Finding a Kiwi heart-throb

TOM HUNT
Last updated 09:00 19/01/2013
jon stevens
TALL POPPY: Jon Stevens as the heart-throb singer of the early 1980s who would rather have been playing rugby league.

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Too young to legally be in a pub, Jon Stevens stood on stage at Quinns Post in Upper Hutt and sang Heading in the Right Direction.

The song title turned out to be prophetic for the 15-year-old Hutt Valley boy.

While the talent quest moment would spell the end of his rugby league dreams, it would start a chain of events that saw him plucked from working at the EMI record pressing plant in Lower Hutt to recording his own songs.

In 1980 he became what is believed to be the only New Zealand artist to knock his own song off the top of the pop charts.

On January 18 his cover of Montego Bay took the top spot from Jezebel, another cover which earlier took the top spot from Michael Jackson's Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough.

Stevens would later shift from New Zealand to Australia and from pop to rock - a genre that saw him as a founding member of successful Australian band Noiseworks, then fronting INXS following the death of Michael Hutchence.

Speaking this week on a "stupidly hot day" in Sydney, Stevens, now a grandfather, still remembers that moment in the late 1970s when a friend of his sisters enrolled them in the Quinns Post contest.

"I only did it for a laugh, just to support them," he says.

The Stevens family won that night and then, singing one of older brother Frankie Stevens' songs, won the final.

Danny Ryan, who had been working at EMI with Stevens before moving to Marmalade Audio in Wellington, wanted to get Stevens in to record some cover songs.

"He tracked me down though my sisters - we didn't even have a phone," Stevens says.

Rocky Douche, then owner of Marmalade Audio in Victoria St, remembers Ryan arriving at work one morning in the late 1970s.

"Danny said, 'Hey, I heard a young guy last night who I think has a long career ahead of him'."

Douche remembers a "modest" young singer who knew nothing about recording entering the studio.

After running through a song, producer Steve Robinson asked him to do "a second" - studio language for a second take of the same track.

"With no rehearsals he sang pitch- perfect a harmony to the first vocal.

"It was a real American Idol moment," Douche says.

While they knew they had a star on their hands, there was still about a year of training - and wardrobe selection - before Jezebel was released.

John McCready, who had recently started CBS records, remembers the reel- to-reel demo tape of Jezebel arriving at his small office in Parnell, Auckland.

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All these years later he still has that same tape sitting in his drawer.

"I just knew it was a hit straight away. There was no question of it."

He signed Stevens and Jezebel, recorded in October 1979, hit No 1 in early December.

It stayed there for seven weeks before being bumped from the top spot by Stevens' second hit, Montego Bay, a cover of Bobby Bloom's 1970 song.

The success may have come with the inevitable tall poppy syndrome but also with a heart-throb status and a tour supporting Elton John on a New Zealand tour.

The success and adoration never went to the young singer's head, Mr McCready says.

"Because he became so successful so quickly he almost became anti-trendy. [That was] the feeling from a lot of the hip music crowd."

For Stevens, there was no money in the success and following the back-to- back No 1s he was - by his own admission - over-exposed. He was also a heart- throb who would have rather been playing rugby league.

In the early-1980s he moved to Australia and spent time in the United States.

He started writing his own songs. "That is where I found my true voice. I was just being exploited [in New Zealand]. Any artist, you don't really find out who you are until you start writing."

Today, 33 years later, it is unlikely he will be returning to singing Jezebel or Montego Bay.

"I haven't played them in 30 years. I don't go backwards."

You can see the video for Montego Bay here.

- The Dominion Post

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