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by Pania Simmonds

Q & A: Peter Skerrett

by Pania Simmonds

Q & A: Peter Skerrett

Peter Skerrett has worked in the New Zealand and Australian music scenes as a session bassist and singer for over 60 years. He played bass on Peter Posa’s 1963 hit White Rabbit as well as for numerous show bands and jingles. He has toured and played with arrangers and artists Mike Perjanik and Bobby Rydel and many more. Now tutoring in the Contemporary Music Department at SIT, Peter talked with Pania Simmonds.

What were your early childhood experiences in music?

My first experiences were singing for the family. My mother always wanted me to sing and she’d get me to sing for visitors and one particular visitor was a guy called Johnny O’Neill, a stand-up comic. And he took me with him – he was in a troupe that staged variety concerts around the province, they’d go out to small country towns and put on these variety concerts and Maurice Tansley was running it and he was a trained tenor. So, Johnny O’Neill would do a stand-up comic and Maurice would sing his musical type songs. Totally unaccompanied because I couldn’t play the guitar.

In those days Invercargill was a definite stop for any show that came to New Zealand, ‘cause it was always guaranteed a full house. So… the local stage manager Frank Stapp was one of those guys with such a personality that he was known all over the world. You could go to theatres and London and mention Frank Stapp and [clicks fingers] they’d say ‘The Master’ because he’d call everyone ‘Master’. So he used to use me to open touring shows as the local talent.

There was a very good band called Lyn Ryan and The Lear Ups from Bluff -they rocked, they were good, you know, so I used to sit there and watch trying to learn about playing in a band. I was there one night and a fellow said to me: ‘I’m trying to get a band together so we can get up and do a couple of tunes.’ I said: ‘I’ll play!’ [laughs]. So I got up and played with these guys and we played a couple of tunes. I don’t know how I managed to get through it but anyway he said ‘Oh let’s start a band’ so I went ’round to his place and we got a band together, with a drummer and a – there was no bass, the guy that played bass had to get a guitar and put a bassy tone on it. You couldn’t get anything, you couldn’t buy instruments in 1959.

There were no basses anywhere. You couldn’t import anything you see, that was – the government didn’t allow to import anything. You had to have overseas funds.

We saw pictures of Fender basses and Fender guitars, you know. We always thought if we could get one we’d be really good players.

So we had a split up when I was 16. I thought: ‘I might go to Auckland’. I don’t really know why actually. I had no intention of becoming a musician. I mean I loved playing but I never entertained the idea that I might do well at it. Anyway, I went to Auckland and somewhere I met somebody there that had a band going, they were looking for a bass player, and I thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind having a go at bass.’ Someone had told me that I’d probably make a good bass player. Jimmy Hill I think it was. I went and saw these guys and bought a bass, a Jansen bass. And away we went and we didn’t really do any proper gigs; mostly it was just doing spots.

There was a youth centre – in Mt Roskill is was. Every Sunday night Freddie Keil and the Kavaliers used to play there and we’d go down there and get up and do a wee bracket from time to time. And I don’t know the timeframe, it would be a few months I s’pose, but I get this phone call one day, and it’s Olaf Keil from the Keil Isles who were related to Freddie Keil and the Kavaliers – they’re Samoan groups – but the Keil Isles were actually the top group in the country at the time. They were really good, I was very impressed by them. Olaf Keil rings up and he says, ‘I need you to come and fill in with us and do a tour’, and I went, ‘Who, me?’. I said, ‘Where did this come from?’, and he said: ‘Well apparently Freddie Keil who was watching while we were doing these jams, he said there’s a guy that’s playing reasonable sort of bass.’ Of course, it’s the same story then as it is now. It’s really hard to get good bass players. You know, bass players are few and – always have been few and far between.

I jumped in with both feet of course [laughs]. The tour was with Bobby Rydell who was a huge star – American – and his support act was Del Shannon of “Runaway” fame he wound up being a bigger star than Rydell in the end but initially, he was the support act because he’d only had the one hit. But he later had a whole string of hits. So I did that tour. It was only for one week, a Harry Miller tour. He was the big promoter in New Zealand at the time. We did just the main centres. I think we did Wellington first, Christchurch, Dunedin, New Plymouth and Auckland and we flew everywhere.

We did a tour of Northland and on the show was Tony Williams, Kim Krueger, Peter Posa and a couple of others, but I found that I got on really well with Peter Posa and he asked me to play for him when we got back from the tour, which I did, and made a lot of recordings with him including White Rabbit which is the big hit.

I think I’d been in Auckland two or three years but you weren’t making a living, I was always hungry, I wasn’t ever sure where my next meal was coming from or if I could pay the rent. It was a hard life. But we had a hell of a good time though. I met and worked with a guy called Mike Perjanik and did a tour with him, not as a bass player but as a singing compere but on the tour, I also relieved the bass player for a bracket, I relieved the drummer for a bracket [laughs]. And I got to know those guys pretty well.

We played in Invercargill on a tour and when I got back to Auckland I realised that I really wanted to be in Invercargill. I don’t know, I just missed the family, missed being here, so I moved back to Invercargill and, of course by this time, White Rabbit was a huge hit and everybody or most of the people that I’d see around the area, round Invercargill and Southland, knew me from White Rabbit and of course I’d get a lot of requests to play it, but I’m a bass player, not a guitarist, you know.

I formed a group, went back to rhythm guitar because I couldn’t really get a decent rhythm guitarist and I got a group together that played a lot of Beatles and Shadows stuff about three years, and then I got a call from Mike Perjanik, wanted to know if I’d come up and play bass for his group.

When I joined the Perjanik group I was quite horrified to realise that they were a reading band. And they were quite horrified to realise that I couldn’t read [laughs]. So I bought myself the Mel Bay bass method and I’d sit at night time and try to figure out how to read.

We got a resident job at a hotel at Coogee Bay, the Oceanic Hotel in Sydney. And that was a bit of a game changer for me because we had a different floor show every week which meant I had to read new charts every week, and that’s what really got me going I was desperate not to let the team down.

In ’67 we got offered the job at the Latin Quarter which is the big nightclub in Sydney, the real nightclub, so we moved in there. But that involved playing from 8 till 3, seven nights a week, so it was a great job, and great for our chops, you know, we all played very well, but not good for the health. You never saw daylight, you can’t go to sleep when you finish at 3, so you’re sleeping most of the day and then getting up and having something to eat in the late afternoon. So I wasn’t getting the proper nutrition, and I got quite sick there at different times. I had conjunctivitis, and I had carbuncles on my skin, and things like that, so I realised the way out of that was to quit that job because the job was obviously bad for my health.

So I left that and went and played for another group at the Bronte Beach hotel, but got axed after about a couple of months, but luckily a guy walked in on the night that we got fired and he’d been asking me for some time to come down and join him in the snow at Smiggin Holes, a ski resort down at Mount Kosciuszko. ‘Yeah, I’ll take the job if you take my drummer’, and he said: ‘Oh, OK’, so then we’re off to the snow. So we spent the rest of the ski season down there but when we come back – we were there for two or three months I think – we got back to Sydney and I realised that I missed the type of music we were playing with the Perjanik group so I left these guys and went back to Perjanik and by this time they were playing out at Parramatta Leagues which is a much better job, three nights, 8 till 12 sort of thing, and the money was about the same. So went out there and played with them there from the end of ’68 till around ’70 so a couple of years. But it was a really boring job [laughs].

I was still doing a lot of sessions. We’d been doing sessions all along because Perjanik was the resident producer at EMI, so we had all their stable of artists plus we were doing all these TV jingles, plus some other composers were using me on their jingles as well. I had about four different guys using me for sessions. But by this time, I was freelancing, working really well and then one of the big stars in Australia, a guy called Sandy Scott who was big enough to get enough money to be able to carry his own trio (piano, bass and drums) plus lights and sound. He needed someone to do a tour with him, so I did that. Toured around New South Wales, and from then on he just kept using me all the time and I’d probably get about four nights a week out of him over that four years.

I came back to Invercargill and did a lot of gigs for ILT but the guy that was chairman of the ILT – and the chairman if you understand the structure doesn’t actually have any powers at all – but this guy wielded power like it was a big stick and I got on the wrong side of him, ‘coz he was a real pain in the butt actually. We were playing at the Ascot, doing dine-and-dances and shows and things – and he said: ‘Now when you play a dine-and-dance you’ve gotta start with a waltz, and your singers don’t need microphones’ and all this sort of thing. So in the end of it, I just got so fed up with him that I said: ‘I’m going back to Australia where at least I can be appreciated as a musician’ ‘coz I was getting no appreciation out of him, and he was running things.

Then the opportunity came up to move to the Gold Coast, which I did. I bought a wee business up there and didn’t play at all for a year or two, and then a chap walked into the shop one day, he said, ‘I know you’. I said, ‘I know you too’. Turned out that we’d toured on a Sandy Scott tour back in the ‘70s, ’73 I think. And he turned into a promoter on the Gold Coast and he had all the major hotels and all the big shows and tours, so I started getting a lot of work from him which eventually led to touring with people like Johnny Tillotson and Johnny Ray and a lot of big American stars that were coming through. And a lot of Sydney session players had actually moved to the Gold Coast because they were sick of living in Sydney. They wanted to get a more peaceful life and better climate, so we could source some really good musicians on the Gold Coast to do these tours. And also there was a guy there called Joe Andre who was a very good singer. He’d been in a group in Sydney called the Claire Pool Singers and we used to do all our jingles and things in Sydney; we’d do the band track and leave, and later on the vocal groups would come in and over-dub their singing parts and they’d bring the strings in and they’d over-dub their bits. So I never met any of these other people but Joe Andre, we’re on a lot of recordings together [laughs].

He had the Manhattan Big Band so I started playing with them and I spent all of the ‘80s on the Gold Coast playing with these guys. Until the work started to dry up ‘coz things were starting to go down to two and three piece groups, and they were starting to use backing tracks and all this sort of thing, driven by the hotels really, who wanted to pay less and less for their entertainment.

So I came back here in ’90 and started working with the then Southland Polytechnic but it was very unstructured. You know, there was sort of nothing in place. There was nothing at all, actually, except for theory. They did the theory and a bit of ensemble work. So over the next ten years, I wrote all the papers and the certificates that we finally got going.

And I studied under Colin Hendry for vocal exams to get some brownie points. Started on Grade 6, 7, 8, performance certificate and ATCL. That’s degree equivalent, ATCL, ‘coz I’d never had a degree but I wanted to sort of get a few brownie points so that the boss wouldn’t quite frown so much at me [laughs]. And I sort of defaulted into the programme manager’s job too when the boss said ‘Oh well you do it because you’ve industry experience and are qualified.’ But I’ve never stopped learning. You know, it’s interesting; you always learn something from the students and the other tutors with different ideas. I’ve struggled a little bit with the computer age.

Arrangement and transcription are two of your strengths. What do you think makes an arrangement unique?

In my experience, while I was playing with Perjanik in Sydney when Burt Bacharach was having hit after hit after hit, and he impressed me so much with not only the songwriting but the arranging. Clever, you know, very wonderful use of chords and melodies and one of the things that he did was he put a lot of odd time signatures; mixed into the 4:4 stuff he’d do 3:4, 2:4, 5:4 bars. The reason he did that was ‘coz he didn’t want to fool around with the lyrics that Hal David had written, so to make it fit he’d give it whatever beats it needed, and it worked out very well. And then along came Jimmy Webb and he’s just a wonderful writer and arranger.

Whoever writes for the Canadian guy, Michael Buble, beautiful jazzy arrangements. And the use of instruments, the way they use their instruments, and the way they layer them, you know, what they put on top, what do they put on the bottom, what goes in the middle – that sort of thing can be very, very effective. And course good of use of rhythms, melody and tempos. I’m a bit of a tempo man. I think every song has got its own perfect tempo that it sits at and often you’ll find bands that have been playing together for a long time and playing the same tune for a long time, what happens is they get faster and faster, until the whole meaning of the song disappears and people can’t dance to it anymore. And they don’t realise this, ‘coz they’re just playing the song.

A good example of that would be the Beatles song “With a little help with my friends” and then Joe Cocker did his version of it, and that was very impressive. Those sort of things really turn a light on and opens a door when you see what can be done.

What was the best learning period of your kind of life?

Probably that period of joining with the Perjanik, that was a very steep learning curve; up to then I was just an ear player and I didn’t know a lot about technique and what it takes to be a good bass player. Although instinctively I played time and feel, I always thought that was my job and that’s why people sometimes have criticised me for not being very fancy, but I think, sometimes people get that fancy that it detracts from the time and feel.

What skills do you think are the most important in becoming a professional musician?

Well at least half of it or more, possibly more, is the kind of person you are. Your approach, your professionalism, being able to get on with people, not have any bad habits, drink or drugs or anything like that. I mean the first requirement’s gonna be that you’re capable, that you’re able to do the job.

What advice would you give to someone wishing to learn an instrument or say pursue a career in music?

Learn to read, practice rigorously, aim high and it’s a race, a marathon that you’re never going to get to the end of. Good ears are a good requirement. Plus the fact that there are very few bass players, when I went to Sydney you could count them on one hand, honestly. The good bass players. Plenty of bad ones.

And do you still enjoy music – more than ever?

Oh yeah, I still love it. I don’t play so much now, and I don’t mind that so much I’m at a stage where I’m quite enjoying being able to sit at home on Saturday night coz I’ve spent a lifetime playing up to six nights a week, if only just Friday and Saturday but there are very few times where I ever had any weekends off..

The other thing I did was in the early ‘90s I went through the sequencing thing. I bought the early version of a sequencer, it was a Roland, and devised all my own tracks. It’d be a bit of an antique now you basically played the arrangements in, using a midi keyboard. That taught me a lot about putting things together as far as arranging goes.

And I like doing transcriptions. I’m pretty busy doing all this teaching but if I had free time that’s what I’d be doing, I’d be writing transcriptions. And I wouldn’t mind one of these days getting into writing backing tracks actually as I see people are buying them from everywhere. Not that many people write their own tracks.

In the nineties, I started working with the City of Invercargill Caledonian Pipe Band. They were looking to raise funds, in order to travel to competitions. The show was called ‘Pipin’ Hot’, and I introduced a rock band to accompany the pipes and drums. This turned out to be very popular, so after around 5 annual shows, and a trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, I saw the potential for a smaller group, more able to travel. The new group was called ‘Pipeworkz’, and we now introduced some Maori songs into the mix, making a Celtic/Rock/Polynesian genre.

This also proved to be very well received and led to several appearances around the country, and trips to Australia, Canada, and Germany, plus invitations to several European countries. Unfortunately, all the shows were military tattoos, with no funding for travel, so we were forced to decline most of them.

Arranging music to play with the bagpipes is very interesting, as they have only one key, Eb. Add to that the fact that they sharpen their pitch quite a bit, so we had to tune our own instruments up to match. A440 became A445, but more recently their pitch has become even higher, up as far as A460 or so. This presents real challenges, especially for vocalists. Most of the time, I had to present the singers in one key, then modulate to Eb for the pipe section of the song.

I have many, many great memories of touring and playing with wonderful artists like Johnnie Tillotson, Gene Pitney, Johnnie Ray, Del Shannon, Bobby Rydell, Wayne Fontana, etc., plus a host of NZ and Australian acts.

The great musicians I played with along the way will always remain good friends who all, in their own way, contributed to my musical education.

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