long career, Sevesi toured Australia, the United States and the Pacific.

As well as his local accolades, his name is in the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in St Louis, Missouri.

Sevesi will be officially inducted into the hall of fame at the Silver Scroll Awards in Auckland in September.

Sevesi is being honoured for the impact his music has had on New Zealand culture.

Sevesi grew up in Auckland listening to Hawaiian music and learned how to play lap steel by listening to records on a wind-up gramophone, before being invited up to play at the Crystal Palace in Mt Eden in the early 1940s.

In the 1950s, Bill Sevesi and His Islanders gained popularity at dances and became an Auckland institution, which they would remain until the mid-seventies.

They recorded frequently, sometimes under pseudonyms such as The Rough Riders when they recorded with country singer Tex Morton, or the Bluemountain Boys when they were recording with hillbilly singer Luke Simmons.

Bye Bye Baby Goodbye, Sevesi’s ‘59 hit which became the country’s best-seller for four weeks, was recorded under the name of Will Jess.

The song – recorded in half an hour of studio downtime – was the country’s best-seller for four weeks. The artist toured in Australia, the United States and around the Pacific and has received many accolades throughout his years in music.

“We are very proud to be able to acknowledge Bill in this way.” says APRA’s Anthony Healey.

“It is entirely fitting that finally this generous, good-humoured and exceptionally talented man – whose music conjures up an almost mythical, timeless Pacific – should be acknowledged in his 93rd year and take his rightful place in the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame”.

Bill Sevesi – born Wilfred Jeffs in Nuku‘alofa, Tonga more than 90 years ago – grew up at a time when Hawaiian music was a global phenomenon and the sound of lap steel guitar evoked a Pacific of palm trees, warm breezes and the exoticism of the islands.

As a boy in Auckland he tuned his crystal set to hear Sol Hoopi and other legendary Hawaiian guitar masters, learned to play lap steel by listening to 78rpm records on a wind-up gramophone, and in the early 1940s watched band leader Epi Shalfoon at the Crystal Palace in Mt Eden week after week until eventually he was invited up to play.

Bill only knew one song with any confidence – the standard Isa Lei. However, the Second World War intervened. On his return from duty Sevisi picked up where he left off.

Bill Sevesi and His Islanders became increasingly popular at dances in those days before television. In 1954, after being invited to play at the Orange Coronation Hall –which Sevisi renamed the Orange Ballroom, in Auckland’s Khyber Pass – the band became an Auckland institution and would remain there until the mid-Seventies.

In the early 70s he left the Orange Ballroom and increasingly turned his attention to the modest home studio he built and to nurturing and encouraging the talent of others.

He recorded and encouraged numerous singers – among them the Yandall Sisters and Annie Crummer – played with fellow steel guitarists Trevor Edmondson and Bill Wolfgramm, and has appeared with Neil Finn and Dave Dobbyn.

His work is universally admired. Among the accolades are the Queen’s Service Medal for public service in 1995; the Creative New Zealand Pacific Island award 1997; and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Pacific Music Awards in 2006.

Almost 15 years ago the New Zealand Herald compiled a list of “10 Essential Pacific Songs”, songs like Blue Hawai‘i by Elvis Presley, Bali Hi from South Pacific and Papa E by Te Vaka. The final one on the list was “anything by Bill Sevesi”.

“Bill and his music are national treasures in this small corner of the vast Pacific,” the entry read.