Now he is centre stage as the Canterbury earthquake recovery minister, but 33 years ago, singing "like Placido Domingo", Gerry Brownlee placed third in a Christchurch talent quest. VICKI ANDERSON reports.
As the Manetti Brothers, Gerry Brownlee and former schoolmate Richard Holden performed a unique mix of country and western and jazz cover songs around Christchurch bars from 1980 to 1986.
They might not have stormed the charts then but still talk about "releasing a Christmas album" one day.
"Gerry and I were part of a Marist social rugby team and we would burst into spontaneous song anywhere that suited us," Holden said.
"The name Manetti Brothers came from a good mate of ours, Andy Nixon, who thought we looked and sounded like a couple of corpulent Italian tenors."
One summer Saturday in 1980 the pair were having a few "late afternoon beers" at the old Bishopdale Tavern and found themselves watching a Star Search talent show.
Holden, who later became Brownlee's election campaign chairman, says they couldn't resist getting up on stage.
"We entered and butchered the beautiful song Danny Boy. We blamed the female band, telling the audience that we asked them to play in G minor and they chose to play in G string."
But the Star Search promoter saw potential. "He thought we were star material."
Brownlee, however, said his motivations were a little different.
"The movie 10 with Bo Derek had just come out and Lion Breweries had released a beer called 10. The prize was a dozen bottles of that, or maybe 10 dozen. Somewhat embarrassingly that was my motivation."
With rehearsal time under their belts, the Manetti Brothers entered the next round of heats belting out their favourite numbers - a version of Rio by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees, The Ink Spots' 1940 classic Whispering Grass, jazz standard All of Me and country and western classic (Ghost) Riders in the Sky.
"We managed to get into the final held at the Russley Hotel. It was packed that Thursday night . . . absolutely humming," Holden says. "We finished third. We were gutted."
The Manetti Brothers sought out the promoter who explained that it was about having the "whole package", not just singing ability.
One of the judges was Norm Withers, who later became deputy mayor of Christchurch.
"They were bloody good," Withers recalls. "They sounded like tenors, like Placido Domingo."
The winner was Nicki Green and second placegetter Kevin Houghton.
Despite their third placing, the promoter was impressed and enlisted the Manetti Brothers as MCs. Together with their keyboardist and musical director Mike Christmas, they performed at the Carlton, Waltham Arms, The Phoenix, The Russley, The Bishopdale and other Christchurch venues.
"In 1986 we appeared in a mayoral variety show at the Theatre Royal alongside Yolande Gibson, Jon Gadsby, Toni Williams and a number of other acts that would be familiar to Telethon watchers of that era," Holden said.
"Murray Wood was the musical director for that show. He did not know what to make of us when we appeared at rehearsals.
"Our act was certainly not politically correct, and a little off-colour here and there, but we got away with it. Sadly, Murray was killed in the CTV building collapse."
Holden said the act relied heavily on audience participation, and they loved hecklers.
"Gerry was great at handling hecklers. This whole experience obviously helped Gerry prepare for the cut and thrust of the debating chamber."
That's not to say politics was entirely absent from their repertoire.
For the Theatre Royal show, Brownlee and Holden rode onto the stage on a tandem bicycle.
"We were making the analogy of two bikes being welded together as being like the amalgamation of two local bodies which was happening at the time," Holden said.
"Hamish Hay and Margaret Murray, the amalgamated mayors, quite enjoyed that bit, especially the pedalling in opposite directions and getting nowhere.
"We finished to a sitting ovation."
This gig particularly stands out to Holden because it signalled "more or less the end" of the Manetti Brothers, although the duo later auditioned in front of Ray Columbus for a TV show.
"He subtly told us we were crap."
Brownlee describes the audition as a "cock-up" on Columbus's part.
"It was the most appalling thing. We went to the second floor of the now demolished TVNZ building to audition.
"Ray Columbus was there, very small he was. I had to look down to see him, and he said ‘show us what you've got'. We only got a little way through our act and he said ‘that's enough, you guys'.
"I'm not bitter about it but it was a cock-up in my opinion."
At primary school Brownlee was told he couldn't sing and that he was "tone deaf", but confesses he thinks that was because he was "petrified of the auditions".
Although he is happy with his political career, he might have taken a very different path.
"When I was younger things were very different. If you wanted to have a go at opera, there were no opportunities unless you were particularly good or had someone to mentor you."
Brownlee hasn't ruled out a Manetti Brothers reunion.
"We've done one or two little appearances since then. If it was the right thing, we'd probably do it again now. It was enormous fun."
These days Christmas is a company director and industrial chemist, Holden is a Christchurch-based certified financial planner and company director and, well, Brownlee is the Canterbury earthquake recovery minister.
"We have often talked about getting together for a show or maybe putting out a Christmas CD like Sir Paul Holmes did," Holden said.
Brownlee's hopeful, too. "One day we might get around to it."
For now, Brownlee's happy listening to jazz standards in his spare time, citing Michael Buble as a favourite artist, but when it comes to taking to the stage, he'll never say never.
"There's nothing better than live music in my opinion," Brownlee said.
"Maybe retirement plans might include becoming Christchurch's foremost wedding singer."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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