In 2012 Stebbing Recording Centre Ltd began re-releasing some of their classic recordings in the Archive Series 1945-1956. The albums formed by these recordings (most of which were singles originally) have been released under the Stebbing’s Zodiac label. These releases are a treat for historical discophiles as for some of these recordings it is the first time that they have been heard since their original release in the 1940s and 1950s. This series also covers some of the earliest commercially released recording done in New Zealand. The Archive Series covers every aspect of what was considered popular music in New Zealand during the time: from jazz to novelty, Hawaiian to country, and possibly everything else in between.
The Archive Series has (thus far) released 12 albums spread across wide ranging popular genres of the 1940s and 1950s in digital format. For young music researchers (such as myself) these releases are a great boon as it is extremely difficult to firstly get hold of old acetates that you might be interested in, and secondly trying to find them in decent playable condition…? Well, let’s just say I haven’t had much luck with that! Of course, I would prefer a CD or LP with lovely liner notes and so on, but really, I’m just glad that such recordings are being re-released. Who knows, perhaps someday Stebbing’s might be able to get some funding to support some commemorative physical reissues.
The most interesting thing about the early commercial recordings of popular music in New Zealand is that many of the musicians used were involved in the New Zealand Broadcasting Service radio band system (I’ll expand on the NZBS radio bands in another post), and not so incidentally also big names on the local jazz scene. The nature of the recording industry in New Zealand at the time meant that things had to be recorded efficiently and quickly because the materials were quite expensive. Musicians in the radio bands were required to perform new material (live or occasionally pre-recorded broadcasts) on a weekly or sometimes daily basis after only a short rehearsal. The skills needed to do that to the standard required by NZBS also stood them in good stead in the incipient recording industry, and are showcased in a variety of genres through the recordings in this series.
My favourite album of the series is volume 5: Esme Stephens and Friends. Esme Stephens was one of New Zealand finest jazz vocalists during the 1940s and 1950s- she was Auckland’s ‘go to’ girl vocaliste (as they were known at that time), and even sang with the Artie Shaw band at their opening concert when he toured the North Island in 1943. With a warm, clear, flexible voice that was adaptable to a wide variety of musical situations (not to mention fantastic diction!), Stephens was in high demand by New Zealand (particularly Auckland) musicians and lauded by critics.
As this is a compilation album Esme Stephens and Friends shows off Stephens’s voice wonderfully in a wide variety of musical situations. Here you find everything from the then current fads in novelty music, straight ahead pop, and swing jazz. While Esme Stephens and Friends by no means covers Stephens’s entire body of recorded work, this is a good sampling of her solo, group (with the Duplicats), and duet (with Mavis Rivers) work.
What I enjoy most about this album is how she adapts her voice to different situations. While the same warm, clear, tone comes through each track she seems to bend her voice to the instrumentation involved: in a Hawaiian influenced song Stephens voice seems to take on the inflections of a steel guitar, while on a song with a swing big band she takes on the characteristics of the saxophone line. Impressively she does this seemingly without any deviation from the notated melody line, and certainly without any improvisation in the form of scatting. On her group and duet work (notably Mocking Bird Hill, Promises and Ya Got the Makin’s of Love) she effortlessly blends her voice with other singers. However, she doesn’t subsume her voice, nor does she stand out (in a soloist/diva manner), but rather she works towards the aim of group or duet work blends into a harmonious, but still individualistic whole.
This album stands out not only as a tribute to Esme Stephens, but it is also a really great way of getting into and understanding the trends in mid-twentieth-century New Zealand popular music (including jazz). While this could actually be said about the other albums in the Archive Series, but I believe that Esme Stephens and Friends stands out in particular because of Stephens’s vocal versatility and the variety of situations that she performed in.