The remarkable 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 40s 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’ – but the makings of a career started that night . . . however, the war intervened. On his return he picked up where he left off.
Bill Sevesi and his Islanders became increasingly popular at dances in those days before television. In ’54, after being invited to play at the Orange Coronation Hall in Auckland’s Khyber Pass (which he renamed, giving it a little more sophistication) Bill Sevesi and His Islanders became an Auckland institution and would remain there until the mid-Seventies.
Sevesi and His Islanders recorded frequently, sometimes under pseudonyms. His first recording was with country singer Tex Morton in ’49 with the band credited as The Rough Riders; with Canadian-born hillbilly singer Luke Simmons they were the Bluemountain Boys; for jazz singer Mavis Rivers “the Astro Trio or some damn thing” he says; and in ’59 for the song ‘Bye Bye Baby Goodbye’, he was Will Jess. The song – recorded in half an hour of studio downtime – was the country’s best-seller for four weeks.
His work is universally admired; he toured in Australia, the United States and around the Pacific; gave 200 of his songs to the university archives, and he has been much honoured. Among the accolades are the Queen’s Service Medal for public service in ’95; the Creative New Zealand Pacific Island award (’97); and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Pacific Music Awards in ’06.