JOHNNY Arbuckle, who has been entertaining residents of Mary Shapely Rest Home for 16 years, played for them for the final time last Sunday.
The Edgecumbe band leader and saxophonist, whose name has become synonymous with dance hall music in the Bay of Plenty over the past 65 years, is moving to a Te Puke rest home to be with his wife, Joan.
Eastern Bay Life caught up with him last week while he was in the midst of packing up more than 60 years’ worth of belongings from the Rimu Street home where he and Joan raised their three children.
“Not one of them could sing Now is the Hour, God Save the Queen or play an instrument,” he complains of his son and two daughters, though later in the conversation he reveals his great pride in his offspring’s various accomplishments.
As he brings out his well-used saxophone for a photo amid the beautiful flower gardens of his quarter acre section, he reveals that it is his 11th instrument. He has worn out 10 saxophones during his career. He has also worn a mouthpiece-shaped groove in the upper plate he now keeps specifically for playing.
“The queen has the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, and I have the changing of the guards too,” he quips as he removes his dentures to put the old pair in. Of the sock he keeps in the case, which he uses as a dampener, he says. “This woman came along while I was playing one day and told me to put a sock in it. So I did.”
No doubt his new neighbours will get the benefit of Johnny’s barely dampened playing from now on, as well as his ribald sense of humour.
Johnny’s dance band played the town halls of the Bay of Plenty for more than 60 years. Though the line-up changed from time to time, it was always Johnny’s band that was in demand every Saturday night. “Every hall in the Bay of Plenty I’ve played,” he says.
When asked how he got started playing the saxophone, Johnny credits his mother. “We had a farm at Thornton. I was 17, my brother was 15, and had just got his licence. Dad and Mum bought a brand new Humber Hawk car. It was 1250 quid. My brother and I went to a dance and he got pissed and smashed the car up. He wrote it off. I was in it when it tipped, too.”
The brothers’ punishment was to work off the cost of the wrecked car on the farm. “So every time we went out on the farm, I had to go and cut firewood, cut trees do all sorts of things. I said to my mother, ‘now hold on a minute. I’m getting penalised because he ripped the car over. I never did it. Why should I be chipping thistles and ragwort’.
“She said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to learn to play the saxophone’. But you couldn’t buy the buggers around here. Mum said, oh, hang on. So she went out and said to dad, ‘I’m taking the checkbook and going to Auckland. Johnny wants a saxophone’. That was a bit of a confrontation. Mum beat him up. She was bigger than him.”
Johnny says the drive to Auckland took more than nine hours back then. “So mum bought me a saxophone. It was 85 pounds. She said, ‘now, if you can play Back to Sorento on that, you don’t have to pay for it. It was a lot of money. Within a week, I learnt that song Back to Sorento. I played it at the RSA last week. There was only about two ladies out of about 60 in there that knew that song.”
Johnny learnt to play the song by ear as he did with all the songs he taught himself over the years. He has never learned to read music, just as he has never learned to read or write.
He says this was due to having to work on the farm from the age of nine. He is also partially sighted.
“In the old days labour was pretty hard to get so dad said to mum, ‘get him some gumboots’. I ended up getting up at four o’clock in the morning – nine years old – milking cows. We had the biggest herd on the Rangitaiki Plains at one stage – 180 cows. Took us about four hours to milk them. I never went to school but I was allowed to have my calf at the school calf club and play rugby.
“I was a good rugby player. Boy, they’d run and give me the ball and I would go like a madman. Cos, with working on the farm I was solid, tough. A hard man. I could swing the axe, push the tractor, no trouble.”
His souvenir from his rugby days are his missing front teeth. From calf club he still has the many championship ribbons he won at agricultural days throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, including A&P shows throughout the Bay of Plenty, East Coast and Poverty Bay.
“I was only 11 then,” he says of his Poverty Bay A&P Association ribbon from 1946.
In later years he always had a day job. He worked at Rangitaiki Plains Dairy Company from 1956 to 1973 and made hay in his spare time for Don Holden. He also worked at the Caxton mill (now SCA) in Kawerau when it was owned by the Spencer family.
However, it was his music that won him lasting fame. He admits that he was good. “Oh, I used to play it pretty well I think. I had to be good.
“There’s been a lot of good musicians from around here,” he says. “I think I just sort of gunned them down a bit.”
His first booking was in Thornton hall at the age of 18 years. “Now that’s gone,” he says, of the hall. He was paid one pound 10 shillings. “That’s three dollars in today’s money. It was alright. Seven or eight nights in the band and you could buy an 18-pound suit. We’d go to the dance looking flash and all the other boys – farmers’ sons – are all in huckery clothes.
They didn’t have good clothes like us.”
He describes his style of playing as “good old average, I suppose.” As well as his skill with his saxophone, his popularity was likely in his ability to read an audience and respond to what they were enjoying.
“I could go into a hall and I could play the opening waltz and then I could see all the people dancing around and think, ‘oh yeah, they like foxtrots, or they like Maxinas, they like three-steps, so I just kept playing.
He also puts his long-lasting success down to offering the latest sounds. “We diversified. All the bands in the old days it was piano, saxophone, trumpet and a drum. And I went into bass guitar, rhythm guitar, keyboard and a saxophone. It was a swinger. Oh, it’d go.”
His ability to teach himself new songs by ear was helpful in keeping up with the latest music.
“There was a song come out called the Ranger’s Waltz. Got to be 40-50 years ago. It came out on the radio station, and when they had the opening waltz, I played it. Everybody stood there and stared at me. ‘Where did you get that song from?’ they said. I said, I got it off the bloody radio.
And I memorised everything you see, because of not being able to read or write. And I had the boys playing it. Those instruments are easy enough to follow. Picked it up by ear.”
He recalls one of his proudest moments being the time he “shut down” the Howard Morrison Quartet.
“I played for the British Commonwealth Freemasons Lodge in Rotorua – Freemasons from 27 different countries were all there. All different countries, and I played. He [Sir Howard] never had much time for me, I think and he decided, oh, he’ll go and put on a show in the picture theatre next door.
“His mother – she managed the band, a good old lady – came in to where they were playing and she said to the band, ‘You fullas better fold up. That fulla’s too good’.”
He says that Gerry Merito, one of the original members of the quartet, never forgot him. “I was visiting someone in Golden Pond rest home and Gerry came in. He was playing. One old lady said, ‘you know Johnny Arbuckle?’ and he said, ‘I sure as hell do’. She said, he’s here. And we had to do a little bit of harmony. That was on the Saturday and on the Monday the bugger died.”
He also has fond memories of Prince Tui Teka. “I met him, a couple or three times. ‘Give us a yarn boy,’ he’d say. He wanted all the stories. He was a good entertainer, that bugger.
“I taught Missy to play the saxophone. In one hour. Tui Teka’s wife. I put my arm around her and I worked her fingers. When he came out, he saw me. He didn’t have too much to say. Didn’t know who I was. Then she started to play El Silencio on the saxophone. Well, he was broken.”
He says he retired from playing dances eventually. “When they started dancing 10 feet apart, my band was no good.” However, he still played the saxophone and, until recently, entertained residents at all the Eastern Bay rest homes.
As of Monday this week, at the age of 83, Johnny’s new home is at Glyn Avon Rest Home.
He always welcomes visitors he can share a few fond memories with – so long as they “bring a pie with them”, or a few Ranfurly Draughts. “Best beer in town.”