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Arohanui Howard Morrison

New Zealand mourns the loss of a legendary Kiwi entertainer.
Arohanui Howard Morrison

From the moment he first stepped into the spotlight as a teenager and his rich voice rang out across the auditorium, Sir Howard Morrison knew where his heart lay. Growing up on the East Coast of the North Island in a rural area, the son of Maori All Black Tem Morrison and talented singer Kahu Davidson, Howard wondered which path he should take in life – the rugby pitch or the stage.

Then he won a Christmas talent contest and his career as a performer began. When Howard died last week at the age of 74, his place in our history as a much-loved musical legend was assured. A bastion of Maoridom and a dedicated family man, the loss of Sir Howard cast a long shadow over the country. He became ill while on holiday in the Cook Islands, returned home to New Zealand on 20 September and died in his sleep four days later in his hometown of Rotorua.

Despite his sudden passing after suffering numerous falls and persistent heart problems, the legacy of his voice, his strong family ties and untiring community work lives on. The young Howard received little formal training in music. Educated at Te Aute College, he dreamed of becoming a professional entertainer. In 1956, he formed a group with his brother Laurie, cousin John and guitarist Gerry Merito. Initially called the Ohinemutu Quartet, they later changed their name to the Howard Morrison Quartet and, after performing in Rotorua, picked up plenty of buzz and later a recording contract that took them all around the country. Their first big hit, Hoki Mai, a Maori version of There’s a Goldmine in the Sky, came in 1958 and was followed by a string of singles.

The quartet regularly visited Australia, building up a strong fan base and performing as a support act for international superstars, including the Everly Brothers. But when they were asked to put on concerts in London and Las Vegas, Howard declined, scared the move would damage his family life.

He’d been married to his beloved wife Rangiwhata Ann Manahi since 1957 and the couple had three children, daughter Donna and two sons, Howard Junior and Richard. Howard’s grieving nephew, TV one’s Te Karere presenter

Scotty Morrison, explains, “He made some huge sacrifices. He could’ve been the next Frank Sinatra or Tom Jones, but he had responsibilities to his wife and their kids. Without them, he never would have achieved what he did, so he chose not to venture too far from New Zealand.”

In 1964, Howard performed his first solo gig in support of US artists Ben E King, Gene McDaniels and Dee Dee Sharp. He admitted he felt awkward onstage without the rest of the quartet, but when the band split up later that year, he began touring and recording by himself.

Howard earned the title of Entertainer of the Year in 1966 – after starring in the musical comedy movie Don’t Let it Get You with a young Dame Kiri Te Kanawa – and was soon in demand all over Asia, performing in hotels from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur.

But that was the small-time compared to his next gig in Hawaii, where he performed with legends Andy Williams, Glen Campbell and Sammy Davis Jr, whom Howard rated as the greatest artist of all time. Hit albums and top-selling tours followed and Howard was awarded an OBE in 1976, but he longed to spread his wings outside the spotlight.

When he heard that 75% of young Maori left school without qualifications, he was horrified and began visiting schools and developing educational programmes to improve self-esteem and encourage higher learning. Scotty says, “He wanted to put things back into the Maori community and empower Maori youth.” He later took a full-time position as Director of Youth Development for the Department of Maori Affairs.

His public appearances became fewer but, in 1981, he accepted an invitation to sing for the Queen. His rendition of the hymn How Great Thou Art was a crowd favourite and was released as a single. The record held the number-one position for a phenomenal five weeks and stayed in the charts for over six months. Howard released popular albums and toured throughout the 1980s and 1990s, gaining a worldwide audience when he performed his hit Tukua Ahau at the opening ceremony of the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland. Later that year, he received a knighthood

In a ceremony held at his local marae at Ohinemutu. Despite a heart bypass operation a few years earlier, Howard was part of the powhiri for Michael Jackson’s arrival in New Zealand in 1996. And just three weeks ago, the two stars went head-to-head on the charts with the release of Once in a Lifetime, a DVD about Howard’s life, and the Kiwi icon came out on top. Howard said, “I’m stoked. I haven’t had this happen since How Great Thou Art shot up the charts. I’m so proud but very humbled by this. It’s quite something for the little boy from Ohinemutu.”

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