New Zealand’s rock and roll pioneer was a cowboy at heart, although in rock histories Johnny Cooper is praised for making NZ’s first rock and roll recording, a cover of ‘Rock Around The Clock’. With ‘Pie Cart Rock and Roll’, Johnny also wrote wrote what is regarded as the first original New Zealand rock and roll song to be recorded here.
Born in the Hawkes Bay in 1929, Cooper (Ngāti Kahungunu) had a busy and varied career. In the early 1950s, before he ever heard the words “rock and roll”, he recorded several country 78s. He toured Korea three times as an entertainer for the New Zealand troops.
After his brief rock and roll career, he re-invented himself as an entrepreneur, running his talent show Give It a Go! nationwide. Among the talents he nurtured were Johnny Devlin, Mike Nock and Midge Marsden.
But his first love was country and western, the genre that gave him his biggest hit, ‘Look What You’ve Done’.
Released in 1955, ‘Look What You’ve Done’ is songwriting at its most simple, which is probably why it became a sing-along standard in New Zealand soon after its release in 1955. The song is no period piece either- its use 40 years later in Once Were Warriors perfectly captured its timelessness.
By 1957 Cooper was a sensation thoughout the country, his band playing anywhere an audience would have them. Cooper and his band went often to Wanganui to play at charity shows at the opera house. Afterwards, they would go to the local pie cart for some “pea, pie and pud”. Cooper claimed that he said to the owner of the cart, “If I write a song about the pie cart, do you think we could get free feeds?” and in that, our first original rock and roll song was born.
Johnny would continue performing for the decades to come. Wherever there was an appreciative audience, he’d be there. His later knack for talent shows and promoting showed a man who knew the true value of entertainment.
Johnny Cooper passed away in 2014 aged 85. A pioneer in many areas of New Zealand music, and a worthy inductee into the NZ Music Hall of Fame | Te Whare Taonga Puoro o Aotearoa.